What I Saw in Jafrabad on February 24-25
A student protestor’s eyewitness account
“I was there when it all began. What happened was the road near Jafrabad metro station was blocked on the midnight of February 23. That was the day of [Bhim Army chief] Chandrashekhar’s [Bharat Bandh] call, so people in the area started coming out to protest.
They were prevented from taking out a protest march, and the roads were blocked the whole day. It seemed like the area would become another Shaheen Bagh, as people staged a sit-in protest in Jafrabad.
In Chand Bagh, which is a mixed area, people were perhaps not expecting so many to come out in protest. The police here were more high handed. On the morning of February 24 there was a lathicharge, an effort to break up the protest and push people back. This was started in Chand Bagh. Things were tense. There was stone pelting… we started getting phone calls that things were escalating.
In these areas – Chand Bagh, Brahampuri, Mustafabad and nearby – which are small areas, the attack had already begun on the morning of February 24. We were at the protest site in Jafrabad, and were receiving calls for help. You could see smoke rising. These areas are barely a kilometre away from where we were, but we couldn’t respond to the call. We could not go, because all the roads had been blocked and the police were preventing movement.
This happened through the course of the day. Distress calls, noise and smoke. We could see empty buses and trucks passing in front of us, and returning loaded with burnt material and debris. And we were helpless. Sitting on the side of the road.
The night passed like this too. We kept thinking it was only a matter of time before we were attacked, before our protest site was targeted. It was clear that their resolve was, “We will not allow a Shaheen Bagh here.”
At the time the police response was, “You get up from this site in Jafrabad first, then we’ll address the violence in the neighbouring areas.” Some people said it was time to call off the protest, so lives in neighbouring areas would be saved. But many others didn’t believe it, especially the women and youth. I saw leaders and others making announcements asking people to disperse. Announcements from the mosques asked people to call off the protest. But the larger mood was not in favour of budging.
We also felt helpless. Some boys managed to reach one of the affected areas so as to help. They climbed onto the terrace of a house as they couldn’t get in through the door. As soon as they opened the terrace door, they were shot at! One of them sustained injuries to his leg. They [the attackers] had already penetrated the areas to this extent.
We knew from the beginning that the attackers were outsiders. It’s not as if they didn’t have locals’ support, they did, but definitely not of all locals. We would get calls from locals, and not just Muslim locals but others too, saying they had noticed outsiders moving in. Someone with me got a call from a vendor he works with in the area – Prashant (name changed) – who said that he’d seen some people enter the area and was concerned.
So it’s not like there was an outright religious division, there were people on all sides warning each other of tensions escalating.
The claim that all non-Muslims in the area were supporting the violence is incorrect. It was outsiders with the support of some locals. And the fact that Hindus were warning their Muslim neighbours, saying “Watch out, people are entering with the intention to create trouble” or “Avoid this area, there’s trouble” is telling.
At the same time, you cannot organise and carry out violence of this scale without insider and local support.
All through the night we kept hearing this kind of news: warnings and attacks. Then at 2 am [on February 25] we heard that the tire market had been burnt down. That was when we realised that things were escalating beyond any control.
The next morning, I saw smoke rising… and again, felt a sense of helplessness.
The police were preventing movement. In some cases, journalists made it past the police barricades and entered some of these areas – and here they were stopped by goons guarding these areas. They were making men strip down their pants and checking them. With women, they were being threatening.
Two reporters I know say they were pushed back by these goons, who said they could not enter. They said an elderly lady wearing saffron and shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ had told the goons ‘inko bhagado yahan se’ (Get them out of here). They said the goons then physically pushed them and chased them out of the area.
So what was essentially happening was that the police had blocked off the entry and exit points, and the goons were spreading havoc in the inner areas.
Once the violence started, it just escalated. Things have still not settled down.
The youth in these areas were not up for fighting back. They were scared. They told me they were scared. They were protecting their homes and families to whatever extent, but there was no resolve or desire to fight. The narrative that [these attackers] were outsiders was strong.
Right now people are still scared. News of attacks are still emerging. Fresh videos detailing the violence are still emerging. Official death tolls may be around 30-40, but we know that the casualties are much higher.
The news that ambulances were not allowed to reach the areas is true – as the police had blocked all roads. News of the attack on mosques and madrasas is only part of the scale of violence. Everything you can imagine happened: attackers broke into homes, they burnt homes, they physically beat and assaulted residents, they shot people, they used sticks and swords, cut up people… everything you can imagine, happened. And worse.
We know this because of the kinds of calls we were getting through the day. Multiple calls saying houses had been burnt down. That people were running from these areas. Warnings not to go there.
We know that at some point in the night, the lights in these areas were cut off. And homes were torched. People were attacked through the night.
Some accounts of the violence have emerged in the media, but they are few and far between. Locals are not yet ready to talk.
News has been slow to emerge because the area is cut off. The media was distracted with Trump’s visit, and they did not react in time to the initial reports of violence. Still, some reports began emerging February 24 onward. Not the full extent, but some of it.
When people started hearing of the violence… if thousands had mobilised and reached the spot, maybe things could have been different. It’s one thing to go for protest marches and meetings in solidarity, but where people are actually needed, where mobilisation can truly make a difference… not enough people showed up.
I left the area around 5.30 pm on February 25. I’ll go back today.”