How the Indian government watched Delhi burn

How the Indian government 7

By Samanth Subramanian

Two things
happened in Delhi on Tuesday, and the gulf between them illustrated India’s
wild, alarming swerve from normalcy. At the Presidential palace, Donald Trump
concluded a two-day visit by attending a ceremonial dinner: an evening of
gold-leaf-crusted mandarin oranges, wild Himalayan morels, and gifts of Kashmiri
silk carpets. Half a dozen miles away, northeast Delhi was convulsed with
violence.

Since
Sunday, mobs had been destroying the shops and homes of Muslims, vandalizing
mosques, and assaulting Muslims on the streets. In their chants of “Jai Shri Ram,”
praising a Hindu deity, their loyalties were clear. The attackers were Hindu
nationalists, part of a right wing that has been empowered by Prime Minister
Narendra Modi’s government; many of them were even members of his party.

The Delhi
police, who are supervised by Modi’s home minister, seemed to side with the
mobs; one video caught cops smashing CCTV cameras, while another showed them
helping men gather stones to throw. Several reports said that policemen stood
by while the attackers went about their business. In a few spurts, Muslims
retaliated, and the streets witnessed periods of full-scale clashes.

A policeman
was killed, and an intelligence officer was murdered and dumped in a drain. At
least thirty-eight people have died: shot, beaten, burned. At the Trump
banquet, the Navy band played “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” The mayhem came
after a winter of protest. Since early December, millions of Indians have
assembled across the country to object to a new law that promises fast-tracked
Indian citizenship to Pakistani, Afghan, and Bangladeshi refugees of every
major South Asian faith except Islam.

The law is
limited in its scope but momentous in how overtly it separates Indianness from
Islam. It’s a move characteristic of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) and
its allied groups, who regard India’s two hundred million Muslims as an
undesirable part of an ideal Hindu nation. The protesters against the law have,
in nearly every case, been peaceful, but their sit-ins and marches have been
met with force by the government: tear gas, house raids, arbitrary detentions,
police brutality, Internet shutdowns. In speeches, Modi’s colleagues have
suggested that dissenters should be shot.

The
B.J.P.’s top leaders the Prime Minister included seem to excel at creating
conditions in which violence can unfold. On Sunday, in Delhi, a local B.J.P.
politician named Kapil Mishra gave an ultimatum to the police: clear the roads
of protesters or allow his followers to do so. His speech was inflammatory, but
he faced no trouble from his party; the B.J.P. has a record of tolerating, and
even rewarding, members who threaten to take the law into their own hands.
(Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu cleric who regularly delivers hate-filled speeches
and whose supporters burned a train in 2007, is now a B.J.P. chief minister of
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.)

The
government can claim that the gangs seeking out protesters and Muslims have
acted of their own volition, outside the Party’s control. But the B.J.P.’s
habitual rhetoric stirring up hatred, advocating force, calling opponents
“traitors”not only incites mob savagery but also gives attackers the confidence
that they’ll never be prosecuted. Vigilantes who, while insisting that the cow
is sacred to Hindus, have been lynching Muslims and lower-caste Hindus on the
suspicion of smuggling cows or owning beef are operating out of a similar sense
of security. When the state knows that its right-wing affiliates will carry out
the kind of violence that it cannot and should not pursue, then all it has to
do is nothing.

The slyness
of this tactic is not without precedent. In 2002, when Modi was the chief
minister of Gujarat, a weeks-long pogrom against Muslims left as many as two
thousand people dead. Then, too, the police assisted the mobs of Hindu
nationalists or, at best, did little to stop their rampage. Two witnesses later
recalled that Modi had instructed the police to stand down while the brutality
unfolded. One of those witnesses was found dead in his car the following year,
while the other was sentenced to life in prison, last June, in a decades-old
murder case that was suddenly resurrected.

Modi was
cleared of complicity in the 2002 riots by an investigative team appointed by
the Supreme Court. But he is known to hold the reins of power so tightly, and
to govern so absolutely, that it’s difficult to believe that Gujarat or Delhi
could burn under his gaze without his sanction.

This
arm’s-length orchestration of anarchy has, in the past few days, made for some
surreal scenes. Television journalists went out to work wearing cricket
helmets, for safety; videos showed Muslim slums on fire; and the death toll
climbed. Yet Ajit Doval, India’s national-security adviser, visited northeast
Delhi on Wednesday and said, “Everything is normal. People of all communities
are living in peace and love.”

In the
Delhi High Court, on Wednesday, the deputy commissioner of police claimed that
he had not seen any footage of Mishra’s incendiary speech, even though it had
been the spark applied to the tinder. Modi’s home minister, in charge of law
and order, made no statements. Modi himself restricted his comments to just two
tweets; in fact, he stayed away from the customary joint press conference at
the end of Trump’s visit, leaving the American President to field questions
about the turmoil. “He wants people to have religious freedom, and very
strongly,” Trump said, of Modi. On Thursday, Modi’s Solicitor General told the
High Court that it was “not conducive” to investigate B.J.P. politicians for hate
speech even though his government has kept a few key Kashmiri politicians under
house arrest for more than six months, arguing that they’re liable to stir
unrest.

In
Thursday, after paramilitary troops were deployed, and after northeast Delhi
had somewhat quieted, the B.J.P. blamed opposition parties for instigating the
violence. People supporting the new citizenship law beat a Muslim man during a
clash with those opposing the law in New Delhi, India. In 2002, a Reuters photo
became emblematic of the riots, showing a Muslim tailor, his shirt flecked with
blood, imploring security forces with folded hands to rescue him from a mob
that was surrounding his house.

This week, another Reuters image emerged, of a Muslim man on all
fours, bloodied and bowed, trying to shield his head from the dozen or so men
encircling him and beating him with staves. His manner is abject, desperate.
There are no police in sight. The photo stands for what now seems to be the
fate of India’s minorities, as designed by the B.J.P.: to find being heavily
outnumbered a matter of life and death; to cower in perpetual fear; and to know
that the state will bring no relief, because it’s the state that’s
choreographing the fear in the first place

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