Religious riots have claimed the lives of at least 17 people and left more than 150 seriously injured in New Delhi as sectarian tensions unleashed by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda intensified.
The deadly violence — the worst sectarian clashes in the Indian capital in decades — coincided with US president Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India, where he was effusive in his praise for the country and Mr Modi’s leadership.
“India has got a phenomenal future,” Mr Trump said at a packed press conference at a luxury hotel in New Delhi on Tuesday. “You can rarely think of a place that has a better future than India — especially with leadership like Prime Minister Modi.”
But just a few kilometres away in working class neighbourhoods in the capital’s north-east, Hindus and Muslims, who are deeply divided over Mr Modi’s recent changes to India’s citizenship law, fought pitched battles with iron rods, stones, and petrol bombs.
Rioters also set fire to homes, buses, motorcycles, a petrol pump and a tyre market in more than 24 hours of destruction that began late on Monday. Hindu rioters on Tuesday set fire to a mosque in the Ashok Nagar neighbourhood, witnesses said, with one member of the mob even scaling the minaret and placing a Hindu religious flag on top.
Fires raged well into the night on Tuesday, as mobs shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, or Long Live Lord Ram, torched makeshift slum dwellings in a Muslim neighbourhood, though many of the inhabitants had already fled.
Tensions had surged on Sunday after Kapil Mishra, a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, gave an inflammatory speech demanding that police clear the streets of Muslim protesters and vowing that if they did not, citizens like him would do so once Mr Trump had left.
Among the dead was a senior police officer who was shot on Monday, while the injured included several Indian journalists, one of whom was shot while others were beaten by crowds of people while trying to document the violence.
“The mob surrounded us asking, ‘are you a journalist? Why are you taking video’,” said Arvind Gunasekar, a television journalist who was punched in head and lost a tooth. “The second question they asked was about my religion.”
Throughout the day, witnesses, including many Indian journalists, reported that police appeared to be doing little to stop the violence, or help the victims.
On Tuesday evening, witnesses also said Hindu mobs were preventing Muslim doctors and ambulances from transferring seriously wounded patients from a small infirmary to a larger hospital.
In an unusual midnight hearing — convened at the home of one judge after desperate pleas for help from an overwhelmed Muslim doctor — the Delhi High Court ordered Delhi police to “ensure the safe passage of the injured victims to the nearest available government hospital . . . by deploying all the resources at its command”.
India has been at boiling point since December, when Mr Modi’s government pushed through an amendment to the country’s citizenship laws, laying out a fast-track path to citizenship for followers of all South Asia’s major faiths — except Islam — from three nearby countries.
The government said the law was required to resolve the ambiguous legal status of people who had sought refuge in India from religious persecution in neighbouring Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
But analysts said India could have achieved the same goal with a carefully drafted, neutral refugee law that did not promise sanctuary only to followers of certain faiths. Many Muslims feel the law sends a clear signal that they are second-class citizens.
Such anxieties have been reinforced by Amit Shah, the home minister, who has repeatedly promised to undertake a citizenship verification exercise in which all who cannot prove their eligibility will face deportation.
“The fact that this has been such a high-tension period, producing such uncertainty in the minds of so many people about their status — something was going to snap at some point,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political-science professor at Ashoka University near Delhi.
“Delhi police do not seem to have done much to prevent it. And the fact that the state has abdicated raises questions about its motives,” he said. “This is an old playbook in India, which is you find a pretext to create the conditions for a pogrom. This one is beginning to have elements of that.”
Analysts warned that the latest eruption of violence will reinforce growing concerns in Washington, especially among Democrats, over India’s political direction.
“Constituencies in the US are starting to look at India in different ways than they have looked at India in the past,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There was a conviction in Washington that a good relationship with India was absolutely essential to our future. That conviction is beginning to break down.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi