Riot police patrol the streets of India's capital on February 26 after battles between Hindus and Muslims that claimed at least 20 lives, with fears of more violent clashes. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singh

At least 20 people were killed and hundreds injured as violence broke out in Delhi, India’s national capital, over protests opposing a controversial citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims.

Riots broke out in parts of East Delhi that borders India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, following provocative statements by BJP leaders. The BJP runs the federal government and law and order issues are part of its responsibility.

According to official figures, 20 people have died and 180 were injured, of which 60 were reported to have gunshot wounds. A mosque was also burned down and Muslim families and businesses were selectively targeted by armed mobs.

The violence started a day before US President Donald Trump landed in India and continued even as he was being hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, both leaders refrained from issuing any statements even as the attacks continued a few miles from their official meetings.

Inciting riots

On February 23, BJP leader Kapil Mishra issued a public ultimatum, asking people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act to disperse. He also issued a threat to the Delhi police to act, and said his people would “take action” if the protesters were not dispersed.

Hours after the threat was made, armed men swung into action and several Muslim-dominated localities were attacked. The violence continued until February 25 and a mosque was torched by armed Hindu rioters.

Reports indicate that the houses of Muslims were earmarked by the mobs before the attacks started. The Delhi police are under the control of federal Home Minister Amit Shah, considered the second-most powerful official in the cabinet after the prime minister.

Shah was busy in Ahemdabad city in the state of Gujarat, attending the rally by US President Trump when the violence broke out in Delhi. In some cases, visuals captured by CCTV cameras revealed that the police were aiding the armed Hindu mobs that attacked Muslims and their properties.

Worse, many localities were also under siege by armed Hindu mobs with the injured not being allowed to evacuate to safer places.

Journalists covering the riots were also targeted by armed mobs. Three reporters from three TV news channels were stopped and beaten by a Hindu mob when they were suspected of being Muslims.

A plea by a woman journalist finally stopped the attacks. In another case, a journalist was asked by an armed mob to prove he was not a Muslim and his mobile phone was taken and any images that could help identify the rioters were deleted.

In an unprecedented move, the chief justice of the Delhi High Court convinced a bench of two judges at 1am to provide urgent directions to the police. Judges S Murlidhar and Anup Bhambani sat in the former’s residence and passed orders asking the police to ensure safe passage for the injured. They also directed the police to provide security to trapped families.

Overwhelmed by the spreading violence, the police issued shoot-on-sight orders across parts of the city to contain the violence. However, this had little effect and the federal government finally asked National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a former policeman and director of the Intelligence Bureau, to help.

Doval spent the evening touring places that had been hit by sectarian violence. However, despite shoot-on-sight orders, his motorcade was also interrupted by armed Hindus on motorcycles shouting Jai Shri Ram, or Glory to Lord Ram. Doval briefed the federal cabinet on Wednesday morning after taking measures to increase force levels to contain the violence.

Violence brewing for months

The origins of the sectarian violence in Delhi started two months ago when the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in Parliament by the government. The act allows non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan living in India until December 31, 2014, to become Indian citizens on a priority basis.

When coupled with a proposed nationwide National Register for Citizens, this leaves Muslims extremely vulnerable to being declared stateless. The citizenship act will ensure that while non-Muslims get accepted as Indian citizens, Muslims will be declared illegal and sent to detention camps. This has led to nationwide protests that have grown significantly.

However, the BJP and its cadres, which come from the RSS, a cultural organization that drew inspiration from Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler’s policies on race and segregation, have been pushing for this law.

They believe that India should be a majoritarian country where the supremacy of the Hindu faith is enshrined as law. However, the current Indian constitution prohibits the supremacy of any religion and guarantees equal rights to everyone irrespective of faith, caste or race.

The new law has been challenged in the Supreme Court, but it has been putting off hearing the case. This has led to a rise in sectarian tensions across the country.