The real objective of mob violence against Muslims in India

The real objective of mob violence 1

By Isaac Chotiner

During the
past several days, more than thirty people have been killed in mob violence
primarily targeting Muslims in the Indian capital of New Delhi. At the center
of the conflict is the Citizenship Amendment Act (C.A.A.), a law passed by
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu majoritarian government that creates a
path to citizenship for immigrants of different faiths unless they happen to be
Muslim. Its passage sparked demonstrations across the country, many of which have
been met by force from police and right-wing groups.

Indian
journalists have chronicled police inaction as Muslims’ property has been
destroyed and Muslim residents have been beaten. There have also been reports
of police officers beating Muslims, including the imam of a local mosque. Many
of the Hindu mobs have chanted “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Victory to Lord Ram,” a
favored slogan of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.). Modi, who took office
in 2014, has in recent months moved aggressively to restrict the rights of
Muslim residents. Before the passage of the C.A.A., in December, 2019, Modi’s
government revoked the autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir,
and implemented the National Register of Citizens (N.R.C.) in the state of
Assam, which forced people to verify or forfeit their citizenship.

And in
Delhi on Sunday, a member of Modi’s party called on the police to get tough
with protesters, or watch his followers do so. Several days later, Modi, who
was hosting President Donald Trump when the violence broke out, belatedly
called for the restoration of “peace and normalcy.” To discuss the volatile
situation in Delhi, I spoke by phone with Raghu Karnad, a journalist and the
author of the book “Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.”

He was in
northeastern Delhi this week, where he and several other journalists barely
managed to escape a mob. During our conversation, which has been edited for
length and clarity, we discussed his experiences reporting on the violence, how
the Modi government capitalizes on the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and
the difficulty of finding accurate reporting in India.

What have
your experiences been like the past several days?

Wherever
you go in the country, something seems to crop up with this protest movement. I
went to the northeastern part of the city on Tuesday, to try and assess for
myself what was happening there. What was evident through the afternoon was
that gangs of young, angry men had been let loose on very marginal, vulnerable
neighborhoods, and that police were either doing a very poor job or refraining
from controlling them. The word that was used most was “clash”that young Hindu
and Muslim men were “clashing,” and committing violence and vandalism on each
other’s property. What happens increasingly with events like this in India is
that an intensely polarized and rapid-acting media machine makes it impossible
to discern what is really happening, or what the facts on the ground are.

Even if you
work in the press, it is getting harder and harder to distinguish what an image
is actually showing you. Was the video that has been sent to you that is
supposed to show one community attacking another what it claims to be? Or is it
something completely different? It became necessary for me to go down there and
take the temperature of the place myself. I want to go back to the news
environment, but what did you mean by “let loose”? Because it is very hard to
understand how much of this is planned and how much is spontaneous. What was visible
and obvious was that young men who were Hindu and young men who were Muslim
were in confrontation, and there was an immediate dispute about which group was
better armed, and whether it was the Hindus who were carrying firearms or the
Muslims who were carrying firearms, whether it was the Hindus setting fire to
shops or the Muslims setting fire to shops.

If you have
lived in India for long enough, or been a journalist here long enough, you try
to tune that particular question out. Communal riots have been the permanent
black eye on the face of Indian democracy, and it is only because we reduce
them immediately to whether more Hindus were killed or more Muslims were
killed, and which community was the guilty party, that the real question that
never gets enough attention is why authorities fail to act in the moment to
stop those riots. And that was exactly the salient question yesterday.

This is the
capital of India. These regions are somewhat on the periphery, but you can jump
on the metro and be there in thirty minutes from the center of Delhi. The
police were obviously there in large numbers, and they were occasionally
intervening and mostly standing by, and it is increasingly clear that they were
sometimes slipping into participating into the violence themselves. We have
images of police destroying security cameras and standing by while young men
collect debris to pelt each other, and there are also allegations that the
police did some of the throwing themselves. The principal question is why the
police and the government allow the riots to take place, because it is clearly
in their capacity to stop them.

It’s also
why it was interesting for me to go late in the evening, when a lot of
journalists had drifted back to their newsrooms to file their stories and hand
over footage, and to find that the police were literally standing by as gangs
of young men continued to set homes on fire. I understand the point you are
making about the most important question not being who did what but, rather,
why it is allowed to happen. But, just to clarify: If gangs of Muslim youths
were burning Hindu temples, I assume the police would not let that occur,
correct?

Yes, that’s
definitely correct. And that was a case that was proven at the very start of
this protest movement, which went national when groups of mostly Muslim
protesters at a university called Jamia started a protest which became unruly,
and they set fire to buses, and they were repaid for that with the police
storming the university and intruding into the university library to assault
and arrest students.

There is some contingency that depends on which government is in power
and which government controls the police. When we are talking about Delhi in
the present day, the control of the police is with the Home Ministry, which is
in the central government, and what has been very clear is that the right of
citizens including, especially, Muslim citizens to protest, even peacefully, is
barely being respected. I think I am just trying to avoid saying the obvious
here. At the end of the day, there was plenty of evidence that the violence
continued and the young men allowed to remain on the street, and allowed to
remain armed, were Hindu activists.

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