Courage Under Fire: How Mushtari Khatoon Protected People During The Delhi Riots
Mushtari Khatoon supervised the evacuation of 50 men, women and children, including a mother, who jumped across three rooftops carrying her six-day-old baby to reach safety
When the phone rang early on the morning of 25 February—Mushtari Khatoon, her husband Mohammed Hakim and their three teenaged children were asleep in their home in north-east Delhi’s Chandu Nagar. As Hakim handed her the phone and Mushtari grabbed it, a chill ran through her spine. “They are going to kill us, Chachi! For God’s sake, save us!” howled her young nephew Muhammad Niyaj at the other end.
The petite Mushtari, 42, rushed out in a blind panic to Khajuri Khas, across the dusty, broken road, from where her family had called. Trouble had been brewing, but no one had imagined the cauldron of communal hatred would boil over with such vengeance in Delhi, which was hosting US President Donald Trump at the time. This madness took away 53 lives, both Muslims and Hindus, and left hundreds homeless and orphaned, in the north-eastern fringes of the capital.
Reaching the lanes of Khajuri Khas, Mushtari watched in disbelief as hundreds of armed men shouting “Jai Shri Ram” flooded the narrow lanes, dressed in riot-police gear. “Carrying petrol bombs, country-made pistols, lathis and tear-gas shells, they went on the rampage,” Fayaz Alam, Mushtari’s nephew, says.
“I trembled within, but knew I had to jump in, else my family would be killed,” recalls Mushtari. She ferried them, making five trips cross to her home in Chandu Nagar, a Muslim-majority area. On her last round, however, she got stuck along with a crowd, their lives hanging by a thin thread.
Khajuri Khas is a grubby urban settlement, where homes of Hindus and Muslims lie cheek-by-jowl with small businesses dotting the lanes. Skirted by open drains and the sludgy Chand Bagh nullah, it is home to migrant labourers who came here to build a better life. Mushtari and her large clan are among them.
Growing up in Bihar’s Khagaria district, Mushtari is a homemaker with only basic skills that would see her through in Delhi. However, that day she stood up to blind terror with the power of a matriarch.“The mob targeted Muslim households and forced them to leave their homes,” says Mohammad Munazir, who lost his small, windowless house, built with his life savings, in the mayhem.“I called the police at least 10 times, as did others, but nothing,” says Mushtari, a week later. The rioters busted doorways, broke open shutters and hounded out victims, while spitting communal taunts at them. Then they unleashed large-scale loot and arson. Targeted by the mob, some 150 terrified people took shelter on one Mehboob’s roof, escorted by paramilitary men. Meanwhile, the basement had been set ablaze. “We had no place to escape, and waited for a grisly end on that rooftop,” says 22-year-old student Mushahid.
Hysterical with fear, they explored their next move, when the paramilitary men ordered that the men must stay and the women and children should leave. “This is when I put my foot down. ‘Everyone will leave, else we will all die here’ I told them firmly,” says Mushtari. She then supervised the evacuation of 50 men, women and children, including a mother, who jumped across three rooftops carrying her six-day-old baby to reach safety.
These nine families were in her care, when we visited, in two tiny rooms, where they took turns to sleep. The couple opened up their home and hearts to create a safe house for these refugees of hatred.
As we walk back through the charred remains of destroyed homes, broken glass and the many dreams that died that day in Khajuri Khas, Mushtari clasps my hand, her eyes welling up in grief. This is the woman, who saved more lives than any policeman that day.