India Failed Delhi

In failing to curb violence in its capital city, the country’s government bears responsibility for it.

Police detain activists during a protest in Delhi.
Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters

Violence has become a familiar feature of many of the places convulsed by protests around the world—especially when the government gets involved. Such is the case in France, where clashes with police have resulted in numerous injuries. In Iraq and Chile, they have even led to deaths.

The unrest emerging in India, however, is of a different breed. There, the sectarian violence that has resulted in dozens of deaths in the capital city of Delhi follows months of peaceful protests against a new citizenship law. In this case, it wasn’t a government crackdown that spurred the deaths, but rather, the government’s seeming unwillingness to quell the rampage in the first place.

The scale of the violence in Delhi, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muted reaction to it, raises questions about the obligation of governments to stem violence. Is it enough to call for calm, as Modi has done, or is a more robust response required? Is failing to stamp out turmoil any different from being the cause of it in the first place?

Compared with some mass demonstrations around the world, Delhi’s have been relatively peaceful. Galvanized by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excludes Muslims from the list of religious groups in neighboring countries eligible for Indian citizenship, nationwide protests have largely centered on the law’s constitutionality and what it means for India’s identity. Critics argue that the law implicitly makes religion a criterion for nationality, thereby threatening the country’s status as a secular and pluralist democracy. In Delhi, this opposition has manifested in sit-ins, candlelight vigils, and public readings of the preamble to the Indian constitution.

In the last week, however, things have taken a turn. A recently unseated local politician belonging to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) delivered a speech demanding the police to clear the roads in northeastern Delhi that were being blocked by the protesters—or he and his followers would do it themselves. Within hours of the ultimatum, The New York Times reported, violence broke out, including clashes between Muslim and Hindu groups. To date, dozens have been killed and scores of businesses, homes, and mosques have been burned down.

Sectarian violence of this nature would ordinarily prompt a swift response from the Indian government, Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House, told me. “Historically, when communal violence breaks out, what you do is you impose a curfew straightaway, and you put out a lot of police on the street, and you make everyone go home and calm down a bit,” he said. “If you want communal violence to carry on for a little bit, you don’t do that.”

If governments have an obligation to rein in violence, and the necessary resources, then why hasn’t Modi done so? Though some officials have proposed that the army be deployed and a curfew enacted, the government has so far resisted the pressure. Instead, Modi issued an appeal for calm, urging people in the capital to “maintain peace and brotherhood at all times.” The request is likely to fall on deaf ears, though. After all, the government hasn’t been completely restrained in its handling of the anti-CAA demonstrations. During the early days of the protests late last year, it arrested thousands of people in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where its use of force resulted in more than a dozen deaths—in this case, it was opposition to the government’s agenda that prompted the backlash; the violence in Delhi, which has been ostensibly driven by those who support the government’s legislation, did not warrant a similar reaction. In other parts of the country, according to human-rights groups, it shut down the internet and limited public transportation.

The government’s willingness to countenance tough measures against those opposing its citizenship legislation, but not against the communal violence in Delhi, has earned Modi and the BJP allegations of complicity. Modi stands accused of having been too preoccupied with President Donald Trump’s visit to heed warnings about the tumult. (A BJP spokesperson told reporters that the party does not support any kind of violence, before making an unsubstantiated claim that the unrest had been “pre-planned” by rival parties trying to damage India’s reputation.) Meanwhile, authorities have been criticized for standing by as Hindu mobs confront Muslim protesters and even participating in the violence themselves. (Delhi’s police department dismissed allegations that it failed to supply sufficient forces as “baseless,” and in a statement last Tuesday said it is “making all earnest efforts … to restore the normalcy.”)

Though this scale of violence between Hindus and Muslims in India is rare, the tensions stoking them have been building for a while. When Modi ascended to the premiership in 2014, he campaigned on an agenda to revive the country’s stagnant economy and improve its infrastructure. But he also brought a zeal to transform India from a secular democracy into a Hindu-nationalist state. Since his reelection last year, that goal has manifested in a number of contentious policies, from the decision to revoke the constitutionally enshrined autonomy of India’s sole Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, to the imposition of a citizenship registry that has rendered nearly 2 million people, many of whom are Muslim, stateless. The passage of the CAA was regarded by some as one step too far, prompting the protests.

When it comes to handling communal violence, though, Modi’s response is par for the course. The last time clashes like these occurred in India, it was 2002 in his home state of Gujarat, where he was serving as chief minister. When riots broke out between Hindu and Muslim groups following a deadly train fire, Modi and his state government were seen to quietly sanction the violence, which persisted for months. In the end, 2,000 people—the overwhelming majority of whom were Muslim—were killed and thousands were displaced. Though a court-appointed panel later cleared Modi of responsibility, his role in presiding over the riots proved enough to deny him entry to the United States and Britain for nearly a decade.

By not employing measures to curb the rampage in Delhi, Modi can perhaps claim to have avoided the severe government response to protests seen elsewhere around the world. But permitting unrest at the hands of violent mobs—while cracking down on protesters voicing opposition to the government’s legislation—signals where leaders’ priorities lie. The Indian government may not be actively involved in the sectarian violence, but in failing to stop it, leaders become responsible for it.