On Independence Day, the capital of India is marked by high security since the Prime Minister and several dignitaries attend public functions. Most of the city’s residents stay indoors with shops shut except for the malls. West Delhi is no different and the streets are empty in the by-lanes off the ring road except for the occasional cricket match.
This 15 August, most residents of Tilak Vihar were similarly indoors. A few people were out on the streets including children who were flying kites. This otherwise peaceful scene was marred by an ugly incident of violence right next to the police post in Tilak Vihar.
Sikh youth on motorcycles had a minor accident injuring an elder of the Valmiki community. The Valmikis are a Dalit community and the two communities have resided side by side for the last nearly 30 years without altercations except one in 1986.
There are several versions of what happened on Thursday. The most popularly written version is that the bikers were performing stunts and ran over the elderly man’s feet in the process. Others claimed that there were no policemen around most of the time making it a prime target for rash riding and that was what the Sikh youth were indulging in “as usual.”
After the accident, a few Valmiki youth who were standing nearby got involved. According to the Sikhs, while the elders were admonishing the Sikh youth for their rash riding, two Dalit youth also joined in. The chaos drew more Sikhs, lesser in number in Tilak Vihar. Members of the Dalit community also joined in and a pitched battle ensued.
“The elder was talking to the boys on the bikes and he slapped them. That is something we understand but a man who was just standing nearby took it upon himself to interfere. He hit one of them with a stone on his head. While people were pushing each other around, they ripped off turbans of some Sikhs and that is an unpardonable act of aggression towards our religion,” said Gurnail Singh, a 33-year-old autorickshaw driver who lives in Tilak Vihar.
Atma Ram (43), a local shop owner and member of the Dalit community, who was there that day said that once more Sikhs came in, it attracted an equal number of Valmikis into the fray. “It just became about two different communities who have lived here in harmony for several years,” he said.
The scene was unfolding right in front of the Tilak Vihar police post of the Tilak Nagar police station and they called in reinforcements from the police station. When the situation became uglier, they called in more policemen. But they could not control the situation and by then the two groups were hurling stones at each other. Riot police were called in, but the communities kept the fight on for at least two hours.
Several people filmed the ugly incident on their mobile phones which later did the rounds on the internet. These videos provide a brief description of what was happening. Mayhem ruled the road for a few hours that afternoon. Both sides were armed with swords, sticks and stones and policemen were standing while stones were being hurled in front of them. The police finally lobbed teargas shells and fired a few rounds in the air. Around 25 people were injured, of which at least three received bullet injuries.
This is where it gets interesting. If the police fired in the air, then how did the bullets injure two people standing on the ground and one on the first-floor? The entire incident took place at a crossing where there are no buildings in the immediate vicinity. Elementary physics and geometry make it impossible for a person standing on the first floor to get injured if the police indeed shot in the air. Unless of course the Delhi Police have developed a gun that fires bullets that travel in opposition to the laws of Physics.
The police claimed that the bullets that injured the three were not from their guns and are awaiting the forensic reports for further information. They suggested that someone in the crowd had guns that led to the bullet injuries.
“If so, then why did only three people receive bullet injuries? Wouldn’t there have been more bloodshed and some deaths?” countered Aakash Singh (28), a Tilak Nagar resident.
After the incident was finally brought under control, section 144 was declared and riot police were stationed in Tilak Nagar. On Saturday, representatives of the two communities met and a peace committee was formed. The streets remained deserted and the shops remained shut till Sunday. A curfew-like situation prevailed in the area and policemen kept claiming things were under control.
“Is this Kashmir that there will be a curfew?” said a police officer of the Tilak Nagar police station. Though it is not Kashmir, the stone flinging seen in his jurisdiction has not recently been seen elsewhere in New Delhi.
The neighbourhood peace committee returned a semblance of normalcy and though the friction was dissipating, it was still evident. On Sunday, some shops started to operate under the watchful eyes of riot police stationed all around Tilak Vihar. Customers of both communities thronged the local shop and chicken corner.
The investigation of the incident has been handed over to Narayan Singh, assistant commissioner of Delhi police (operations), under the special staff office in West Delhi district.
The police said that there was no recent history of friction between the two communities. The Sikhs here migrated to New Delhi after partition. They had initially settled in other places in Delhi, but after the Sikh riots in 1984, the government relocated several families here. In 1985, Vikas Singh and his family moved here from Trilokpuri in East Delhi. “The Valmikis already lived here and they were not averse to us settling here since we were not encroaching on their lands. The communities mostly lived harmoniously except for a similar incident in 1986. Then, too, the police favoured them like the Independence Day riot,” said Vikas. No one remembers much about the violence in 1986, but it was quelled and peace returned immediately afterwards. As most people TEHELKA spoke to attest, there are no reports of harassment of one community by the other. Each observe their own community functions and celebrate their religious festivals without any disruption from the other. The communities coexisted by staying out of each other’s way.
Vikas and many other Sikhs said that the violence would not have escalated had the police stood around as spectators to the acts by the Valmikis. The Valmikis have the same thing to say about the police. “People standing outside my shop burned and vandalized motorcycles,” said a local resident and shopkeeper, who wanted to remain anonymous.
There are not many political players who increased the fire or spread violence in the name of either community. The BJP wins from this locality and both groups are important to them. The violence between the two communities took everyone by surprise as there was no apparent, underlying friction between them. Both feel that the police could have dissipated the situation much earlier and await the solving of the mystery of the bullets that injured the rioters and bystanders.