The violence unleashed against Muslims in Delhi by armed Hindu mobs during President Donald Trump’s visit to India is a portent and a lesson. As Trump sat down to dine with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Tuesday, Hindus in the same city were beating and shooting Muslims, and Muslims were fighting back, trying to defend their homes and businesses from looters and arsonists. More than 40 people were killed—including an 85-year-old woman too frail to flee her burning home—and more than 200 people, mostly Muslims, were injured.
The Delhi police, who report directly to Home Minister Amit Shah, either stood idly by or escorted the mobs. Videos of police breaking CCTV cameras and taunting prone and bleeding Muslim men while filming them with their smartphones circulated on social media. The violence echoed that of 2002, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat and authorities there did nothing to stem carnage that killed some 1,000 people, the majority of them Muslims. It also brought back memories of the revenge killings of at least 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
In all these cases, mobs targeting a single religious group were allowed to run riot, unchecked by police. This is the definition of a pogrom.
More than an echo of the past, the recent violence in Delhi is a lesson aimed at Indian citizens who, since December, have dared to resist the transformation of the secular Republic of India into a Hindu state, a transformation accelerated by Modi’s reelection last May.
In August, Modi’s government revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir that allowed the state to make its own laws, rounded up elected leaders and thousands of citizens, and put them in detention, where they languish still. Kashmir was put under an internet lockdown that was only partially lifted five months later to allow access to a carefully curated set of sites handpicked by the government. Also in August, the conclusion of a National Citizens Registry (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam resulted in some 2 million people, mostly Muslims, being stripped of Indian citizenship after failing to produce sufficient documents to prove their nationality. What brought these geographically distant developments home to Indians in Delhi was Shah’s promise, in November, to implement the NRC nationwide, followed by the December ratification by both houses of India’s Parliament of a Citizenship Amendment Act that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The new law opens the door to legal discrimination against Muslims.
These existential threats to the constitutionally guaranteed equality of Indian citizens regardless of religion, and the specter of legions of newly stateless persons stripped of their citizenship, prompted many Indians—Muslims, but also students and other alarmed citizens—to engage in peaceful protests. They waved the Indian tricolor flag, sang the national anthem, and recited the preamble to the country’s constitution.
For a moment it seemed the Modi government had gone too far. On February 8, after waging a hateful campaign that included a rally at which people chanted “Shoot the traitors,” referring to protesters, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, suffered defeat in Delhi’s legislative-assembly election. Shah admitted that the hateful rhetoric had hurt rather than helped. But the remedy, it appears, was to take hate to a new level.
On Sunday, February 23, the BJP’s Kapil Mishra, who lost his seat in the recent Delhi election, focused his ire on a sit-in by Muslim women in the north of Delhi that was blocking a road. If authorities didn’t clear the road of demonstrators before Trump left India, Mishra warned, his supporters would clear it after the U.S. president’s departure. Loath to wait, the mob set to work within minutes, quickly moving into the adjacent neighborhoods, beating and killing Muslims and looting and burning their property. It little mattered that the American president was still in town: Trump conveyed in his praise of Modi’s defense of “religious freedom” that he either didn’t know or didn’t care what was happening in the country.
Arvind Kejriwal, the newly reelected chief minister of Delhi, proved himself powerless to contain the violence in his city. Too weak to put himself physically on the line—as Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru did not hesitate to do when Hindus and Muslims clashed during the fraught years before India’s independence—his appeal to bring in the army to ensure public safety was refused by Modi’s government. On Tuesday, February 25, Justice S. Muralidhar of Delhi’s high court summoned police to berate them for failing to file a complaint against Mishra and two other BJP politicians whose hate speech had fired up the mob. The next day, Muralidhar was transferred out of Delhi to a court in the Indian state of Punjab. That same day, India’s Supreme Court deferred hearing petitions on the violence that rocked India’s capital to the Delhi high court, now bereft of Muralidhar.
The message from the BJP is clear: Elect whomever you like. We are still in power. Call the police; they work for us. Appeal to the courts; we’ll neutralize any judges who don’t toe our line. Continue to dissent, and we will set the mob on you.
Modi’s 2014 electoral victory was initially hailed as the triumph of a free-market reformist who may have erred during the riots of 2002 but who had made up for it since with a proven economic track record in Gujarat. That image of Modi remained largely intact during his first term in office despite ominous signs to the contrary, including multiple lynchings of Muslims by emboldened Hindus on the suspicion of eating beef and the hounding, even the assassination, of journalists and free-thinkers by Hindu extremists that went unpunished. Most ominous of all was the appointment by the BJP of the rabidly anti-Muslim Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, after the party won legislative elections there in 2017. Dressed in saffron robes, Adityanath had peddled the notion that Muslim men were plotting to steal away Hindu women by means of “love jihad,” had mounted a private army of militants called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, and had threatened to drown in the sea anyone who refused to perform a yogic salutation to the sun. Since his appointment as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath has presided over a reign of terror against Muslims in his state. Ambitious BJP politicians such as Kapil Mishra are merely following Adityanath’s example of what it takes to rise within the ranks of their party.
Modi’s image as a pragmatic, business-oriented leader who has eschewed Hindu extremism now lies in tatters. India’s economy is expected to grow at a rate of just 5 percent this year, its lowest rate in 11 years. The poverty rate in India is rising again. More than one-third of India’s more than 1.3 billion people are from the ages of 15 to 24. They have little hope of finding a job. The sex ratio in India remains skewed in favor of boys; girls are considered a drag on a family’s resources. A reservoir of frustrated young men in India yearn to feel empowered, to have purpose in their lives, to take revenge for their thwarted dreams. Many Hindu youth have been radicalized. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—a paramilitary organization affiliated with the BJP that is explicitly modeled on the Nazis, and of which Modi has been a member since the age of 8—has indoctrinated and trained thousands.
All it takes in Modi’s India to marshal a mob, as Kapil Mishra demonstrated this week in Delhi, is a word. And all it takes to turn the mob’s rampage into a pogrom against a religious minority is the complicity of police and state authorities. Yet, across India, brave citizens continue to occupy public spaces in peaceful protest. They know that all they have left to save their democratic republic is one another. They know that, any day, the mob can come for them too.