‘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.

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

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. 

ALSO READ: ‘Rioters Came In Thousands, Cops Were 200’

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.