On the night of February 23rd, a mob of Hindu extremists attacked different sites in North-East Delhi in what many commentators have called a targeted attack on the Muslim community that lives in the crowded districts just across the Yamuna River in the Indian capital. United States President Donald Trump was on a two-day official visit in India when New Delhi was ravaged by the worst communal riots the capital had witnessed in the last 30 years. The violence and destruction that took over Northeast Delhi for three consecutive days left 47 people dead and more than 270 wounded; more people are battling for life in the city’s hospitals; corpses are still emerging from the drains that tell of the brutality unleashed in the city.
The neighborhoods where the violence unfurled unchecked under the police’s eyes, is where peaceful protests and sit-ins were underway against the divisive citizenship law (CAA). Women from the area had organized a sit-in in Jafrabad to protest against the law passed last December. A law that is meant to protect non-Muslim minorities from neighboring states but it is considered discriminatory against the Muslim community that in India amounts to about 200 million people. The law, matched with another law, the National Peoples’ Register (NPR) that would put many Muslims at risk of losing citizenship, has sparked a wave of peaceful marches and manifestations across the country since last December, as protesters claim that the CAA goes against the very principles of the country’s secular constitution.
The images of the now deserted streets in Delhi, patrolled by the army and littered with debris, show shops, houses and cars charred from fires; all belonging to a Muslim community that has lived side by side with its Hindu neighbors for decades. These images are a reminder that inciting communal hatred can have deadly consequences in India. However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been enforcing a systematic marginalization of religious minorities since it came to power in 2014. But it is since Modi’s re-election last May in a landslide victory that he has taken up an even more muscular version of the Hindu nationalism his party embodies. The steps that finally led to the Delhi carnage last week were built up steadily over the past six years.
From words to violence
After a poisonous campaign intended at demonizing anti-CAA protesters by calling them “anti-national” and “traitors”, the party suffered a heavy defeat in the latest state elections in New Delhi, where Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Advi Party or “Common Man Party” were reconfirmed for a second mandate. The recent violence in the capital was sparked by a vitriolic speech by Kapil Mishra, a prominent BJP leader and ex-member of Delhi’s legislative assembly held in Northeast Delhi’s Babarpur, a Delhi Assembly constituency, near to where some thousand women had been sitting in a peaceful protest against the CAA in the wake of South Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh’s women protest. He gave an ultimatum to the police: clear the Jafrabad protest within three days or else he and his supporters would take the situation into their own hands.
On the same night, the first wave of violence rolled out against the protesters and the Muslim residents. Hindus’ houses had been marked with saffron-colored flags in order to be selectively spared by the attackers. Police stood by: their inaction enabled the violence to continue unabated for 72 hours. On the second day of looting, while Mr. Trump was cheerfully shaking hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a highly televised ceremonial, Northeast Delhi was ravaged again by Hindu right-wing extremists brandishing bats and sticks and targeting Muslim properties. A mosque in Ashok Nagar was desecrated and set ablaze in a scene that was an eerie reminder of a smaller-scale Babri Masjid incident when the mosque was demolished 1992 by a frenzied mob of Hindu fanatics.
Despite the narrative channeled by mainstream media outlets, details of these 72 hours of violence against the Muslim community in Northeast Delhi have begun to emerge in all their rawness. Entire districts under the throes of ferocious groups of Hindu extremists who jump police barricades, throw stones and incendiary bombs against which the local Muslim community braced and fought back while their houses burned down. Images of a man shooting at demonstrators a few steps away from agents amidst stone-pelting, or those of a group of men mercilessly beating a Muslim man huddled on the floor and bleeding from his head are just some of the many disturbing snapshots that have made it out, despite the mob actively trying to impede leaks by threatening journalist covering the riots. Muslims’ families have begun leaving mixed neighborhoods after these days of horror, barricades have been erected in mixed neighborhoods. Relief camps for those who lost everything are inadequate.
Silence and collusion
It took three days for the authorities to intervene and put an end to the urban guerrilla war by imposing restrictions and deploying special forces in the ravaged areas, while flames were still rising to the sky. After three days of silence, Modi called for calm and “peace and harmony” to be restored.
“The Delhi violence will hopefully stop, but it is just an event in a larger chain. If the literature on riots is any guide, the Delhi riots look more like a prelude to a possible pogrom, or at least ghettoization” wrote Pratab Bhanu Mehta in an opinion piece for the Indian Express, “The state looks for a pretext to crack down; the crackdown is disproportionately targeted at particular communities, especially their businesses; the police and political establishment are bystanders or egging on the violence”.
Amit Shah, India’s divisive and majoritarian Home Minister and Modi’s second-in-command, who is also in charge of Delhi’s Police, has faced criticism over the violence in Delhi and opposition parties have called for his resignation. Writer and activist Harsh Mander has filed a petition to the Delhi’s High Court seeking an independent probe into the Delhi riots and a plea to condemn and take action against hate speech by political leaders. Another BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, was not the only one to indulge in hate speech and inciting violence. Just weeks earlier, BJP’s Anurag Thakur addressed a rally on nationwide protests by Muslims barking “Traitors of the country, shoot them”. Yet the judge who was to hear the case, the same who slammed Delhi Police over the riots in northeast Delhi and emphasized the need for urgent action, Judge Muralidhar, was suddenly transferred to another Court.
As the city is faced with the aftermath of sectarian violence, memories from the 1984 anti-Sikh Riots in the capital (sparked by the killing of PM Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards) and the 2002 Gujarat riots, a full-fledged anti-Muslim pogrom that left an estimated 2,000 people dead, are still a vivid memory in the eyes of many Indians. “As a journalist who has covered Modi’s political career since 2002 when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, I have witnessed his lust for power and his ease with bloodshed from close quarters”, wrote Indian Journalist Rana Ayyub for TIME magazine. In February 2002, as Gujarat burned for days and a thousand Muslims were killed, leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party and its ally, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, gave speeches provoking Hindus to teach Muslims a lesson. Modi himself gave the most incendiary speech mocking riot victims. A script that has just played out in the National Capital.
Photo: Money Sharma / AFP
If you liked our analysis, stories, videos, dossier, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).