NEW DELHI — “Run,” said Sanjay, a Hindu man in his mid-thirties, who identifies as a “pro-CAA” protestor and requested his last name not appear. “We need to run now.”
The CAA refers to the Citizenship Amendment Act, a new law that critics say is discriminatory and makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship.
As he spoke, there was a loud explosion, and the bridge between the two neighbourhoods of Babarpur and Maujpur in India’s national capital of New Delhi was engulfed in a cloud of tear gas.
But twenty minutes later, as the tear gas dispersed, Sanjay and his fellow rioters returned. This time, the rioters were more in number, several raised Jai Shri Ram slogans in the middle of the street, and now there were no police in sight. Meaning Glory to Lord Rama, Jai Shri Ram is inextricably linked with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has become a war-cry for acts of violence by Hindu extremists against other faiths.
“The police can’t do anything,” said Sanjay, the pro CAA protestor, as the air filled with billowing smoke from raging fires, and explosions sounded in the distance. “This will only end when we say it ends.”
As riots in India’s national capital continued into their third day, US President Donald Trump was in the city’s fortified central precincts extolling the virtues of Indian democracy in the company of Modi, who was once denied a US visa for presiding over just the sort of riot that now threatens to engulf Indian’s national capital. US First Lady Melania Trump visited a Delhi government school where she attended a “Happiness Class”.
Back in northeast Delhi, the violence showed no signs of abating. HuffPost India visited the neighbourhoods of Jafrabad, Maujpur, and Babarpur to find shops had been set on fire, homes destroyed and large gangs of men of all ages armed with sticks, rods, bricks, and large chunks of cement. The very few visible policemen seemed hopelessly overwhelmed. At least 10 people have died in the violence so far, including one policeman. One journalist has been shot (but is stable for now, and four other journalists have been attacked.
In the adjacent neighbourhood of Ashok Nagar, a widely circulated video showed a group of men climbing onto the dome of a mosque in the city’s Ashok Nagar locality to wrench off the crescent moon and replace it with a saffron flag associated with the Hindu faith and co-opted by rightwing Hindu organisations patronised by the BJP.
Speaking to journalists around the same time this video went viral, President Trump addressed a press conference in which he said he had discussed religious freedom with Prime Minister Modi.
“We did talk about religious freedom and I will say that PM Modi was incredible and he said he wants people to have religious freedom in India…and very strongly,” Trump said in reply to a question, according to India Today. “He said in India they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom. When you look back and what is going on elsewhere, relatively they (India) have worked really hard on religious freedom.”
Modi was not present for the press conference — keeping up an incredible streak of governing a country of over 1.2 billion people for almost six years, across two administrations, without ever holding an unscripted press conference with the Indian media. The violence, Trump’s seeming lack of concern, and Modi’s absence marks a surreal moment where a full-blown religious riot in the national capital was rendered invisible.
“Without asking Trump to wade in on sensitive Indian domestic matters, it still would have been helpful and leader-like for the two, in their joint press statement, to condemn the violence, acknowledge those tragically killed, and appeal for calm,” said Alyssa Ayres, an expert on India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.
If Hindu rioters like Sanjay are to be believed, the violent riots are a response to a peaceful demonstration by a group of mostly elderly Muslim women in a neighbourhood called Shaheen Bagh.
The demonstration in Shaheen Bagh began on Dec 15 2019 as a response to the Delhi Police’s violent suppression of protests against a controversial new citizenship law called the CAA. The Act provides one-time amnesty and citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and conspicuously discriminates against Muslims. The new law has been accompanied by the demand, by members of the ruling BJP, for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to weed out so-called foreigners.
Taken together, the CAA and the NRC have become a dog-whistle for anti-Muslim violence. A day before the violence broke out in northeast Delhi, a prominent member of the BJP was spotted in the neighbourhood inciting crowds.
For the first two days, media reports suggested the clashes were between Hindu and Muslim crowds stationed at opposite ends of roads, alleyways and highway dividers. On Monday, there were reports that a gun-toting Muslim assailant had been apprehended by the police, even as graphic visuals showed battered Muslim men sprawled on the streets and forced to chant Hindu slogan. By Tuesday it appeared that the dynamics of this clash had turned into a majoritarian assault on the city’s Muslim community.
While rioters like Sanjay claimed they had been incited into violence by the protests of Muslim women in Shaheen Bagh, they struggled to explain exactly why women sitting peacefully on a road had prompted such violent reprisals.
“They have been blocking the road for so long. They have been creating traffic jams for so long,” he said. “The Hindus will not stop until the Muslims stop the protests in Shaheen Bagh and Seelampur.”
Less than two kilometres from where this reporter interviewed Sanjay, Hindu men had set the shop of a Muslim man alight. As a few policemen ran towards the shop, men standing nearby shouted Jai Shri Ram.
“Everyone know[s] which is a Hindu shop and which is a Muslim shop,” said Sandeep, another rioter who gave only his first name. “This is only tit for tat. They will burn Hindu shops, we will burn four more Muslims ones.”
The fires continued to rage as darkness fell over New Delhi, and President Trump attended a glittering banquet hosted by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind.
On the menu: pricey morel mushrooms that cost upto Rs 30,000 ($400 approx) a kilogram, a “regal” leg of lamb, biryani and a special dal exclusive to the kitchen of the Indian President.