The family lives in a rented one-room flat on the third floor of a building.
Saturday (24 October) being Navami — the ninth day of the Navratas when Hindus fast and pray to female deities — the temple in the house is adorned with flowers and lights. A little girl enters with a plate full of poori and halwa that she has received from a neighbouring house, but Bhagat Lal promptly tells her to keep the food on the table and go back and play with friends in the street.
He, however, allows her eldest daughter Naina (name changed), who is 15, to join the conversation.
Naina’s younger sister, who is 13 and enrolled in Class 8, went missing on the evening of 18 October. She was rescued by the police on 23 October from Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly district, which is about 300 kilometres away.
The girl was brought to New Delhi the same day, but has been in police custody since then.
Naina says her mother left early on Saturday for the girl’s medical examination to ascertain any sexual assault, and her statement to a magistrate.
The girl was kidnapped by a vegetable vendor named Mohammed Dildar Qureshi, who lives in a room amid a cluster of jhuggis in the same area.
Newspapers, particularly Hindi ones, have reported the case as a Muslim man posing as Hindu to trap the minor girl and making her elope with her. Several publications have called it “love jihad”.
Bhagat Lal narrates the sequence of events since March, when Dildar, 25, moved into the area.
“We did not ever see him before. He appeared shortly after lockdown as a sabziwala with a hand cart. I never had any chance of interacting with him as my wife dealt with him, of course,” he says and directs Naina to narrate how Dildar and her younger sister got talking.
She says that the colony knew him as an extremely sweet-spoken vendor. “He would not let any customer leave his cart without buying something, even if it meant giving vegetables at a throwaway price on occasions.”
“For several months, we knew him as Rahul Thakur, the same surname as us. That’s the name he told us. He would enthusiastically participate in badmouthing Muslims during lockdown when, you know, everyone was speaking ill about Muslims for spreading Coronavirus,” she says.
Naina says that initially, the contact of her sister with Dildar was limited to handing him money for the vegetables.
“Mummy would bring the vegetables and would tell her to go downstairs and give money to ‘bhaiya’. But after some months, Dildar offered that he would buy vegetables in bulk from the bigger mandi at cheaper rates and deliver them to our house. We agreed.”
“He took our phone numbers for the purpose. None of us, however, suspected anything because he was doing the same with several houses,” she says.
The family learnt about Dildar’s Muslim identity only in September, when his pregnant and physically-challenged “sister” had to be rushed to a hospital in an emergency.
“He had told us that he hailed from UP’s Badaun district and lived in Delhi with his sister, who can’t walk. When we learnt about the woman’s deteriorating health, some women visited her. That’s when she revealed that she was not Dildar’s sister but his wife, and he was not Rahul but Dildar,” she says.
Some neighbours confronted Dildar, who replied that he had no option but to pose as a Hindu as he knew the residents wouldn’t buy vegetables from him otherwise, says Bhagat Lal.
“You do remember how no one was buying vegetables and fruits from Muslims, right?” he says.
When the woman was admitted to the hospital, Dildar disappeared. He re-appeared only after her death in October. In less than two weeks, he disappeared again, this time with Bhagat Lal’s daughter.
On 18 October, Naina’s sister left the house around 3 pm saying she was going to her friend Lakshmi’s (name changed) house and would be back by 5 pm. When she did not, the family enquired with Lakshmi’s parents who told them that she had left their house before 4 pm. When all efforts to find her proved futile, the family approached the police late in the evening.
An FIR (number 661/2020) for kidnapping — IPC section 363 — was registered at Mehrauli police station the same day against unidentified accused.
The next day, the police found in a CCTV footage that the girl, wearing a top and jeans and totally empty-handed, was walking out of the colony with Dildar, who carried a backpack.
“We were stunned. We had never imagined this,” says Bhagat Lal.
Around 2.30 am on the intervening night of 22 and 23 October, he received a call from police that the girl has been traced to Bareilly.
“I immediately went to the station, from where we left for Bareilly in the police vehicle,” he says.
The team reached Bareilly around 8 am, and found the girl around 2 pm with Dildar in a bus headed for Himachal Pradesh. “The police caught Dildar by the collar and pushed him inside the vehicle. My daughter looked very scared. But when I gestured to her that I was not angry, she rushed to me and told me she is happy to see me,” he says.
“You know how kids are. They are lured easily. We did not talk much in the vehicle, but she told me Dildar had promised her many things like gifts and new clothes. She also told me that she wanted to return as soon as she sat inside the bus from Delhi to Bareilly, but Dildar kept telling her that a great life is in store for her,” he says.
Bhagat Lal hails from Rajasthan, and has been living in Delhi with his wife for the past 20 years. He works as an electrician and has three daughters and a son.
Naina takes me to the house of Ahmed Hussain Qureshi, who lives in a one-room tenement among jhuggis less than a hundred metres from Bhagat Lal’s house.
Dildar is his son-in-law. His daughter, Soni, died on 6 October during pregnancy.
Hands trembling and throat choking, Ahmed Hussain demands Dildar be hanged to death.
“He killed my daughter. Then he ran away with a Thakur’s girl. If he is not hanged, he will ruin more lives,” he says.
Ahmed Hussain says Soni struggled to walk even as a child, but her condition deteriorated over the years. So much that she could no longer stand without support. In June 2019, he married her to Dildar, but did so “most reluctantly”.
Dildar had only recently begun living in the area, but the two entered into a relationship. “Soni begged me to marry her to him. She said she would not get anybody better than him. I had to give in. What concerned me most was that Dildar did not share much details about his background,” he says.
Dildar told them he hailed from Badaun, was from Qureshi caste and was an orphan. “When my daughter insisted, I called a maulvi and made them read the nikahnama. Shortly later, Dildar shifted to Mustafabad with her,” he says.
Muslim-dominated Mustafabad area in northeast Delhi was among the colonies that saw communal riots in February.
“Dildar returned to our colony in March, after lockdown. We gave them a one-room set adjoining our house. We learnt that Soni had had a miscarriage last year,” he says.
Soni is survived by her parents and six siblings.
A man who introduces himself as Soni’s cousin, Sanjay, says Dildar was not of good character, which Soni realised soon after her marriage.
(When asked about his Hindu-sounding name, Sanjay said he was a Christian and did not wish to reveal more details about his name).
He says that in September, a heavily pregnant Soni had to be admitted to a hospital as she was very ill. The same day, Dildar disappeared without telling anybody.
“He would do it often — disappear after spats or in crisis situations. So we did not make much of it. But this time, he appeared only after Soni died,” Sanjay says.
Soni was discharged from hospital on 24 September and died of ailment on 6 October, with an eight-month-old child in her womb.
Soni’s elder sister, who does not wish to be named, says if anybody from the “Hindu colony” had checked with them about Dildar’s character, she would have said that he was a bad person and should not be allowed inside homes.
Sanjay adds, “Now those people are making a big deal about Dildar posing as Rahul. I ask, why could they not come to our house and meet us once to inquire about him? Was it not their duty to make inquiries about a sabziwalla who had suddenly appeared in their colony?”
“The truth is, none of them came here even when Soni died. Her body was prepared for burial right here, in the open. They all saw it,” he says.
Some neighbours gather, and begin discussing the case. They say Dildar should be hanged and all “newcomers” in the area investigated.