>>Jeffrey Gettleman, Suhasini Raj and Sameer Yasir, The New York Times
Published: 2020-02-27 04:51:41 BdST
Kapil Mishra, a local politician with India’s leading Hindu nationalist party, had just lost an election. Acquaintances in the area, which now feels like a war zone, said he had been looking for a way to bounce back.
Mishra, 39, is known for his outspoken views and flexible politics. As an upper caste Hindu from a political family, he had worked for Amnesty International and Greenpeace, and risen in the ranks of one of India’s most progressive political organisations. But several years ago he shifted allegiance across the political spectrum to the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s current governing party, which has deep roots in Hindu supremacist ideology.
On Sunday, he appeared at a rally against a group of protesters (most of them women) who were objecting to a new citizenship law widely seen as discriminatory toward Muslims. There he vented his anger in a fiery speech in which he issued an ultimatum to police: either clear out the demonstrators, who were blocking a main road, or he and his followers would do it themselves.
Within hours, the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in India in years was exploding. Gangs of Hindus and Muslims fought each other with swords and bats, shops burst into flames, chunks of bricks sailed through the air, and mobs rained blows on cornered men.
“Kapil Mishra should be in jail,” said Rupesh Bathla, a businessman who says he has known Mishra since they were teenagers. “He started communal riots. He planted hatred in other people’s hearts.”
By Wednesday, at least 25 people had died, hospital officials said, most from gunshot wounds. Several witnesses said that the live fire came from the direction of the police officers, and the dead included Hindus as well as Muslims.
Though property belonging to Hindus was burned, the destruction was much heavier on the Muslim side. In Muslim areas, shop after shop was destroyed and entire markets were burned down. Dozens of Muslim residents have accused police officers of standing passively by while the destruction was underway.
A woman walks through the burnt remains of a Mustafabad mosque in New Delhi on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. A local Hindu politician told the police to evict a group of Muslim protesters or he and his men would and now, many have died in some of the worst violence in decades. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)
“On the whole, the Delhi riots of this week are now beginning to look like a pogrom, à la Gujarat 2002 and Delhi 1984,’’ said Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University.
While the death toll is nowhere near that of those earlier bouts, the episodes shared a disturbing similarity, Varshney said, with “mobs unleashing savage violence while the cops look away, or join the mob, instead of neutrally intervening to crush the riot.”
With the violence cooling down for the moment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hosted President Donald Trump as the fighting raged, broke his silence Wednesday after Trump had departed, urging people in a Twitter post to “maintain peace and brotherhood at all times.” He added: “Peace and harmony are central to our ethos.”
But concerns lingered among many Indians, including Hindus, that Mishra and his Hindu nationalist supporters have weaponised a very dangerous mood. In a Hindu majority nation, with a Hindu nationalist government that has allowed the killers of Muslims to go unpunished, fear has been growing that violent Hindu extremism could spin out of control.
On Wednesday, a few sporadic attacks were reported, but no large scale mayhem. The police, armed now with assault rifles, had been reinforced with paramilitary troops.
In the area that suffered the worst in the fighting, many residents laid blame on Mishra, who declined a request for an interview. But in a Twitter post, he said “It’s not a crime to ask for blocked roads to be opened. It’s not a crime to tell the truth. I don’t fear this massive hate campaign against me.”
A shopkeeper checks on the burnt remains of his Tyre Market shop in the Gokulpuri neighborhood in New Delhi on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The deadly riots that erupted in India this week all began with one man, Kapil Mishra, a local politician with India’s leading Hindu nationalist party, had just lost an election and acquaintances in the eastern New Delhi neighbourhood where he grew up, which now resembles a war zone, said he was looking for a way to bounce back. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)
At a court hearing on the riots Wednesday, a judge pressed police officials about why they had not watched videos of Mishra’s incendiary speech — an indication, the judge implied, that they had not seriously investigated the sources of the violence.
“This is really concerning,” said the judge, S Muralidhar, according to LiveLaw, a legal news website. “There are so many TVs in your office, how can a police officer say that he hasn’t watched the videos? I’m really appalled by the state of affairs of the Delhi Police.”
Mishra’s supporters said the majority of people in the community had backed his effort to evict the protesters.
“How could our kids get to school with those protesters blocking the road?” said Alok Kumar Gupta, a retired military officer who lives near the protest area. “Kapil Mishra was only trying to help.”
But others wonder if Mishra was trying to make a name for himself in Hindu nationalist circles. He had been elected to the local assembly in Delhi in 2015 from the progressive Aam Aadmi Party, but eventually fell out with his colleagues and defected to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.
He then started espousing Hindu nationalist views and vilifying Muslims, more out of political expediency than true belief, argued Bathla, who claims to have known Mishra for 30 years.
“When he was younger he wasn’t like that,’’ he said. “He was chill.”
Just a few weeks before the Feb. 8 local assembly elections, Mishra posted what was widely viewed as an incendiary Twitter message, framing the contest as “India vs Pakistan.”
New Delhi firefighters check on the burnt remains of Tyre Market shops in the Gokulpuri neighbourhood in New Delhi on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. A local Hindu politician told the police to evict a group of Muslim protesters or he and his men would and now, many have died in some of the worst violence in decades. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)
“He wasn’t getting much attention from the higher ups,” said Hasrat Ali, a legal officer who lives the same area where Mishra’s family lived for many years. “This was all a plan to get a firmer position.”
At least one other politician in Modi’s party is now distancing himself from Mishra. “Whoever has done this, strict action must be taken,” said the politician, Gautam Gambhir, a member of parliament from the area. “Kapil Mishra’s speech is not acceptable.”
Protests against the new citizenship law, which makes it easier for non-Muslim migrants to become full fledged Indian citizens, have flared intermittently since December. There has been a subtext of religious differences, with most of India’s Muslims objecting to the law and many Hindus supporting it. But this past week was the first time the protests turned large numbers of Hindus and Muslims violently against one another.
Most of India’s Muslims distrust the BJP and point to the sectarian killing frenzy that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, almost 800 of them Muslims, in Gujarat state in 2002 when Modi was its chief minister.
Modi and his state government were accused of quietly ordering the police to stand by as the violence raged. He has denied those accusations, and in 2012, an investigative panel for the Supreme Court found no evidence to support them.
Security personnel guard a burned mosque in Mustafabad, in East Delhi, India on Feb. 26, 2020. A local Hindu politician told the police to evict a group of Muslim protesters or he and his men would and now, many have died in some of the worst violence in decades. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)
Muslim families in northeast Delhi are now abandoning their homes. Several said in interviews that they no longer felt safe.
Asgar Ali, whose grocery shop was burned to the ground Tuesday, said there was no difference between police officers and Hindu mobs. He said he was fleeing his home, where he had lived for 20 years, knowing that he might never return.
“I built this house with my blood and sweat,” Ali said. “Now, I have been reduced to a homeless pauper. I have lost everything.”
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