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As President Donald Trump praised India’s Hindu nationalist leaders for their work on religious freedom in New Delhi Tuesday, hardline supporters of the government were rampaging through the city hunting Muslims.
Mobs tore through Muslim-majority neighbourhoods in north-east New Delhi, attacking individuals, burning homes, businesses, and places of worship, and targeting victims on religious lines. Officials reported that the death toll since Monday had reached 11 — the deadliest violence in the Indian capital in decades. More than 150 people were injured, including a journalist for the JK24 news channel who was in a serious condition after being shot, according to reports.
Footage of the shocking violence circulated on social media, showing assaults, burning buildings, and heavily bleeding men being dragged through the streets.
In one clip, a mob of police officers and locals surrounded a group of injured men lying in a pile. The mob pokes the men with long clubs, demanding they sing a patriotic song as they record the scene on their phones.
It’s all because of the Citizenship Amendment Act, a controversial new law passed in December that creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries, as long as they aren’t Muslim.
Opponents, who see the law as an attempt by the Hindu nationalist government to undermine the status of the country’s 200 million Muslims and redefine India as primarily a Hindu nation, have protested against the law for months. The latest flareup happened after a right-wing mob led by Kapil Mishra, a minister representing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi’s government, confronted protesters on Sunday and told them his supporters would forcibly remove them as soon as Trump left town.
But the mob didn't wait that long, with the violence quickly taking on religious overtones.
“Things have gotten much worse today,” Zeyad Masroor Khan, a New Delhi-based journalist, told VICE News.
Khan said he had spent the day effectively acting as a coordinator, trying to pass on information and arrange emergency support to Muslims, journalists, activists, and anyone else targeted by the mobs. In one case, he put out an urgent call for assistance for a Muslim friend-of-a-friend whose house had been surrounded by a mob; the man had to jump on to the terrace of a neighboring building to escape after the mob set his house on fire.
VICE News spoke briefly to the man, but he said he was still trying to make it to safety before he could speak further.
Khan said much of the violence was coming from pro-government hardliners, targeting Muslims, journalists, civil society activists and anyone else viewed as an opponent of their brand of far-right Hindu nationalism, although there were also reports of violence from Muslim groups.
“In one neighborhood, anyone with a beard was attacked,” he said, adding that some people were putting Hindu nationalist flags outside their homes to try to avoid being targeted.
As well as the journalist who was shot, two journalists from Indian news channel NDTV were beaten by a mob as they filmed a mosque being burned.
Nidhi Razdan, executive editor at NDTV, tweeted that the attack on her colleagues only stopped after the mob realized “they are ‘our people — Hindus.’”
The violence has been an unwelcome distraction for India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as he rolls out the carpet for the first state visit by fellow strongman Donald Trump. But Trump was reluctant to make much of the issue, declining to criticize Modi’s legislative push to sideline Indian Muslims, and dodging questions over the violence in a news conference in New Delhi Tuesday.
“We did talk about religious freedom,” Trump said. “In India, they have worked hard to have great and open religious freedom. They have really worked hard on religious freedom. I really believe that is what he [Modi] wants.”
When asked about the violence, Trump simply said that he had heard about it, but it was “up to India” to handle.
Delhi authorities have responded to the violence by imposing curfews in parts of the northeast of the city. But Atishi, a Delhi politician for the Aam Aadmi Party, said Tuesday that it was time for the army to be called in.
Meanwhile, residents of New Delhi are adapting to a new atmosphere of fear in the city.
“It’s a very tense situation. Nobody I know is going out,” said Khan, who is Muslim but lives in a Hindu-majority neighborhood. “Today is the first time in nine years living here that I’ve felt fearful.”
Cover: An injured person looks on after clashes between two groups in New Delhi, India, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Indian paramilitary troops used tear gas and smoke grenades to disperse a crowd of clashing protesters in New Delhi on Monday as violence broke out over a new citizenship law just ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to the city. (AP Photo/Dinesh Joshi)