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Indian Capital’s Riot-Ravaged District Struggles to Pick Up Pieces

Muslim devotees offer Friday prayers at a mosque following sectarian riots over India's new citizenship law, at Mustafabad area in New Delhi.

A week after communal riots ravaged a district in the Indian capital, men sift through torched motorcycles to see if they can salvage anything to sell, and a group of Muslims sit despondently outside a charred showroom for auto rickshaws, while dozens of homes in inner lanes lie empty as Muslims flee in fear. Every few meters, paramilitary soldiers stand guard on the arterial road that runs through the densely populated working-class district.

“Our shops were deliberately targeted while others were spared. We just ran to save our lives,” said Rais Ahmed, owner of the auto rickshaw showroom as he watched a video showing a mob running down the street chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” which translates into "hail the Hindu god Rama," now a Hindu nationalist slogan.

Hundreds of Muslims have fled their homes in the aftermath of the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in decades in the Indian capital that erupted as Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s government presses ahead with what critics call a Hindu-first agenda.

As mobs armed with iron rods, stones, and gasoline bombs unleashed violence that claimed at least 46 lives, the brunt of the attacks appears to have been borne by Muslims, although both sides suffered the deadly consequences. Wounded men have recounted being beaten by Hindu mobs, sometimes as police looked on. A young Hindu man working with the Intelligence Bureau, a domestic intelligence agency, who was repeatedly stabbed was among the victims.

There are, though, stories of how members of the two groups came to each other’s rescue in neighborhoods where they have lived amicably for decades in close proximity.

As the clashes escalated, Nawab Khan Mansuri’s family found refuge at dead of night in the home of a Hindu neighbor, who also defied the mayhem on the streets to take his pregnant daughter-in-law to hospital.

Mansuri found his home looted and his shops torched when he went back after the riots subsided.

“I am left with nothing,” he says despairingly. “We don’t even have a change of clothes.”

In another neighborhood, Muslims and Hindus relate how they cooperated to protect themselves from rioting mobs, who they say were made up of “outsiders.” In the past week, men from both communities have been guarding gates that lead into inner lanes.

“We did not sleep for five nights. We took turns to stand at the gates,” Rajesh Chowdhury said. “We used to sit together sipping tea at night as we watched out for anyone coming in,” said Abbas Raza who lives in an adjoining lane.

A few shops have begun opening their shutters as people struggle to resume their lives.

A man sits in front of burnt out properties owned by Muslims in a riot affected area following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, March 2, 2020.
A man sits in front of burnt out properties owned by Muslims in a riot affected area following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, March 2, 2020.

Critics blame the polarization created by recent policies of Modi’s Hindu nationalist government for fueling the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in decades in the Indian capital.

The riots erupted in the aftermath of growing tensions that followed the passage of a new citizenship law excluding Muslims from the group of religious minorities from three countries who will be eligible to get fast-tracked citizenship. The legislation has raised fears that Muslims will be vulnerable if Indians are called on to provide documentary proof of their nationality.

Protests against the legislation have been denounced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and its leaders have called the protesters anti-national and “agents of Pakistan.”

BJP spokesmen have denied accusations that the violence was fanned by a speech given by a party leader, Kapil Mishra, warning Muslims protesting the recent controversial citizenship law to vacate the road where they were demonstrating.

As the rioting deepens fault lines between the majority Hindu and the minority Muslim communities, questions are being raised whether the government will reach out to Muslims to allay their concerns about being marginalized.

Other than a call for maintaining peace and harmony in a Modi tweet last week, he has made no comment on the violence that wracked the city. The powerful home minister, Amit Shah, has blamed opposition parties for inciting the riots by spreading misinformation about the citizenship law.

Political analyst Sandeep Shastri, pro vice chancellor of Jain University, said a more inclusive position by top leaders is needed to calm Muslims' heightened fears.“

Its up to the leadership to apply the balm, to create the 'us' feeling rather than the ‘we’ and the ‘they’ feeling. That is what can rescue the situation, otherwise we are going into a deeper morass,” he warned.

India’s Muslim minority has been wary since Modi’s rise to power in 2014 – deadly Hindu-Muslim riots had wracked his home state, Gujarat, in 2002 when he was its chief minister. His first term in power coincided with several cases of Muslim men being lynched on suspicion of carrying beef or slaughtering cows.

Their anxieties have deepened after the BJP’s agenda picked up pace after the party was reelected with a massive mandate last May – Muslims fear it promotes Hindu primacy. The government has scrapped the special status of Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority province, and the party is preparing to build a grand temple on a site where a mosque was pulled down by a Hindu mob. The citizenship law's passage became the tipping point for many.

Delhi remains on edge in this highly polarized atmosphere. Police received hundreds of panicked calls Sunday as false rumors of armed gangs roaming around swept the city.

Meanwhile, people in the riot-affected areas worry that the sense of security they took for granted may take a long time to return.

“The atmosphere now is one of fear, our children are scared to go to school,” said Lalit Sudan in Maujpur.

“Things are not as they used to be. This suspicion and fear of the other community that has crept in is not a good thing. We have to rebuild trust.”