On the other side of the divide, children who lost their parents in the violence of 2020 struggle to move forward

The strumming of the guitar moved Fiza (14) to tears. Her teachers had taken a group of children for a school picnic, and when someone in the group sang “Maa” from the film Taare Zameen Par, the teenager couldn’t control herself. Memories of his father, Md Muddassar (35), resurface. The last time she saw him was when he left home to pay his school fees. He was shot dead as riots broke out in northeast Delhi. “I remembered my father; I miss him a lot,” Fiza said.

Two years after 53 people were killed in the violence that erupted on February 23, 2020, the children of families who lost members are still coming to terms with that loss.

Vir Bhan Singh (48), a father of three, was among those who lost their lives in the violence. While two of her children managed to complete class XII, her youngest daughter, Khushi (15), nearly dropped out of school. Singh’s brother Mukesh said: ‘She used to take online lessons but was fed up – she was afraid to go back to school and became anxious as the lockdown was lifted. Everyone in our family, including the grandparents, stepped up and gave her lots of love. She goes to school now.

While some families struggle with emotional scars, others are in dire financial straits.

Sunita (30), whose husband Prem Singh (27), a rickshaw puller, also died in the violence, has since taken care of her four daughters. Two of them, ages 11 and 6, are studying at a local public school. “My children missed online lessons as I don’t have a smartphone. But I gave them private lessons, spending around 200 rupees. I am looking for a job at my children’s school so I can stay close to them “, she said.

In Ghaziabad’s Loni, just across the border from northeast Delhi, around 300 children, mostly from riot-affected families, attend Sunrise Public School, opened two years ago by IIT-Delhi researcher Aasif Mujtaba. “We opened this school bearing in mind that these children will find it very difficult to cope with the trauma of the riots. We have planned a “Smile Curriculum” which involves various activities like skits, musical events, picnics to bring them out of their shell. Most were unable to interact with others after witnessing the riots. We don’t yet have a child psychiatrist who can help these children who are in a terrible state,” Mujtaba said.

At school, Asad (10) is convinced he will do well on an upcoming test, but struggles to keep his leg from shaking when interacting with others. Her father Jamaluddin (35) was beaten to death by a mob near his home in Shiv Vihar. Two years later, the child started interacting with others – with a little help from his friends. “I really like math. I don’t like Urdu because I find it hard to read. I like coming to school because I have lots of friends here and they make me happy,” he said.

Islamuddin (24), who teaches Hindi and social studies at school, can relate – he too had fled his home in Shiv Vihar during the violence. “Many students cannot return to the same schools because they were hotbeds of violence. It’s a bad memory. I knew them before the riots. They were happy. Now they even find it difficult to speak. But they got better on their own by talking to each other and making friends again,” he said.

Similarly, Mohammad Arsh (15) fled his home when rioters set it on fire along with his father’s juice shop. Since then, however, he has made huge strides, even helping with Covid relief during the lockdown. “I’ve made friends here through video games,” he said.

Then again, there are many whose lives are still turned upside down. Naresh Saini (32), a vegetable seller, was killed outside his residence in Brahmpuri. His wife is now vying for a job with the Delhi government to pay for the private school where her two children, aged 10 and 9, attend. Saini’s brother, Rajiv (44), said: “It is an uphill struggle to keep these children in private school. Once we couldn’t pay the school fees and the children were removed from the school’s WhatsApp group during online lessons.

Poonam (37), wife of Police Chief Ratan Lal (42) who was shot dead by rioters while on duty, had to leave Delhi as she was unable to properly care for his three children. “Their studies in a private school were free. But I struggled to raise my children alone and moved to Jaipur. The Delhi government promised me a job that never materialized. I have not yet received the compensation of Rs 1 crore announced by the Centre. I completed my masters in the past two years and applied for a job in Rajasthan. Everyone has forgotten us and I have to raise my children with the help of my family,” she said.

Mallika (30) couldn’t send her two children, Khushi (13) and Rehan (5), to school because she has no money to pay for their daily commute. Her husband, Musharraf (30), a driver, was killed on February 25, 2020. “I found money in a vest factory and it barely covers the monthly expenses. How can I educate my children without money? she says.

The financial distress at home was such that Zaid (17), who lost his father Aqil (40) in the violence, had to give up. When he first returned to school, his teachers placed him in a special class, as his learning levels were insufficient to keep him in Class IX and he had to follow the Class V curriculum. But pressures at home forced him to opt for a job instead. He now works as an apprentice in a box-making unit, earning Rs 12,000 for 12 hours of work: “I miss my school. I didn’t make any friends, but I liked it there. There is no one to take care of my family, so I have to work.

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