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.
The reason the Delhi police are controlled by the Home Ministry is that it is the capital, correct?
Yes, they are controlled by the central government and not by the state government.
And the Home Minister is Amit Shah, who is maybe Modi’s closest adviser and a hardcore supporter of his policies. Do you have some sense of what low-level police were being told from their superiors?
I was making many attempts to speak to policemen because, for safety, we were trying to move from one area to another and one police station to another, and mostly they were refusing to answer any questions at all, including any questions about the violence. One policeman told me something interesting, which was that that day might have been chosen because so much of the Delhi police force was drawn off into the security arrangements for Donald Trump, and, therefore, in these areas, the police were going to be understaffed, which would allow these mobs a freer hand. That may have been a factor, but that certainly doesn’t explain the extent to which the police seemed to be standing by. One thing the police were never going to say is what orders they received, and from whom. But, by that time, I was personally watching a group of young men shouting Hindu religious slogans and trashing vehicles while police stood by. For what I witnessed, it was clear that a lot of the violence was not going to be suppressed.
The evening ended for me when I and a pair of other journalists had to take flight from a mob ourselves. We were with a group of policemen who were carrying semiautomatics, and there were at least half a dozen of them. We thought at least that as journalists we were in a fairly secure position. But when the mob turned and approached us, and were jeering, saying, in Hindi, “Are you media people or Muslims?”—and using a derogatory phrase for Muslims—the police officer just signalled that we should run, and he would do his best to hold them, but that our safety was in our own hands. So we took to our heels.
Do you have a sense, looking at the larger political context, why this was allowed to happen during Trump’s visit? Was it coincidental, or was some larger point being made?
The larger picture is much easier to describe right now. What happened yesterday, to my mind, is the culmination of a fairly explicit effort to reframe India’s protest movement from one as Indian citizens challenging the government into being a battle between Muslims and Hindus. That’s been in the cards for a while. The Modi government has had its share of setbacks in the last six years—there have been some economic-policy snafus, as well as larger and smaller political losses in state elections. But they have dominated in their narrative that India had opted out of the Gandhian or Nehruvian era and into a new Hindu-nationalist period, and that Hindu nationalists had the mandate to begin rewriting what India is.
And that had not been substantially challenged until a few months ago, with this protest movement. It is regrettable that the protest movement has been labelled the anti-C.A.A. movement, or the anti-N.R.C. movement, because it is clear from the protesters that it represents a much broader emotion, and a much more affirmative emotion, about a unified country, as well as an affirmation for India’s constitution as it is right now. That kind of challenge is one that the Modi government has never faced—nor has it faced as many people in the streets as we have seen in the last weeks. It is probably the largest popular civic movement in at least thirty years in this country.
We saw groups of Indian Muslims holding up Indian flags yesterday. Is what you are saying essentially that the government has been more uncomfortable with protests like that, and would prefer more typical Hindu-versus-Muslim tensions, and would prefer the debate be about that, rather than Indian citizenship and Indian democracy?
Yes, I think that’s true. What is new about this movement is that it has armored itself with national icons, like the flag and the national anthem and the preamble to the Indian constitution, which have been part of the chorus of the protests. So the government’s main line of attack against critics of the government—that they are “anti-national”—hasn’t been able to stick as well against large groups of people singing the national anthem. So then there has been a new effort to recharacterize the movement, not as one of Muslims trying to defend their citizenship rights but as a movement of Muslims disrupting the peace and subverting national security. It’s been fairly explicit with the language and tone and statements of B.J.P. leaders that they would prefer to address this as a “communal” issue, which is the phrase we use for religious divides—a communal matter between Hindus and Muslims, rather than a secular, larger, constitutional matter between citizens and a particular government agenda.
How would you describe the feelings of Muslim communities in Delhi right now?
Those areas of Delhi have seen a lot of riots and pogroms in the past. They are especially vulnerable, and especially economically marginalized. There is an area in northeast Delhi that is called Nasbandi Colony, which means “vasectomy colony,” because the people who were resettled there from slums in the center of Delhi were resettled only in exchange for being sterilized. That’s the level of how marginalized that area is.
This was during the so-called Emergency, forty years ago?
Yeah, that happened during the Emergency, and that is when Nasbandi Colony was formed. The moment that sticks in my mind from last night is when I was standing by a group of huts that were going up in flames and that had just been set on fire by a rioting gang. The slum dwellers who were watching part of their slum go up in flames told me that the gang belonged to a Hindu-activist group.
There were these other slum dwellers standing nearby who were Hindus, and they had not been attacked. They said the mob had told them, “As long as you say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ you’ll be fine, or you’ll be saved.” But this slum dweller was talking to me, and he said, “The thing is that they set the Muslims’ homes on fire, and then they left. But now this fire is burning in the middle of our community, and it’s going to burn, spread, and catch, and it could burn down the houses of non-Muslims, like us, as well.” And then he said, “And, the thing is, we don’t even have a water supply out here to put out the fire.” And I thought that was very poignant, because it underscored just how much damage it does to these communities to allow this kind of violence to take place. We’re looking at an enormous scale of damage, and these are people for whom even a wooden cart being set on fire can mean a family is reduced from poverty into penury.
It also reminds me of what we saw in Assam, where this registry was primarily intended to target Muslims, but, then, because of bureaucratic reasons, it ended up leaving a bunch of Hindus off the list, too, and they are now terrified about what it’s going to mean for them. Communal politics can have victims beyond the intended targets.
Absolutely. In fact, in Assam, the majority of the people who ended up excluded from the list turned out to be Hindus. And so, after this enormously laborious and costly campaign and exercise, the final N.R.C. list was rejected by every political party in the state. The final list didn’t serve the B.J.P., either, because Hindus were left out. Looking at what happened in Delhi yesterday just leaves you reeling at the thought of the cost that very poor Indians have to pay, regardless of what their religion is.
You alluded earlier to this idea that it was very hard to know what was actually going on. It seems that there is an abundance of fake news and edited videos circulating through apps like WhatsApp. You also have a certain amount of conformity, where a bunch of journalistic institutions in India see challenging the ruling party as either something you shouldn’t do or something that people don’t want to do for ideological reasons. Do you think about these things as distinct problems?
I think your analysis is bang on, and I think they are related problems. I admire the Indian press still, and I think that there are newspapers in India that are some of the best newspapers in the world, and are already beginning to separate the wheat from the chaff and produce a clear narrative of what happened yesterday. The problem is that, by the time they’re able to do that, the digital ecosystems have already been flooded with information that’s hard to distinguish from misinformation, while corporate news networks, which are particularly aligned with the ruling establishment and the B.J.P.—some of them have been owned by B.J.P. M.P.s—are only too happy to play on and exploit the ambiguity of this or are trying, very intentionally, to spread disinformation while they have the opportunity to do that.
So the value of sorting out a clearer narrative, even by the next morning, is kind of perplexing and really troubling for those of us who are attempting to do that. I’m glad I went in the evening rather than in the afternoon, because I think that, while the violence was in full swing that afternoon, it was too easy for every side to find the image and find the video clip that vindicated their politics, their ideology, or their industry. And by the evening, it was clear that many people had been wounded and killed—Hindus had been killed and Muslims had been killed. But in some areas it was much clearer that the authorities were only playing a role in protecting and enabling only pro-government mobs to stay on the streets.
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
This story first appeared in www.newyorker.com on Feb 28, 2020, more