Field Notes: In Search Of Meaning & Safety


“Are you sure it is this way?” Tarunam checked with her colleague Dilshad as they squeezed past a loud patch of construction going on in a narrow lane of one of the neighbourhoods in northeast Delhi that was hit by riots in February 2020.  

The sun was high in the sky, and they were fasting for Ramzan this year.  Later, when the ice was broken between us, they would admit to being hungry and looking forward to Eid the next day. But for now, they silently marched deeper and deeper into the tangle of bylanes before arriving at the house of Samina, a beneficiary of one of the widow pension schemes run by the NGO they worked for. 

Samina was a 65-year-old Muslim woman who had pieced together her house, which was looted in the riots, making it her home once again. The two shops that her husband and son used to run were burnt down. Her son was arrested in the murder case of a Hindu man. Her husband had a heart attack shortly afterwards. She lived with her youngest son, who spent most of his time going to court for his brother’s hearings for bail. 

The Rs 2,000 she got from Aman Biradari, the NGO run by peace worker Harsh Mander, had helped in a small way in rebuilding her life, but she valued much more the company of Dilshad and Tarunam who were always a phone call away. 

I had met all three while working on our two-part series on the legal persecution by the state of Mander, a critic of the Modi government, who federal agencies and the Delhi police were investigating in four cases that were triggered by the national child body report that was shown to be false by other statutory bodies. Still, the FIRs were filed, the government cut off funding for Mander’s NGOs, and domestic donors distanced themselves. 

One part of our story was about the impact of such aggressive state action, not just on Mander but also on the people who worked with him and the most vulnerable beneficiaries of the humanitarian work his NGOs were running. 

Mander told us he had worked very hard to keep as many programs running as possible, finding alternate funding sources or keeping the existing ones by walking away from the programs he had built. 

When I met them, neither Dilshad nor Tarunam had been paid in months. Samina was still waiting for a pension but expected it would come in a lump sum soon. The two NGO workers believed that “Harsh sir” cared for them and was as concerned as they were about the lateness, and they would get the money "as soon as Harsh sir got it". That is why they did not want to leave Aman Biradari: for the respect and safety they had as people and Muslims in their workplace. 

Both of them were victims of the Islamophobia that became so pervasive in the ten years the BJP was in power, surviving varying degrees of harassment. But there was none of that where they worked now. 

For Tarunam’s mother, her daughter’s safety was everything, said Tarunam, who was 30, the youngest of five sisters and a brother, all of whom were married and had moved away. Her father had died of an illness ten years ago. She had been taking care of her ageing and ailing mother for a long time. 

“I really like it. I feel like I’ve spent the most time with my mother,” she said. “I’m not scared of her being unwell, but I sometimes wish she would not grow older.”

Her last job as a security guard at the India Habitat Centre paid Rs 25,000 per month, but it was far from her home in northeast Delhi, and her mother would fret until she got home from work. There was the fear of her safety as a woman in a city that is unsafe for women, and because she wasn’t just Muslim, but a Muslim woman. 

Just a few days before we met, Tarunam said a group of men had menacingly shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ when she was coming down from the bus. A bus conductor once, mistaking her for a Hindu, pointed to women in burqas and said “they” (Muslims) were  “treacherous” after the women gave another passenger some wrong information about a bus stop.

But working with Mander and her colleagues made her feel safe. 

“When I go to the office, I feel like I belong. I feel safe. You don’t feel the kind of division you feel everywhere else,” she said. “Many Muslims are now scared to go out. For women, it is an even bigger issue. But when I go to the office, it doesn’t feel like I’ve left home.”

Aman Biradari workers with Delhi riots survivor Samina in northeast Delhi./ BETWA SHARMA

It wasn’t just the safety she enjoyed at work. Tarunam said she had been searching for meaning her whole life, and when the riots happened, and NGOs were looking for volunteers to fill out government forms, distribute rations, and help the displaced, she signed up. 

Tarunam said she had seen activists who came and helped people in times of need and the respect people had for them. She, too, wanted to help people, feel like she had made a difference, and feel valued. 

She makes less than she did as a security guard, but she loves her work, especially the weekly meetings she helps organise for the riot-affected women. The women gather for two hours to talk, listen, and take a short break from their busy and demanding lives. 

At first, the women wouldn’t come because they didn’t understand what mental health was about and what they were supposed to do. But then, they slowly started coming, taking those two hours out for themselves. 

There were drawing sessions, during which some women discovered they were actually very good artists, important information was exchanged, and marriages were arranged, said Tarunam, with a wide grin on her face. 

“They make beautiful art and get completely lost in it,” Tarunam said. “Some women said they remember drawing in school. The older women said it was their first time holding a pen.”

“I want to work in the NGO field because it brings you close to people and the blessings you get,” she said. 

Most of the people Mander employed at his NGOs have left. Dilshad and Tarunam are among the last few remaining. But at some point, if things continue to be hard-pressed for Mander and his NGOs, Tarunam will have to move. 

“I can share that with Harsh sir, who explains things really well. This office is very good to me. I don't want to move,” she said. “My heart is saying not to move.” 

You can read Betwa Sharma’s stories here and here

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