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How women are leading the way in north-east Delhi

Women have been at the forefront in violence-hit north-east Delhi, providing or coordinating relief and rehabilitation efforts

Uzma (left) has opened her home to three displaced families and has helped 52 people in various ways.
Uzma (left) has opened her home to three displaced families and has helped 52 people in various ways. (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

A resident of Bhajanpura in north-east Delhi, Uzma, 32, had been an active member of her community—she would help women in the locality who needed loans with their documentation. On the night of 24 February, one such woman from nearby Chandu Nagar called her frantically, terrified because the homes nearby had been set ablaze and she, her husband and three children were stranded. Uzma told her to get out and meet her in the lane nearby—“Uzma baaji, aap mat aaiye, woh aap ko kaat ke maar denge (don’t come here, they will kill you)," the woman responded. “I said I will remove the dupatta from my head, put on a bindi and bring them home. My husband yelled at me and called me mad, but I told him to stay put, he would have easily been identified," says Uzma.

That’s what she did. “They came home with me and then left for the family’s home town, Daulatpur, two days later. The children refused to eat and would keep saying they will never come back here." Since then, Uzma says she has opened her home to three displaced families, worked with volunteers to help six families get rooms on rent and access relief material, and helped a total of 52 people in various ways.

It has been over three weeks since the violence in north-east Delhi, which had been simmering after clashes during a pro-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) rally led by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Kapil Mishra on 23 February.

Violence erupted on the streets over the next few days. The death toll stands at 53— according to news reports, this includes over 35 Muslims and 15 Hindus. Since then, social media and news channels have been playing videos that indicate police complicity or inaction—one piece of footage, verified by independent fact-checker Alt News, shows a police officer forcing four men to sing the national anthem between beatings. One of these men—Mohammad Faizan, 23—is now dead.

Homes, businesses, schools and mosques have been charred. Residents have been displaced. Online, and on television screens, a battle of narratives has ensued—riot versus pogrom, both sides vs self-defence, competing scales of brutality.

Far removed from this dissension, women—locals like Uzma and others from across the city—have been on the front lines, providing or coordinating relief and rehabilitation. Many have worked independently of the administration—raising funds, collecting rations, medicines, clothes and other essential commodities through collection drives across the city and calls on social media. Online, a group comprising professionals, activists and political workers has raised over 1 crore for the affected families, identified through contacts and fieldwork, transferring the money directly into their bank accounts.

Many such women arrived on the scene well before administrative assistance. For instance, SK, 31, a professor at Delhi University, reached the GTB Hospital mortuary on 25 February, responding to an SOS call. Over the next few days, she helped families register complaints, identify bodies and explained the process of magisterial inquiries and post-mortems.

“I don’t know if it’s to do with the nature of attacks that have happened that women have been more present on the front lines—most of the counsellors, doctors, lawyers are women. You see so many women activists on the ground, speaking to families. We are a group of about 16 people—14 are women," says SK. She is now working out of someone’s home in Mustafabad, towards long-term rehabilitation, which includes rebuilding homes and livelihoods.

Filling the lacuna

In the lanes of Babu Nagar, old Mustafabad, a legal and medical camp set up by the Citizens’ Collective for Peace (CCP) has been at work since 27 February. AK, 35, a PhD scholar trained in first aid, has been there daily for close to 12 hours. “In the early days, there was a great need for first aid. A lot of people were coming in with burns and wounds and cuts. But there was a lot of fear. And there still is," she says. “A person who had second-degree burn injuries on 24 February came to the camp nearly 20 days later, he didn’t have the confidence to leave home. Women have come in days later with wounds on their knees—stitched together with a needle and thread by a family member," she adds.

AK has been coordinating with volunteers and hospitals, and the CCP team has been dealing with trauma and mental health to ensure these people get the medical attention they require. But there is a shortage of resources. “Medical records are burnt and lost. People are coming and saying their heart medicines, tuberculosis medicines have stopped. We are trying to get behind the government to start a restoration of medical records camp—please reassess them, reissue their papers, ensure that the hospitals accept those papers and reintegrate them into the system," she says.

Manasi Saxena, who runs EnCOMPASSion, which deals with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and community building, hit the ground early too. She is part of a group called Helping Hands—spearheaded by medical doctor and community medicine specialist Aqsa Shaikh—and has been helping to transport relief material. “On 6 March, when it started raining, we organized over 180 blankets which had to be sent to different places, and of the 1000 folding beds required for the camp at Eidgah, we managed to contribute 500."

Now, the focus is shifting to long-term rehabilitation. Saxena and team have started interviewing families to start the process of community building and empathic listening, while efforts to rebuild homes and shanties continue alongside.

“These are people who were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves two weeks ago—they had houses, they had all the amenities, they were able to ensure their needs were being met," says AK, who has also started the process of long-term medical rehabilitation. As her team offers home visits and post-op care, she hopes that the Delhi government will restock existing mohalla clinics and ensure a functional one in Mustafabad.

This is the kind of relief work SK has been coordinating as well. Her team has interviewed families and started raising funds to rebuild businesses, replace sewing machines and reconstruct homes. “We make sure people know we are here not just for a month but for as long as it takes," says SK. A team of architects working with her has also started surveying destroyed properties and assessing how homes can be rebuilt.

The little things

In the din of essential needs—dry rations, medical attention and legal aid—certain immediate requirements slipped under the radar. Intellectual property rights lawyer Shwetasree Majumder, 41, and her team from Fidus Law Chambers are providing material relief, to fill this gap. “On my second visit, we were five women. I knew I had specific tasks on my list, but I took along two colleagues with the intention of sitting down and interviewing women to understand what their needs were. A woman will never tell a man she needs sanitary napkins or underwear or the sizes, she will never talk about iddat (a period she must observe after the death of her husband)."

Her efforts have ranged from organizing 150 burqas to providing support and provisions to a woman who lost her husband and home. “A family that lived in Shiv Vihar—four men and their parents—escaped from their home amidst the violence and took shelter in a relative’s house. After things died down, the father decided to go back and see what condition the house was in. When he did, he just couldn’t handle the trauma and he had a heart attack and passed away on the spot. His wife is now observing iddat and maintains will never go back to that home again," adds Majumder.

The lawyer even stepped in to help with a nikah. A volunteer from Dua, an organization which has set up a medical camp at the local Eidgah, told her about a woman who was to get married on 13 March. Majumder organized the wedding lehnga, jewellery and applied the bridal make-up. “We got a list of what would be required for the wedding and fulfilled everything. The Wakf Board organized the legalities."

While these efforts inspire hope, they have not been without their share of challenges. SK says there is still a certain amount of fear, but they are being cautious. Some insecurities are more gendered. Saxena, for instance, says that working late at night on certain days—navigating deserted streets with no one but paramilitary officers—was unnerving. Another time, a stampede broke out at Eidgah. “I felt sexually very unsafe. Not because anyone was doing anything overt, but the crowd was pressing in and touch for me is very triggering," she says.

But she, and hundreds of others like her, do not let these challenges overwhelm them.

“Aap log sirf andaza laga sakte ho, par jisne aankhon se dekha hai, woh raat ko so nahi paata (You people can only imagine, but those who have seen the violence with their own eyes can’t sleep at night)," says Uzma, who, along with her neighbours, has been keeping watch on the lane every night. And dealing with the trauma her own children have had to endure.

“My 13-year-old daughter saw a video of a pregnant woman recounting the violence she had endured. She cried once she watched it and said to me, ‘Ammi, maut ka dar nahi hai, bas Allah izzat bacha le (I do not fear death but may god protect our dignity)’." Uzma reassured her children and banned television news and WhatsApp in her family because of the amount of visuals—both fake and genuine—going around and the impact they had on ground. Between a strong resolve to help those most affected, a moment of exhaustion slips through. “Kab tak jiyenge aise dar ke mahaul mein (how long can we live in such an atmosphere of fear?)"

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