New Delhi protests: how the Indian capital’s streets became a battleground

Muslims forced to flee as sectarian violence erupts again over citizenship law

A burnt out car is left abandoned in the Indian capital of New Delhi after widespread street violence rocked the city
(Image credit: Getty Images)

At least 23 people have been killed in clashes between Muslims and Hindus in New Delhi, in the worst religion violence seen in the Indian capital for decades.

The Guardian reports that many Muslims have “fled from their homes, and several mosques in the capital smouldered after being attacked by Hindu mobs”, following a fresh outbreak of violence on Sunday.

More than 200 people have been admitted to hospitals for “injuries which ranged from gunshot wounds, to acid burns, stabbings and wounds from beatings and stone pelting”, says the newspaper, which adds that several of those who died “had jumped from high buildings” to escape violent crowds.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi today tweeted a plea for Delhi’s citizens to “maintain peace and brotherhood at all times” - but many critics claim that his deeply divisive rhetoric has fuelled tensions within the country.

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How did this all start?

Religious tensions have been bubbling since 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. But subsequent wars between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh were followed by years of relative stability until Modi, a Hindu nationalist (or “Hindutva”), came to power.

Modi has introduced a series of exclusionary policies that have seen Muslims marginalised in Indian society. The resulting tensions between Hindus and Muslims finally reached boiling point in December, with the passage of a controversial citizenship bill that triggered violent protests in cities nationwide including Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) grants citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants who have entered the country illegally from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Undocumented immigrants from these neighbouring nations are being offered an effective amnesty - provided they are members of a religious minority. All three countries are Muslim majority, so the bill applies to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis, but not Muslims.

India’s governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presented the legislation as a benevolent move to help religious minorities facing persecution in South Asia. But critics claim that the bill’s passage is the latest step to cement primacy for India’s Hindu population, at the expense of the nation’s 200 million Muslims.

What happened this week?

Violence erupted once again in New Delhi in the wake of a tweeted threat by BJP leader Kapil Mishra against protesters opposing the citizenship law.

On Sunday, he posted an online call for supporters to join him at a rally against Muslim protesters blocking roads in the city’s Jaffrabad area. “In his tweet, he told the Delhi police they had three days to clear the protest sites and warned of consequences if they failed to do so,” says the BBC.

The first reports of clashes emerged hours later.

The fighting initially appeared to be between factions for and against the CAA, but the the clashes have “since taken on communal overtones, with reports of people being attacked based on their religion”, the broadcaster continues.

“Photographs, videos and accounts on social media paint a chilling image of the last few days - of mobs beating unarmed men, including journalists; of groups of men with sticks, iron rods and stones wandering the streets; and of Hindus and Muslims facing off.”

The Delhi High Court is hearing petitions about the violence.

The judges have insisted: “We can't allow a repeat of 1984 in this city” - a reference to the massacre of as many as 17,000 Sikh civilians nationwide by vigilante Hindu mobs following the assassination of Hindu PM Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

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