My Memories of Curfew in Old Delhi

Categories Delhi, Opinion

old delhi rooftops

A couple of days back, my friends were sitting and discussing the elections. The conversation then, moved to our childhood memories of the Ayodhya related riots in Delhi in 1990s, then the 1984 riots, etc. We all feared that BJP coming to power would also vitiate the atmosphere, and everything would just boil down to religious politics. People were not as afraid during the last BJP government, as Atal Behari Vajpayee was seen as a statesman figure, but Modi with his cronies like Amit Shah, etc. is a different personality altogether, and hence the concern.

I remember, my mother telling me about the 1975 time during Emergency (esp about the excesses government committed at Turkman Gate). We had big iron gates, and our house was a little inside towards the end of the street, my mother told me that many women came to hide in our house, as they feared being raped by the security forces, while men were also looking for a hiding place, as there was forced sterilization going on as well. So, women tried to hide, as men ran from one rooftop to another to far away areas. Some men were captured and also faced arrest, without any charges.

My father’ s best friend from his office was a Sikh, Teji Uncle, and he lived near Bengali market, not very far from our place. In 1984, when the anti Sikh riots broke out, my father asked him to come and stay in Old Delhi with us with his family(in a majorly Muslim mohalla) as he would be safe there. But, he preferred staying with his relatives and hiding, thankfully, he lived, but later on he shifted to a Sikh dominated locality. (Religious segregation??)

My earliest memories as a young child, were of 1989 riots, in the run up to Ayodhya movement by the right wingers. I remember, hearing people shout on the streets, and suddenly, we were told that we could not go out of the house, and to stay inside, we could not even peep out of the windows, or balconies. Police forces were out on the streets. My mother was worried as my father had not come back from office, and we did not have enough supplies of food in the house. My father being a senior government official came back home safely in the evening. Everybody shared, neighbors jumped walls and rooftops to exchange cooked food, milk, fruits etc. till curfew was relaxed after a day. I was more confused, and since we were told not to go out, I wanted to go out, to see what was happening there, exactly. The next morning, when my mother woke up, I also got up. I saw her put on her burqa, as she wanted to go out to fetch milk, bread, eggs, etc. as curfew was relaxed for some hours. I went after her stubbornly insisted on following her to the market, and started crying. It was early morning, she did not want to wake up the rest of the family, so she took me along with her. Streets looked completely deserted. Policemen were sitting on the main road. I had never seen so many policemen in my entire life! Only a couple of shops were open, there were no kids, only some grown ups. I had never seen my neighborhood as deserted, even late at night there is ‘raunaq/ chehel-pehel’ in Old Delhi. I was scared suddenly, and wanted to go back to the safety of my home now. Curfew was relaxed in the mornings and evenings for a couple of hours, which went on for three days, then they lifted the curfew, and only night curfew remained, before it was lifted fully.

Post- Babri Masjid demolition, there was preventive curfew in Old Delhi the next day, to keep people indoors. We heard people were marching up to Jama Masjid, on Shahi Imam’s call, taking out processions to express grief and anger against the demolition. By that time at the street entrances, people had put up gates, so at least people could move around in their own streets, if not on the main roads. Every resident of the street pooled in money to get the strong iron gates, to keep police out. It somehow, gave people a sense of security against the forces (sadly, it should have been the other way round, but Turkman Gate walas did not trust the people in uniform). All the streets had these gates now. Some young enthusiasts wanted to go, but mostly did not attend the ‘juloos/ procession’ for the fear of trouble. My father was at his office, and we were again worried for his safety. They had closed the gates of our street. My grandmother was chanting prayers. My mother was being practical and checking food supplies. She had bought some stuff in advance, as we all knew that things were going to get difficult, in the days up to the demolition. Late in the evening, my father came back safely,but through our terrace from the back side of the house. He told us, that he had shown his office id to police, and knocked at the street door. Some young men were guarding the door, my father knocked they got afraid that it was police and ran, did not open the door for him. He went to the next street, shouted out his name loud, (he had an impressive personality, everybody knew him in the neighborhood), and they opened the door for him. So, from the other gali, he came jumping terraces, climbing walls back to his house. And the first thing, he did when he came back was go out and gave a huge dressing down to the boys guarding the street iron gate.

We had a high terrace, people could not go out, so they came to our terrace for some ‘taaza hawa’, and it became a chaupal for discussion, rumors, etc. The TV was not 24*7 then, as it is now. In fact, sometimes there was no power too. No work, no power, people just chatted to pass their time. We saw some smoke at a distance from our terrace, and everybody guessed, if that was crowd or police burning some place down. Police had thrown some tear gas, so everybody’s eyes were burning. We heard somebody had got shot as well. Only, positive thing, I remember is the solidarity and concern that neighbors showed for each other.

Thankfully, I had never seen any real riots! But, these are still bad memories, which I had forgotten. My friends (all non- Muslims), were unanimous that we all do not want to go back to those times of religious frenzy. The gates at the street entrance still stand, but in bad shape, due to neglect/ lack of upkeep, they have not been used since those times, and I hope and pray, they are never used again!

  • Hopefully you do not see any riot ever. It is devastating.