Thousands of paramilitary police were deployed to restore order on the streets of New Delhi on Wednesday after days of religious violence in the Indian capital that has left at least 20 dead and 189 people injured.
In his first public acknowledgment of the rioting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to call for calm: “I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times,” Mr Modi wrote, as police stepped up their presence in the working-class districts where mobs had roamed unchecked since Sunday night.
At the Guru Tej Bahadur Hospital, doctors said they had struggled to cope with the flow of critically injured people — many shot and others severely beaten in the worst sectarian clashes in New Delhi in decades.
“There were so many people brought dead on the spot in ambulances, cars and bikes,” said a young physician, who requested anonymity. “There were so many injuries. They were beaten up with sticks, iron rods . . . There were so many doctors, yet we fell short of manpower because there were so many wounded.”
Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, said the police had been unable to control the situation and urged Mr Modi’s government — which controls Delhi’s police force and its security — to summon the army to restore order and public confidence, as some Muslim residents said they were leaving the city.
“The army should be called in and curfew imposed in rest of affected areas immediately,” Mr Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
Religious tensions have been rising in India since Mr Modi’s government introduced a new law that incorporates religious criteria into the country’s citizenship policies for the first time. Public threats to deport Muslims who cannot prove their eligibility for Indian citizenship have emboldened rightwing Hindu extremists.
On Monday and Tuesday, marauding mobs — including Hindu youths affiliated with an organisation called Hindu Sena, or “Hindu Army” — attacked people in Muslim-dominated areas of north-east New Delhi, while arsonists set fire to shops, a mosque, cars, buses and makeshift dwellings.
As authorities on Wednesday moved to clamp down on the violence, a curfew was imposed in the affected areas. The streets, empty save for a heavy police presence, were littered with bullets, smashed glass and burnt motorbikes, while many shops displayed bullet holes.
During the campaign for this month’s bitterly fought local elections in Delhi, Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party stoked communal tension, describing the contest — ultimately won by Mr Kejriwal’s centrist Aam Aadmi party — as a contest between “India” and [Muslim] “Pakistan.”
“This communalisation and tension has been building up over quite a while, and it was very much part of the Delhi elections,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a professor of political science at Ashoka University, near New Delhi.
“The confident claim that the poison that the BJP leaders were injecting [into public discourse] would disappear after the elections was not true,” Mr Mehta added.