May 16th is observed as the International Day of Living Together in Peace. The more I focus on the words living together in peace, the more I ponder what it has come to mean for those of us living in India, especially in its capital city. While “social distancing” may be the new norm now due to health reasons, it probably had seeped in deep in our social practices and mindset much earlier. As I write this piece, my mind travels back and forth to the many instances of discriminatory social distancing that has overwhelmed those living in Delhi over the past few months. Where does one begin? From the point when the corona virus outbreak was displaced from the headlines by an even more dangerous outburst of communal virus, squaring the blame for the pandemic on the muslim community? Or even further back when students from Jamia Millia Islamia University, acting very much within their constitutional rights, were marked as anti-national elements, hence to be kept at bay and turned out of rented-homes? However, the flashback through which the mind paces stops somewhere in between - the fateful days of February 24 - 28, 2020, when Delhiites experienced a nasty manifestation of a cultural practice of social distancing from the muslim community - the Delhi carnage.
Visiting North-East Delhi a few days after the carnage, one would notice how remnants of the carnage was visible everywhere - from the charred tyre market near Gokulpuri metro station to the heavy paramilitary forces deployed in the region. Driving or walking across the area, one could clearly locate spots where the violence played out - dark spots on the road where tyres were burnt, buildings that had been vandalised, and the air heavy with the dust of burnt particles. The corners that spelt violence, the burnt houses, desperate attempts of people queued up to get hold of relief materials all brought forth how a culture of violence had to work for just about four days to ruin the lives that people built over decades - not caring for either “living together” or “peace” whatsoever.
Conversations revealed two lines of thought. The first continued to fester sectarian tensions, especially as explained repeatedly by ( mostly non-muslim) men how a particular crossroad and a temple situated there acted as the “border” to demarcate muslim and hindu neighbourhoods. Standing amid relics of what was once someone’s home, someone’s shop and source of livelihood, a school and all that made life normal as we know it - I was keen to know what was the suggested way forward after the rampage. The answer was of course ‘peace’, but it did not indicate whether that meant return of harmony between the two communities. Infact, a man was proud to share how the hindus had conducted a peace rally, that was limited only to the hindu area and did not include the muslims. On asking what about the Muslims, he answered that they had their own peace rally. One can only imagine how “the border” which was only demographic and spatial so far, ran much deeper in the minds and hearts of the people living in the area now.
Depressing as this was, it definitely was not surprising. Progressing through the many interactions and conversations during the day, it wasn’t difficult to miss out the notes of a vicious cycle of mistrust, especially in comments like: “We saw women sitting in the forefront of these (anti- CAA) protests, but who knows what was going on behind?”
It was therefore imperative for me to talk to the women who were being implicated indirectly “because of those protests and sit-in” (which were dotted all over Delhi from December - March with women at the forefront), wondering whether there could be a return anytime to a semblance of harmonious coexistence. While we heard the men talk of “borders'' and “partitions” recreated, or received very restrained answers; it was the women who shared what it was like living in a neighbourhood with mixed demography. They spoke of shared cups of evening tea, and being a part of each other’s wedding celebrations. Speaking of participating in the protests, the women shared that many of them regularly visited these sit-in sites. They had always considered the neighbourhood was a safe space since despite their participation in the protests they never felt any discomfort with their neighbours. The outburst of such targeted violence was thus unimaginable and shocking for them. Shaken as they might have been, but they were quick to point out acts of sorority. They shared how after the muslim homes were bandoned, some of the non-muslim women acted quickly to give those homes a “hindu” look to prevent damaging and looting. While in some neighbourhoods, there were gates coming up between rows of houses to further entrench the differences, there were others, where women were consoled by the fact that their neighbours have been checking in on them and pursuing them to return to their “rightful'' homes. An elderly woman in the Eidgah relief camp confronted me with a question, to which I had no answer, when she asked: “Ye bolo beta, hum muslamanno ke liye sunwayi kab hogi? Hum raaste mein baithe to danda, aur ghar mein baithe to danga! (Tell me, child, when will there be justice for us muslims? If we sit on the streets we are beaten with the baton, and if we are at home, there is a riot outside!). The conversation with the women indicated the second line of thought - that peace demands justice, and living together involves inclusive practices.
While the tangible ruins post the violence spoke of hatred and despondency, it was the women, despite witnessing the fire of contempt engulfing their homes and lives, who didn’t lose hope of living together in peace. Be it the lady who met us on her way to collect milk for her home, when she shared “I am a hindu and I grieve at what ugly forces turned up against my muslim friends. I am a widow but I never feared living in this locality, because this is where we all live together, and come what may, we will continue to live together irrespective of our religious identity!” Or the resilience of the women in the relief camp, who expressed “lekin hum yahi k nagarik hai, hindustani hum bhi hai, hum yahi rahenge, apne ghar pe aur kahi aur nhi jayenge!” (But we are citizens of this country, We are Indians too, we will continue to live in our home, and not be forced to go anywhere else).
These women through their simple expressions of anxiety and outburst unknowingly brought forth the experiential ideal of the catch-phrase “living together in peace” - one that is inclusive, that allows for living with dignity, transcending boundaries creating spaces for sharing, caring and learning and above all that peace would be hollow without accountability and justice.