By Muneeza Naqvi
NEW DELHI–Some sobbed quietly in the corner. Others angrily railed against India’s government. And still more Hindus and Muslims alike just sat catatonic with grief as bodies wrapped in white shrouds were wheeled in and out of a hospital mortuary in northeast Delhi.
The scenes captured the grim aftermath of the worst communal violence to hit India’s capital in nearly three decades, triggered by Hindu groups who attacked mostly Muslim protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new religion-based citizenship law. At least 25 people died and more than 200 were injured over three days of rioting, according to the most recent tally from the state-run Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital.
Family members of the deceased said the violence began spiraling Sunday soon after Kapil Mishra, a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, threatened to take action if police didn’t clear the protesters before the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s two-day state visit. By the time the American leader showed up on Monday, the violence had already spun out of control.
Delhi had already been a hotspot in deadly protests that swept across India after the parliament, dominated by Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, passed the Citizenship Amendment Act in December. The measure, which fast-tracks citizenship for religious minorities from neighboring countries but excludes Muslims, became a lightning rod in the city’s local elections this month: Some BJP members even exhorted mobs to violence against those protesting the law.
Although Modi’s party was resoundingly defeated in the Delhi vote, it still has control over the city’s police and other security agencies, which report to Home Minister Amit Shah the prime minister’s right-hand man. A two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court upbraided the city’s police for not controlling the mobs and directed officers to ensure safe passage of ambulances to hospitals.
Anger at the police was palpable among grieving relatives in the northeast Delhi hospital. Rohit Solanki, 24, said his family had been waiting for the results of an autopsy for nearly two days before it could collect the body of his older brother Rahul, who he said was shot in the neck minutes after he stepped outside to buy some milk.
“Papa had been calling the police nonstop all afternoon on Monday,” Solanki said. “The violence kept getting worse. We kept asking for help but no police came.”
Footage showed shops and cars on fire, buildings gutted, and gangs of men armed with sticks and rocks roaming the streets. At least three reporters were injured as rioters attacked them for filming the clashes. Digital news portal The Wire showed a vandalized mosque in western Delhi, where a flag featuring the Hindu god Hanuman was placed on the minaret.
On Wednesday, Modi called for calm and said police and other agencies were working “to ensure peace and harmony.” Ajit Doval, his national security adviser who has been briefing Modi and Shah, said the violence was under control and police were doing their jobs, Press Trust of India reported in the early morning hours on Thursday.
Mishra, the BJP member whose comments helped spark the violence, said he was getting death threats, in a defense of his actions posted on Twitter this week. He said that supporting the citizenship bill, asking for roads to open and “telling the truth” weren’t crimes, adding: “I don’t fear this massive hate campaign against me.”
The worst of the violence appeared to end on Tuesday, Trump’s last day in the country. At a press briefing in Delhi, the U.S. president praised Modi’s commitment to religious freedom and declined to comment on the riots. “That’s up to India,” he said.
On Wednesday, victims with bullet wounds still kept entering the northeast Delhi hospital: a man hit in the chest, a teenager with blood dripping from his shoulder. Sunil Kumar, the medical superintendent of the hospital, said at least 30% of those injured had gunshot injuries and an equal number suffered blunt force trauma.
Mohammed Imran said he had been waiting at the morgue nearly 48 hours after his 32-year-old younger brother Mohammed Furqan bled out from a bullet wound to the leg. Imran said the violence appeared preplanned, as the police failed to act while outsiders with guns entered a neighborhood where Hindus and Muslims had long coexisted peacefully.
“If the government wanted to, it could’ve stopped it on Sunday,” he said. “The police stood there and did nothing. They were even instigating the crowds.”
Most of those waiting at the morgue said the violence had abated in their neighborhoods for now, but tensions remained high.
“We are afraid,” Imran said. “Who can say what will happen tomorrow.”