Days after what many call a pogrom in India’s capital, schools and mosques are charred and thousands of mostly Muslims are homeless. Hindu nationalists and police are accused of inciting violence.

Transcript :


Now to India, where that country’s capital, New Delhi, has seen its worst religious violence in decades. The attacks declined over the past week. But bodies are still being discovered. More than 50 people have been killed in all of this. And police are now facing accusations that they failed to protect Muslims and, in some cases, even incited the violence. Here’s NPR’s Lauren Frayer.

SAIRA: (Sobbing).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Saira (ph), who goes by one name, sits cross-legged on the floor of her garage surrounded by relatives wailing. The hospital just called. Her teenage son is dead.

SAIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: “My son disappeared last week,” she says. Hindu mobs rampaged their Muslim enclave. Tension had been building for weeks amid street protests over the Hindu nationalist government’s new citizenship law, which excludes Muslim refugees. Ruling party officials had labelled Muslim protesters traitors and called for them to be shot. Saira says she doesn’t know exactly what happened to her son, only that he was hurt and died in a hospital days later.

MERAJ IKRAM: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Gunshot? Gunshot?

IKRAM: Gunshot. Gunshot.

FRAYER: Dr. Meraj Ikram (ph) rattles off each patient’s injuries in an operating room littered with bloodstained gauze. He’s actually a dentist only helping out here. He dashes back and forth between a sink, sterilizing instruments, and prone patients, stitching their wounds. Some of them look infected. It smells horrible.

IKRAM: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: “This is nothing,” the doctor says. “More than 60 families packed into this ward last week fleeing violence on the street just outside.”


FRAYER: There are these huge yellow barricades and soldiers in camouflage with machine guns. This is not normal.

RUNJHUN SHARMA: It isn’t. No, it isn’t.

FRAYER: Runjhun Sharma is a local TV reporter who took me on a tour of the riot damage – a school that was looted, a mosque set on fire. This all began last week when President Trump was in town, she recalls.

SHARMA: The day Trump got here, in fact, we received all these SOS messages.

FRAYER: Her TV channel had deployed all of its resources to cover Trump’s visit. But then Sharma’s phone started ringing.

SHARMA: Somebody calling up saying that, oh, you’re from the media? We are stuck in a house. And there are people who’ve surrounded the house. And we don’t know whether they’re going to burn the house or what. Can you reach here?

FRAYER: People called the media for help because, in many cases, police refused.

ANISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Anisha (ph), who also goes by one name, is one of thousands who fled the riot zone, a religiously mixed area where neighbors took up arms against neighbors. I met her under a tent in a relief camp set up by local authorities. She wears a Muslim headscarf. Her nose is pierced. And her eyes are weary.

ANISHA: (Through interpreter) There was a mob of young men wearing helmets and waving swords. I recognized them. Some of them were my neighbors, boys I’ve watched grow up. Suddenly, they were threatening to kill my family. I escaped with my grandchildren as the mob threw Molotov cocktails. I called the police again and again, but they never came.

FRAYER: Thousands of police are now on the streets. They’ve detained several hundred people. But videos recorded last week are also emerging of police throwing stones and egging on Hindu mobs. In one clip that’s gone viral, police taunt five Muslim men lying on the ground wounded. The officers make them chant patriotic slogans as someone hums the national anthem.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).


FRAYER: The message is that if you’re Muslim, you have to prove your loyalty to India. One of the men later bled to death.

NEERAJ KUMAR: If the police had been doing its duties, some of the deaths could have been prevented.

FRAYER: Neeraj Kumar is the former Delhi Police commissioner. I asked him about these damning clips. He said he hasn’t seen any of them. But he says, no doubt, police failed to protect people. It was lack of leadership. They were caught off guard, he says. Police themselves came under attack. One policeman and one intelligence officer are among the dead. Kumar vehemently denies that the Hindu-majority police force showed any bias.

KUMAR: Please understand the cruelty and the barbarity and the inhumanness – it is both-sided. Someone told me about – that there was a hole drilled into the head of a Hindu.

FRAYER: Though the casualties have been overwhelmingly Muslim, tales of torture are being traded on both sides, ratcheting up fear, tension and trauma.

ARUNDHATI ROY: I mean, we are living on a tinderbox now, the whole country.

FRAYER: Arundhati Roy is one of India’s most famous writers. She’s also a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Hindu nationalist party has long been accused of sowing communal hatred to gain votes in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, in Muslim-majority Kashmir and here in the capital, New Delhi. It used to be just during election campaigns. But now it’s all the time, Roy says.

ROY: You run a government in which you marinate people in propaganda. Now you have 400 television channels. They’re just pouring out this poison night and day, night and day.

FRAYER: No wonder violence has erupted, she says – and wonders what India’s Muslims are supposed to do now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Praying in non-English language).

FRAYER: Back in northeast Delhi, Mehtab Qamar (ph) stands in soot and rubble, wondering the same. His paint shop was one of hundreds of buildings set on fire last week.

And how long have you had this shop?

MEHTAB QAMAR: Fifteen years.

FRAYER: Fifteen years?

QAMAR: Yeah.

FRAYER: But there’s nothing left?

QAMAR: Nothing. All finished.

FRAYER: He says he has no money to rebuild. The fire also destroyed his home upstairs. After the attack, he didn’t eat for several days and had to be hospitalized. He and his family are now staying with friends. But his wife, Rosia (ph), says she doesn’t know how to explain this to their kids.

ROSIA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: It’s the worst violence she’s ever seen, she says. Arundhati Roy fears it might not be the last. In a recent essay, she wrote that she smells more blood on the breeze. The question of what happens next keeps her up at night. And as it happens, all of her Muslim friends are awake, too.

ROY: I just couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about all this. And I just keep getting messages. All my Muslim friends are awake. People messaging, are you awake? Are you awake? I’m awake. Are you awake?

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in northeast New Delhi.

This story first appeared in on March 6th 2020, more…