Delhi riots: Survivors of anti-Muslim violence living with trauma, constant fear of death

Nur Jaha is the mother of 12-year-old Sayan Ansari. She lives in constant anxiety for her son, who has already tried to commit suicide four times after the riots. | Photo by Mahibul Hoque

Many survivors of anti-Muslim violence in Delhi that took place in February 2020 are today living with trauma and a deep sense of fear. 

Mahibul Hoque |

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SHIV VIHAR, NEW DELHI—Stingy smell of methane and ammonia makes it difficult to breathe along the sewer drain at Shiv Vihar, one of the violence-ravaged neighbourhoods in Northeast Delhi where in February 2020, an anti-Muslim pogrom unfolded after threatening calls for violence were made by a leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the Muslim protesters who were demonstrating against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). 

The path along this gutter leads to the rented accommodation of Nur Jaha, one of the many people who were displaced following the violence. 

Like any other low-income, ghettoized localities of Delhi, sunlight scarcely enter Nur Jaha’s three-room house where her three daughters and two sons along with her husband live. Her older son had narrowly escaped the Hindu mobs while returning from Jamat. Her younger son, Sayan Ansari, had almost choked of the smoke on the night of February 23 when the riots began.

Nur Jaha is afraid for her 12-year-old son. “Since the riots have taken place, he has become unpredictable. He stays quiet and doesn’t bother about school. Once his brother asked him to go to school, he ran upstairs and almost hung himself. This was the fourth time he had tried to kill himself,” the 52-year-old mother said. 

“Earlier, he was interested in school and now he only goes to school if he feels like going or plays nearby our house. Sometimes he collapses while playing outside,” Nur Jaha added. 

The Northeast Delhi anti-Muslim violence that continued till 29 February 2020 left at least 53 people dead—most of them Muslims.

Living with trauma
Nur Jaha’s house was situated at the centre of the violence. As she tried to control her tears, she said how she and her daughters made desperate calls to the police to save her family. As per her, the police did not come to her rescue.

“As it was getting late, they started bursting gas cylinders in the Muslim house. We are unable to breathe in the smoke. I had to cover Sayan’s face with wet cloth which almost choked him. He witnessed all the killings, burning, Hindu chants, and almost died. Now my most important concern is that he does not hurt himself due to what he has gone through and that is why I am constantly monitoring him,” she said. 

Mohammad Rashid from the same Shiv Vihar neighbourhood is also facing trouble looking after his five children. His sons Mohammad Zaid (12) and Mohammad Shariq (10) have sleeping problems. “Whenever there is a loud sound of a cracker or even loud chanting, they start shivering. Zaid even wakes up trembling whenever there is noise at night”, the father said. 

For those who lost their family members, the trauma is deep. Aged people from the community are scared of going outside, going to terraces—to do chores they have been doing all their lives. 

“Riots can break out any time. We lost our men and this can happen again,” 45-year-old Anisha from Mustafabad told

Anisha’s husband Mohammad Yousuf was killed in the riots and his body was fished out from the sewer drain. “I cannot look at the drain, nor the area. Whenever I see the drain, I feel so scared. This fear will end only with me.”

Sana, from the Mustafabad area, echoes the same fear for her brothers and father whenever they go out to the market or their jobs. Her 24-year-old brother Salman was killed by a Hindu mob when he was returning home from his workplace.

Sana lost her brother Salman during the riots. | Photo by Mahibul Hoque

“I clearly remember my brother calling my father. He was stuck among the mob and my father went out to get him back home. I prayed for their safe return home. But the father could not bring him back alive,” she said. 

Sana is struggling to continue her education and remains alone and quiet. Conversation with her is not easy. After opening up during one conversation, she said, “I know that riots are not happening now. But every time, my brothers or my father go out, I feel so scared whether they will return home or not, whether I will be able to see them again or not. Till they return home, I am always anxious.”

When PTSD is political
Hundreds like Sayan, Zaid, Shafiq and Sana are battling with the mental trauma that the riots have inflicted on them. The political implication of the mental trauma is that these children, young and elderly men and women from the Muslim community have been exposed to a deep sense of insecurity and inferiority.

Psychologists maintain that such socio-political implications—while victims may even not know the meaning of being from, in this case, Muslims— is that the victims are plunged into uncertainty leading to either depressed self or overt aggressive response to any threat they may feel.

Parents giving up the education of their children for their well being, children remaining anxious and fearful for their male members of the family, sense withdrawal from physical spaces such as road or terrace of victims of Delhi pogrom are similar responses to the trauma they have experienced.

Zehra Mehdi, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and a doctoral candidate from Columbia University, told, “Just because people return to their lives doesn’t mean they have forgotten it. The memories of violence, and most importantly the experience of it stays with people for years to come.”

Mehdi maintains that the responses of the victims of the Delhi riots are issues of mental health and depression. “It is equally political.”

“Members of communities who are discriminated against experience greater mental health issues, and this predisposition is tied to their oppression and subjection to abject violence. When you are—whether in a political speech, or a Twitter post, Instagram videos, being constantly humiliated, demeaned, cursed, where people call upon all forms of brutality against you, we can imagine people, especially the young wanting to end it all. The despair can be unbearable to live with.”

As subjected to generational violence, post-traumatic stress disorder does not do justice to minorities because the members of the victim community keep encountering such pervasive violence, she said.

Drawing from her research in Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, she said while the riot instilled insecurity, fear, distrust, sense of inferiority among the Muslims—the Jats and Hindus experienced a sense of revenge and recompense to their perceived sense of exploitation by ‘Muslims’ over centuries. 

“A vocabulary of violence has been unleashed on people where every difference is read as a transgression and warrants vengeance,” she said. 

In the case of children, according to the psycho-analytic professional, “riots take away curiosity—perhaps the most important ability of children.”

“What riots do is take away the curiosity to explore without inhibition. During riots, children have witnessed things that don’t make sense but they are told what it means; what rape means, what Mulla means, what Dalit means—which they are unable to find out for themselves otherwise and that is confusing beyond measure. This also instils fear and doubt within the children in great proportions because they don’t know when they will be subjected to something similar. When we are exposed to anything and don’t fully understand it, it appears more fearful and more dangerous. Children seldom understand violence, while they may be told what it is. The impact exposure to violence has on children is that it makes sure they aren’t children anymore,” she added. 

Mahibul Hoque is a SEED-Fellow with He tweets at @H_Mahibul.