Days of violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs in New Delhi have left as many as two dozen dead and hundreds injured, putting the country on edge. Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi soaked up much of the media spotlight during the American president’s visit this week, but in the background, violence played out in relation to monthslong protests over religion-based citizenship laws. The mood of the capital has been tense since Modi’s Hindu nationalist governing party enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act in December, which allows settled refugees from neighboring countries Pakistan and Bangladesh and nearby Afghanistan fast-track citizenship. The law, however, conspicuously excludes Muslim residents, sparking anger among the some 200 million Muslims living in India. The law also led members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to muse about undertaking an operation to “verify” Indian Muslims’ status as citizens writ large, a not-so-subtle threat to the country’s largest minority group.
The citizenship law has prompted prolonged protests in the capital and around the country among minority communities and the political left. The demonstrations had largely remained peaceful, but the threat of violence has hung over the country, where there is a long history of bitter communal violence and reprisals. The clashes in Delhi began Sunday, after hundreds of Muslim women staged a sit-in, blocking a road in the northeastern section of the city. The following day, a local leader from Modi’s party excoriated police, threatening after Trump left the country to mobilize a mob to clear out the protesters if the police failed to do so.
By Sunday evening, gangs of Hindus and Muslims began throwing rocks in what was escalating violence that led to burning shops and vehicles and attacks on police and journalists, resulting in hundreds of injuries. By Tuesday, the New York Times described the scene this way: “A mob of Hindu men, their foreheads marked by a saffron stripe, angrily patrolled the streets carrying iron bars, clubs and a bright blue aluminum baseball bat. They were itching for a fight. The streets in the New Delhi neighborhood were littered with scraps of bricks. All shops were closed and almost no women or children were out—except for two Hindu women brandishing sticks and threatening journalists.”
The police were called in to quell the violence, but as happened many times in the past in India, there have been questions about their allegiance and motivation to protect Muslim minority communities. “Give us permission, that’s all you need to do,” one mob leader pleaded with an officer policing the area, according to the Times. “You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score.” Hindu rioters were emboldened enough to set fire to a local mosque, chanting “Jai Shri Ram” or “hail Lord Ram.” One Hindu rioter is reported to have climbed one of the mosque’s minarets to hang a saffron flag, a Hindu nationalist symbol, from it. “The mob surrounded us, asking, ‘Are you a journalist? Why are you taking video?’ ” Arvind Gunasekar, a TV journalist who was punched in the head and lost a tooth, told Al-Jazeera. “The second question they asked was about my religion.”