An International Development Consultant

‘Devangana’s Arrest Was A Message To Activists, Their Families’

Andre Ling (38), husband of student activist Devangana Kalita, says it was terrifying to see his wife being targeted by an entire state machinery. He feels this episode is only the beginning of a long battle ahead.

I am an international development consultant working at the intersection of development and humanitarian work, particularly in conflict affected areas. Devangana (Kalita) and I met in 2008 in Rajasthan at an NGO where I was working and Devangana had gone to do an internship. We have been together since then, though we only got married in 2014.

For me, having Devangana back is like recovering a part of myself without which I could not properly function. I suspect it is the same for many others in whose life she has played a part. But we are still waiting to see what comes next, with further hearings in the Supreme Court, and ultimately the trial. In addition to that, there are so many other people locked up under similar charges who have not yet been released. In a sense then, this battle is just beginning. There is still a very long way to go.

I find it appalling that something as serious as the UAPA has been used so frivolously (as observed in the High Court’s bail order). It sends a terrifying message to the public, to all those who have grievances resulting from state policies, to those who believe in democracy, and to all those who dream of a more inclusive, free and just society.

The crackdown on dissent is part of a global wave of repression and authoritarianism that comes at a time when our economic and political systems are in a crisis. Dissent and protest are forms of collective public expression. It’s about people asking to be listened to; to have their concerns taken seriously. It strikes me as the abdication of a government’s responsibility to not listen to its people. The extent that governments will go to, to fabricate cases against democratic protesters, is chilling.

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Seeing one’s friend or family member get arrested, with the full backing of the state machinery, is obviously terrifying. Just the emotional pain of seeing someone you share your dreams, your life with, taken away and locked behind bars makes it difficult to think or act. It sends a message that no one is safe to speak their mind or stand up for what they believe in; it made everyone afraid for their own safety and that of their friends.

Parents wouldn’t want their children to be associated with political activism. I am sure that this was the intention behind the wave of arrests – and to some extent it was successful. But when something as powerful as the truth is bottled up for too long, it starts to fester and searches for outlets. I don’t think it can be subdued for very long.

Devangana, Natasha (Narwal) and Asif Iqbal’s democratic spirit continued to radiate within jail, and spilled out into the public domain, through letters to friends and families. The fearlessness that they have shown is an inspiration to others.

The experience in jail has left a big impression on Devangana. The time spent in isolation, the uncertainty – “will this ever end?”, hardships, and the friendships forged in the jail… and the many stories shared. I was always in awe of how she managed to compose herself, to continue sending out messages of love and strength to friends and families, to file – along with Natasha – a writ petition for prison reform securing COVID vaccines for inmates, increasing the frequency and duration of contact with family members, to name just a couple of items.

I don’t think her time in jail – up close with the most dehumanising face of the state – has reduced her determination or grit at all. Rather it has expanded her perspective and given her new energy and focus for the years ahead.

I tried to be there for her and show up in whatever ways I could. At the beginning that meant following her from one police station to the next, as she went through interrogation; bringing changes of clothes and home-cooked food when it was allowed. I tried to match her seemingly endless positivity on phone calls and video calls, to make sure that she got whatever could be arranged for her in terms of books, stationery, clothing and her MPhil registration. There was quite a lot of running around to be done. I had support from friends, family and of course her lawyers, who have been outstanding in their commitment.

I believe when the truth is on your side but the state is not, you have to be brave, for in the long-run it’s worth it. There is a well-oiled machine that will try to frighten you, or force you into silence. But fear fuels injustice. Of course, everyone has their own vulnerabilities, so you just have to do whatever you can from your own social location and never give up.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

Anti-CAA Women Activists of Lucknow

‘Courage Of Narwal-Kalita Gives Anti-CAA Activists Hope’

Salman Ahmad, 30, an advocate at Lucknow Civil Court, says he was amazed at the spirit of Pinjra Tod activists on their release from jail. Khan sees similar resolve in anti-CAA women activists of Lucknow

I am so happy that finally Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha have been released on bail. It was an uphill fight, but I am glad they have come out of jail for now. I am just mesmerised at the courage these people have shown, especially the women.

The moment I saw the news clip of Natasha Narwal laughing after just coming out of jail and not deterred one bit, I was like: Inki himmat me koi kami nahi aayi; chehre pe ab bhi hansi barkarar hai. Aisa lag raha hai ye to Sarkar ko chidha rahi hain (She looks spirited; her smile/laughter is intact and it seems as if she is cocking a snook at the government that they couldn’t break her spirit even in jail.

I have seen similar steely resolve in the women of Lucknow; the women who spearheaded the anti-CAA and anti-NRC movement at Ghantaghar. I had been following the news about CAA-NRC right from the beginning and have been involved with its Lucknow chapter, so to speak, right since its inception.

Lawyer community holds protests against Citizenship Act in Lucknow

I myself was a part of the CAA- NRC protests and have helped a lot of people in getting timely bail when they faced similar police harassment. In fact, the police filed two-three FIRs against me as well but I was undeterred. Even my whole family and the families of friends and colleagues registered their protest. We know these are momentous times and anything can be used against anyone who shows the courage to question the government.

Women don’t speak up in the beginning or fight unnecessarily, so if the women are out in the streets and unafraid to go to jail for what they consider right, just and truthful, the government should sit up and take notice. When women put things at stake, it means they are ready to give it their all.

ALSO READ: ‘FIRs, Arrests Can’t Break the Spirit of Dissent’

We can see through the divide and rule policy of the government, but I believe it’s not going to work. Because this time the people also know that they have to take a stand. During January-February last year, many of us took an accommodation near the protest site and did all that was possible in aiding other supporters and we wouldn’t even go home for many days at a stretch. Even at the cost of our own personal safety we have visited police stations after police stations to show our support in the release of common people. As an advocate it is my duty to see that the law is not misused.

CAA-NRC provisions have touched a raw nerve and people have realised that their very existence is at stake. It is the people of India who are holding it together with love, otherwise look at what hatred between communities and a breakdown in communication did to Myanmar. I wouldn’t say that there was no mistrust between communities before this government came in; it was there, but it was a side thing. But with this government it is the main agenda. Many people holding top position in important institutions have been known to have biased views regarding things.

Anti-CAA protest in Lucknow

I hope things get better soon and the government understands the concerns of the people and not just try to put those asking questions in jail. We need to talk to each other. The powers that are need to take people into consideration.

Nasreen Javed Lucknow Social Activist

‘Police FIRs, Arrests Can’t Break The Spirit Of Dissent’

Nasreen Javed, 32, from Lucknow says the unfair methods used by a repressive state, like police FIRs and arrests, cannot crush the spirit of dissent in Indian democracy

Lucknow Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ke liye jani jati hai. Yani yahan log ek doosre ki izzat karte hain, ek doosre ka sath dete hain (Lucknow is known for its inclusive culture and people here respect, support and take stands for each other). The government has tried its level best to break this cohesiveness, but they haven’t managed to so far. Nor have they managed nor will they succeed in breaking the spirit of young activists like Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Asif Iqbal Tanha, my fellow protestors or me.

The government had perhaps thought that if they arrest or unnecessarily hound youngsters, they might rot in jail for the rest of their lives, but the collective soul of India is far greater than the hatred that is brewing in it right now.

I have always raised my voice against injustice and untruth, but with CAA- NRC protests, I ensured that my voice is heard loud and clear and it doesn’t slow down. I was one among the group of 11 women who started the CAA protest at Ghantaghar in Lucknow and participated for 66 days in a row. With a three-month old adopted daughter in tow I braved it all. I have nearly eight to ten FIRs against me, all for taking a stand during the CAA- NRC protests. But I am not scared. I am not doing anything wrong.

Nasreen Javed with fellow protestors in Lucknow

Police acted in heartless manner to break our last year’s protests. Our blankets were taken away extreme cold; our food wasn’t allowed to reach the protest sites; they would pour cold water on the bonfires. I still remember an amber reaching my hijab and singing it when cold water was poured on the fire to put it out. But they cannot pour cold water over our spirit and dampen it.

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Even if I have to go to the jail for this cause I am not scared. Sach ki takat alag hoti hai, uska jazba hi alag hota hai (Being on the side of truth lends you a different kind of courage). Perhaps we have the same courage, same spirit that our freedom fighters had during the Freedom Struggle. We are freedom fighters.

The police have been unrelenting in trying to find ways to break our spirit, but so far we have also managed to hold on. As Natasha Narwal said, having strong family support gives you the courage to carry on with your fight for truth. There were times when the police would wake my in-laws in the dead of the night and ask them to bring me to the police station (while I was at the protest site) or they would be arrested. Why hassle old people?

Anti-CAA protestors hold indefinite fast in Lucknow

I go to the court for hearing every 15 days and even with the fear of Covid-19 lurking everywhere I am standing strong. A life that has meaning in it is worthwhile. Thank God my family understands why I feel so strongly about CAA-NRC. It is about ‘exclusion’ while our Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb and even India at large is about ‘inclusion’.

We are raised in a way that we are taught to include. I wonder what’s going on in the minds of our leaders. They were subtly/indirectly saying that persecuted people from other countries, from communities other than Muslims would be granted citizenship. But can the government also ensure that their living standard would become better? What about the living standards of the people already settled here? Dialogue is the need of the hour.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

Delhi Riots

‘Over 100 People Stayed In My 500sqft House, Slept In Shifts’

Mohammad Hakim, 45, supplies jute bags to shops in Delhi for livelihood. During northeast Delhi communal violence in February, he provided shelter and safety to over 100 victims at his humble house in Chandu Nagar

It was something I have not seen in my lifetime. We migrated to Delhi from Khagariya district of Bihar 20 years back and since then we have been living here peacefully. We never thought such level of communal violence will ever happen here. On the intervening night of February 24 and 25, houses of my relatives was attacked and shops were set of fire. They called me for help.

My wife went there and saw some police personnel escorting my relatives and scores of other residents of the area, houses of whom were attacked by mobs with stones and petrol bombs. The cops left the rescued people in my lane. As my relatives entered my house, scores of others also pleaded for a shelter for some days. These people included women and young children.

Suddenly there was commotion towards the main road. I realised that stone-pelting had started once again. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt so I asked them to immediately enter my house.

ALSO READ: ‘Rioters Came In Thousands’

There were 98 people in all including children. All of them managed to find space in my small house for four days. We didn’t have space to sleep for all of us; so we slept in shifts. I had some ration at my kitchen and it all got over in just two days. There was no milk for children so I requested my neighbours to help.

Even in these difficult times, people helped. My neighbours provided food and milk for the sheltered and their children. I remember not sleeping for four nights due to fear. Riots and clashes continued just two lanes ahead of my house. I was afraid that if anyone came to know that I had given shelter to nearly 100 people, their lives could be in danger. So several of us stayed awake during nights and kept a watch on the lanes.

WATCH: ‘Left Only With The Clothes I Am Wearing’

The violence continued for four days and then abruptly stopped. Some of those who had taken shelter into my house, went to see their houses and found them burnt and looted. Their shops were also gutted. Hence, they came back and are still staying at my place.

I have a two-storied rented accommodation of 500 square feet. On the ground floor, I have a small workshop and godown and on the first floor, I have two small rooms, a kitchen and a washroom. It was all full for four days with no space to even walk. In the huddle, there was fear for an uncertain future. Most of those who had taken shelter were daily-wage labourers and vendors. Their livelihoods were completely lost in the violence. They have to feed their children; I don’t know how they will survive.

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I am now trying to help these people to get government compensation. There are children who have to appear in the board exams. I have been buying newspapers for them so that we get all verified information about state measure for the riot-affected and holding of exams. God knows for how long these people will stay. I am getting help from my neighbours and other people to feed them. I just hope this never happens again. Both communities have suffered loss of life and property. The government must not allow such horrific thing to happen again.

Post-Communal Violence

‘We Fought Rumour Mongering Post-Communal Violence’

Ashok Kumar, 48, a home guard posted as a bus marshal with Delhi Transport Corporation, took leave from work to go on a peace ride in riot-affected neighbourhood with a Muslim friend

I was unable to sleep for several nights during the time when communal violence was taking place in my neighbourhood (Yamuna Vihar in northeast Delhi). I kept thinking about the people who lost their lives, homes and their livelihoods in the mindless violence. This was particularly heartbreaking for people like me who spent their lives with Muslim neighbours in peace all my life. There can’t be anything more devastating for a city like Delhi where Hindus and Muslims live together for centuries.

I therefore took a day off and accompanied my neighbour Yusuf in a bike ride to the riot-hit localities. For, even after the bloodshed, some people had been indulging in rumor-mongering and this could lead to panic and further hatred among communities.

WATCH: ‘Left With The Clothes We Are Wearing’

This is why I felt it was my duty to be in the riot-hit area and send a message of peace. I stuck a poster of ‘Shantidoot’ on my shirt in the front and back and carried a national flag during the peace ride. As the board exams were postponed due to the violence, we visited some schools first so that the students can see that how communal harmony works and go home with good thoughts.

We spoke to whoever approached us and advised them to help us maintain peace in the city. I have so far gathered support of many people from both the communities. I am also asking for phone numbers of those who are interested in doing the same for the sake of peace in the country.

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I am planning to call all those interested in spreading a message of peace to ride with me in the entire northeast Delhi with a message of harmony. I will seek permission from the police and administration if required to carry on with such efforts on the streets. As soon as I get permission, I will call all those who are willing to volunteer and will roam the riot-hit localities with the message of peace.

In some of the suggestions I got from the people, one was very important. The residents of the violence-hit areas wanted to raise a community watch so that no such incidents can take place in future. I will not stop until I make sure that people are together against hatred and violence. Only common people like us suffer during such riots and our city gets defamed. I will take off from my job to do my duty for the country.

‘Bloodshed Forced Me To Come Out On Street With A Tricolour’

Mohammad Yusuf, 40, a resident of Yamuna Vihar in riot-hit northeast Delhi, felt devastated after watching the bloodshed and violence on TV channels. He decided to visit the affected localities with a Hindu neighbour to spread the message of peace

Yamuna Vihar is a mixed colony, with Hindus and Muslims living next to one another. We never saw each other from the view of one’s religious identity. The three-day violence on the streets so close our colony left me pained and heartbroken. This was not how we had grown up in our mohalla. I just could not sit at home watching the clashes on TV and feel safe.

I felt just as the rioters, peace-loving locals will also need to come out and counter the violence and stem the ill-feelings and hatred from spreading further among the community. We are Indian citizens first. If one tries to harm a person in his neighbourhood because of his religion, he or she will be ending up harming the fabric of India.

ALSO READ: ‘People Ask Us If We Help Only Hindus…’

I decided to visit the riot-hit areas on my bike with a Tricolour and a message of peace. I was accompanied in this by my neigbour Ashok Kumar, who felt equally revolted on the issue. We felt it as our duty save our home, that is our country, and our foremost challenge was to stop rumor-mongering in the area. Usually, small bit of misinformation and unverified message can fan violence in such times.

I must admit that my family members were a little concerned but our Hindu neighbours assured them that they will be the first to protect me from any untoward incident. I went to schools, areas where violence tool place, shops and houses that were torched and met the victims. People clicked photos with us. Students went home with a message of peace and love. It was a long day but I felt proud. This is what I always wanted to do.

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There is no religion bigger than humanity. We must understand the fact that if we don’t take care of each other, the world will not respect us. It is time for all communities to come together to fight the hate and rumor-mongering. I am worried about the children, they have seen and felt what they weren’t supposed to. They are our future, and our country’s future. Their minds are fragile and impressionable; they must be protected from harbouring hate.

Homeguard Ashok Kumar and Mohd Yusuf

During my visits, I saw many personal losses and tragedies from a close view. It had set in a sense of hopelessness. But we now have to look forward and ensure that this will never happen again, at least not under our watch.

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I next want to setup a community watch group and invite people from all sections to join it. Such steps can identify the troublemakers and report them in time. For now, however, I am continuing with meeting the victims, listening to them and spread the message of peace. Hatred must not have any space in our society.

‘People Ask Us If We Save Only Hindus Or Musslamans’

A group of concerned civil society activists started a helpline to aid victims of communal violence in northeast Delhi. Environmental activist Priya Pillai was a part of the 35-member team that was formed to facilitate rescue efforts. She tells LokMarg about the harrowing last week.

For the past few days, my phone has not ceased to ring. Last week was horrific. I would have used a stronger word if I could. Delhi has been my home for the past many years. And like many Delhiites, I felt helpless as northeast Delhi burnt and people got butchered – all in the name of religious identity!

I am a part of the Citizens Collective for Peace, a joint initiative by the civil society in Delhi. When violence broke out we decided to help out the victims in whatever little way possible. A team of about 35 people was formed, of which, three sub-teams worked on rescue operations, medical support (which also included lawyers to help with the documentation of medico-legal cases) and information verification. I was a part of the rescue team. 

There was no way that we could go on the ground to facilitate the rescue operations, so we decided to act as a bridge between the police and the complainants and ensure rescue efforts were carried out smoothly.

On February 25th, we circulated our personal numbers, which acted as helplines for the next few days (we never got the time to get dedicated numbers for the helpline). Initially, we had circulated the numbers in our private circles, but looking at the scale of violence, we had to publicly post the numbers. The numbers were posted on multiple WhatsApp groups and Facebook and Twitter.

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Result: Our phones rang incessantly. People called us and we called the Police Control Room (PCR) to file the complaints and facilitate the evacuation. But the first six hours were very challenging for us.

We could not get any headway with the police. While we desperately tried to reach out to them, but were faced with a lackadaisical response. We reached out to senior police officers, but it was appalling how despite repeated requests, they failed to act for more than six hours. Even after giving them a proper address, they kept dilly-dallying, saying things like: “Aap exact location toh bataiye. (Give us the exact location).” 

Relief workers distribute essential food items to the victims of communal violence in northeast Delhi

The people at the PCR even asked me questions like what my marital status was! It is apparently a part of a routine procedure for registering a complaint. But at the time of an emergency, can we afford to go into these banalities?

That night, we got several more distress calls from people who were trying to take their bloodied and burnt kin to the hospital but a wild angry mob was blocking their passage. Two people had succumbed to their injuries, on the road, awaiting medical attention. 

Private as well as government ambulances carrying victims were not being allowed to reach Al Hind Hospital in Mustafabad. The Police was a mute spectator. 

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However, as a result of a petition filed by civil society activists, the DCP East was ordered by a two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court, to escort ambulances to ensure safe passage for the injured. The order was passed by Justice Muralidhar and Justice Bhambani post-midnight after attempts to seek help from Delhi Police failed.

Within minutes of the order, the Delhi police evacuated several critically injured people and carried out rescue operations. Thus proving that the Delhi Police can work efficiently and effectively, if it has the will to do so. They could have easily quelled the riots within 24 hours, but the police and political class, let the city burn. They let down the city they were mandated to protect and nurture.

The next two days, we worked round the clock coordinating and facilitating rescue operations with the police. People in the rescue team got the calls, the information verification team, verified the details to ensure it wasn’t a hoax call. If the caller was looking for medical help, we would connect them to the medical support team, who would coordinate with the victims and ambulances. Members of the medical team were there at the hospitals making sure the victims had reached safely and were receiving medical attention.

We got all kinds of calls from both Muslims and Hindus.

Many muslim families were trapped in their homes or teraces, telling us that there was a mob outside chanting slogans and likely to burn down the house if they left. Some of them called us saying their homes were being looted. We had to counsel them and talk them into evacuating the premises. We told them that the mobs will burn down their house anyway, so why stay and risk your life.

In some cases the callers did not want to give their numbers to the police, so we had to constantly coordinate with the police and the complainants to facilitate the rescue. When the police asked us for the phone number of the victims, we were forced to tell them that people did not trust them. They feared that they would be harassed by the police. So we were coordinating with them until we were sure that they had been escorted to a safe place.

Many Hindus called us saying that they were living in Muslim dominated areas and were fearing for their lives — they were mostly calling out of panic.

Certain calls made us wonder if communalism and intolerance had taken over all of humanity. Was there no thread of humanism left in these people? People asked us: “Kya aap sirf Mussalmanon ko bachate hain? (Do you just save Muslims?)” and “Achha toh aap Hinduon ko bhi bachaate hain? (So you rescue Hindus too?)” Our response was the same every time, we said that we help everyone who is affected by the violence.

We also got calls from people who started asking: “Aap kaun hain, kya kaam karte hain, aapka naam kya hai?” We firmly refused to divulge our personal details, and politely asked them not to waste our time.

We have taken a risk to circulate our personal numbers. With apps like TrueCaller, it is very easy to track people down. But we couldn’t just sit and do nothing, while people butchered each other and the state machinery failed to act.

Then there were some moments of encouragement, when people called us (from even outside Delhi), showering praises and blessings. Such messages kept us going.

The rescue operations are now over, with no new fresh clashes. We were not as effective as a government machinery would have been, but we still managed to play a role in saving a few hundred lives. It is now up to the Delhi government to provide relief to the victims.

‘Rioters Came in Thousands, Policemen Were Just 200’

ACP Anuj Kumar, who was injured while trying to curb the violent clashes in Northeast Delhi, recounts the communal riots that cost 42 lives

On February 25, I had arrived at the troubled spot along with District Commissioner of Police Amit Sharma and about 200 police personnel when the tension began to raise its ugly head near Seelampur area in Northeast Delhi.

We were instructed that the road linking Signature Bridge with the border of Ghaziabad should not remain blocked. Slowly and steadily, a crowd started getting bigger. The crowd included both men and women. Soon the crowd swelled to about 20,000-25,000 headcount. I don’t know whether they had planned to block the road as they did previously.

ALSO READ: ‘We Lost Our Child, Save Other’

We spoke to them peacefully and asked them to remain confined to the service road instead of the main road. Till then, rumours had started spreading that some women and children had lost their lives in a police shootout. There was construction underway near the bridge, so stones and bricks were lying there. The rioters started pelting us with stones suddenly and many of us were injured, including DCP Amit Sharma who was bleeding severely.

The police fired teargas shells to disperse the rioters but the effort was futile as the distance between the protestors and the security was large. We were standing on two opposite ends of the road. We didn’t want to open fire as many women took part in the protest. But we were heavily outnumbered.

ALSO READ: State Riot Machine At Work

My aim then was to first rescue the DCP because he was bleeding heavily. But we also didn’t want to hurt any protestor. I later came to know that the force have lost Head Constable Rattan Lal to the violence.

‘We Lost Our Child To Delhi Communal Riots, Save Others’

Rahul Solanki, 25, an engineer, was allegedly shot by a violent mob in Karawal Nagar area in Northeast Delhi. His uncle Sanjeev S Solanki recounts how police inaction was responsible for their loss

Ours is the only Hindu house at a Muslim-majority locality in Karawal Nagar. We always wanted to relocate as many Hindus of the locality sold their houses over a period of time and moved. We remain the only Hindu family there. It seems we failed to sell our house in time and it is too late now.

The tension in Karawal Nagar began from Sunday. There were incidents of stone pelting in the neighborhood and some violent clashes between pro- and anti-Citizenship Act groups. There was no police presence in our area and possibly that emboldened the miscreants.

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We were cautious as we are the only Hindu family in the area. On Monday, when Rahul went to his job, we saw escalation of violence near our area on news channels. The family called him and asked him to be home early and stay safe.

When Rahul reached home, we heaved a sigh of relief. But after a few minutes, he went out to buy grocery from a nearby shop and a few gunshots were heard. We were informed that Rahul had been shot by a group of protesters from close range. We rushed to the spot and took him to GTB (Guru Teg Bahadur) hospital where he was declared dead. His father and mother are inconsolable.

ALSO READ: Lynch Militia And Communal Faultlines

What was the fault of Rahul? He was not part of any protest, he was targeted because of his religion. He had no political affiliation. He was just a breadwinner for his family. We had high hopes from him and were planning to fix his marriage soon.

Over last two days every time we heard commotion outside our house, we called at police control room for help and reassurance. But there was no response. Police came only after Rahul was killed. What good is this force now for us?

We don’t want any violence; we don’t want any revenge; we have lost a son and; we don’t want others to face what we are facing today. But justice should be delivered to us.

I appeal our politicians to come out of their houses and visit the affected areas. All of them should witness what happened to us and call upon people not to indulge in violence. They were out making speeches during election campaigning. Where are they holed up now when the vote needs them?

Common people have little to do with CAA or NRC. Rahul was targeted because police presence was not there. There shall be no space and no support for violent protests in the country. Why can’t the police shoot back to those who are shooting at innocent residents? What is stopping them? I feel Delhi needs rule of an iron hand to deal with such murderous mob. Or else many more innocents will die.