NEW DELHI – Rioters roamed the streets with iron rods and wooden sticks, demanding to know whether people were Hindus or Muslims. Mosques were damaged and shops were set ablaze, sending smoke billowing high into the air. People with gunshot wounds and blunt trauma from hurled stones rushed into a nearby hospital.
Two days of communal violence in the northeastern part of Delhi have left at least 13 people dead and 150 injured in the worst such clashes in India’s capital in decades.
The violence happened to unfold as President Donald Trump made his first official visit to India and conducted meetings Tuesday in the tony central area of the city home to central government buildings and embassies.
The riots represent a serious escalation of tensions after months of protests in response to a controversial citizenship law and growing frictions between supporters and opponents of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Since winning reelection last year in a landslide victory, Modi has moved swiftly to implement his party’s agenda of Hindu primacy in India, a multireligious democracy founded as a secular nation. The citizenship law, which provides a fast track to citizenship for migrants from six religions – excluding Islam – is the most contentious step yet. While India is a Hindu-majority nation, Muslims make up about 14 percent of its 1.3 billion people.
Hundreds of thousands of people have participated in peaceful protests against the law. Some protests have also turned violent, and the government mounted a crackdown, storming university campuses and making widespread arrests. Nearly 20 people were killed in protests in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, in December.
On Tuesday night, police had barricaded the road to Maujpur, a poor and densely populated neighborhood of narrow lanes that reported some of the worst violence. Isolated gunshots punctuated the tense silence. All of the shops were shuttered.
This week’s violence in northeastern Delhi is the worst in the capital since at least 1992, when there were nationwide riots, and possibly since the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
The trigger for the clashes came when Kapil Mishra, a local leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, threatened to clear a sit-in mounted by protesters, nearly all Muslim women, against the citizenship law. He said he would take no action while Trump was visiting, but that if police did not move the protesters soon, he would take matters into his own hands.
What happened next remains unclear and chaotic, but groups of Hindus and Muslims hurled stones at one another Monday. Adil Khan, 29, lives in the neighborhood of Kardampuri and said Muslims gathered in the street to defend themselves after a message went out that a mob was massing to attack. By the next morning, the mob was closer.
“From our house, we could see the mobs burning vehicles and shops,” he said. “The mob was very close. I was scared for my life.”
In a nearby area, groups of Hindu activists bearing sticks roamed the streets underneath Bilal Rabbani’s house, pounding on the hoods of passing cars and forcing them to chant “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Victory to Lord Ram,” a favorite slogan of Modi’s Hindu nationalist ruling party. Rabbani said supporters of the citizenship law – who appeared to be outsiders, rather than people who lived in the neighborhood – also set fire to Muslim shops as police looked on.
“People used to say that things will change for Muslims if [Modi] wins and I never believed them,” said Rabbani, 25, who is training to be a librarian. “But I can see it now.”
Several journalists were attacked. Saurabh Shukla, a reporter with New Delhi Television, said he and a colleague were on an overpass filming a mosque being damaged on Tuesday when they were spotted by rioters. The rioters came and began punching and beating his colleague with sticks, damaging three of his teeth. He and his colleague were allowed to leave only after Shukla showed them a string of prayer beads to prove he was Hindu and deleted the footage from their phones, Shukla said.
Police struggled to contain the violence, and witnesses said some joined in at points. A Reuters correspondent said he saw policemen encouraging supporters of the law to throw stones at Muslim protesters. Mohammad Sajid, 40, who works at a shop, said police arrived in his Muslim-dominated neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon and fired tear gas. When angry residents began to throw stones, the police opened fire, he said, hitting his younger brother in his back.
He said he saw five others with gunshot wounds. “It’s a dark day,” said Sajid. The “police shouldn’t have fired.” A spokesman for the Delhi police did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment on the incident.
On Tuesday night, nearly a dozen injured people arrived on motorbikes, rickshaws and ambulances at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, several with gunshot injuries. Rajesh Kumar Singh, 36, came with a gunshot wound in his thigh. Singh’s brother Amit said he was shot by masked men near his home and blamed Muslims for the attack.
“Why are they attacking us? If they are against the [citizenship] law, they should tell the government,” said Singh.
Sajid, the shop worker, said the area was plunged into bloodshed when members of the ruling party decided to confront opponents of the law. For two months, the protest against the citizenship law in the area had unfolded “without any violence,” he said. “Things turned ugly when the [law’s] supporters came.”
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The Washington Post’s Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, India, contributed to this report.