Sectarian Violence In India Marks New Low For Hindu-Muslim Relations

For New Delhi’s Muslim community, last week’s Friday prayers were a tense affair. Heavily armed guards watched on as they gathered at the city’s mosques — at least four of which had recently been on fire. Inside, imams called for peace and patience; outside, paramilitary police officers roamed the streets. It was the end of a week of unprecedented sectarian violence in India’s capital city.

India’s Descent Into Chaotic Religious Violence

The unrest erupted on the eve of Donald Trump’s much-heralded state visit. As the US President met dignitaries and shared warm words with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the streets of New Delhi were roiling. 

Hindus and Muslims charged at one another in bloody street battles. Both sides were heavily armed: iron rods, heavy chunks of brick, and, in some cases, guns. Reports of mutilation, torture and victims being burnt alive were widespread. At least 42 were killed, with hundreds more injured. The majority of the casualties appear to be Muslims.  

“I wanted to cry and scream. Something inside of me died during those three days,” M.A. Anwar, a New Delhi-based doctor, told AP.

The violence spiraled from ostensibly peaceful protests against the government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). For India’s Muslims, the new law represents one prong of an Islamophobic pincer attack. The CAA’s stated goal is to defend refugees coming from neighboring countries — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan — so long as they’re not Muslim.

Modi’s Persecution of Indian Muslims

The CAA is a cynical effort to marginalize India’s 200-million strong Islamic population, critics say. They point also to Modi’s new National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is likely to deprive many Muslims of their Indian citizenship, in effect rendering them stateless.           

The legislative maneuvering comes at a time of wider distrust of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a group regarded by many as Hindu nationalists. Last year authorities cracked-down on the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, summarily stripping it of its autonomy and enforcing a military lock-down. 

Focus has also fallen on the BJP’s treatment of vocally dissenting officials. Justice S. Muralidhar, a Delhi high court judge, last week criticised the police’s handling of the unrest, and accused Modi’s party of inciting violence. In an apparent act of retribution, state officials had him promptly transferred out of the city.     

The move appeared consistent with what human rights groups describe as “impunity” for politicians stirring discontent. 

“These riots… were preceded by the hateful speeches made by political leaders,” said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India. “It is the ongoing impunity that the political leaders enjoy which encourages them and other non-state actors to stoke more violence.” 

Modi denies any role in inciting the violence, tardily tweeting last week his wish for “peace and brotherhood”. He must tread a careful path, however. Rehabilitating his reputation on the international stage after the Kashmir crack-down is crucial for the 69-year-old leader.  

To that end, he will have been delighted by Trump’s decision to largely ignore the unrest (the president said only that he was satisfied that Modi had worked “really hard” on religious freedom). 

International Criticism of India’s Anti-Muslim Prejudice

Not all world leaders are so sympathetic, however. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan compared Delhi’s sectarian violence to Kristallnacht, an episode of 1930s Germany when Nazi thugs massacred innocent Jews and destroyed their businesses.  

As his foremost regional rival, Modi will happily disregard Khan’s condemnation. Ignoring India’s bleak economic picture will be harder. Growth has been steadily decelerating in recent months, and, as fears of a global recession linked to the coronavirus outbreak mount, no upswing is forecast.         

Faltering finances may see BJP redouble their Hindu nationalist rhetoric as an effort to keep public scrutiny off of the economy. The full consequences are hard to predict, but for India’s Muslim community, the worst may still be to come.