By Barkha Dutt
As President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat down to a dinner on Tuesday of cajun-spiced salmon, mutton biryani, marinated leg of lamb and hazelnut apple pie, the family of Shahid Khan, 22, was at New Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital trying to make sense of his murder. Shahid, a rickshaw driver and the youngest of four brothers, was one of more than a dozen of people killed as India’s capital erupted in riots over the government’s contentious citizenship law.
As New Delhi became a battlefield for the worst communal violence the city has seen in decades, there was a dissonant and surreal spectacle of toasts and chumminess unfolding at the regal Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace, where Trump was being hosted. Though the official visit was gaffe-free — Trump was uncharacteristically self-controlled, kept to script and, from the Indian point of view, made all the right noises, albeit without any specific commitments or agreements — the violence swiftly dislodged the visiting president from the headlines, even on networks sympathetic to the Modi government.
Trump’s visit was meant to be a grand show of India’s soft power, a celebratory convergence of the world’s oldest and largest democracies. For Trump, it was a chance to dazzle the Indian audience, with one eye on the influential and wealthy Indian American community during an election year. Modi was also looking to change the headlines from a recent electoral defeat in Delhi, a sluggish economy and some seriously negative press in the global media.
Instead, India’s politics of hate exploded for all the world to witness. Hindus and Muslims clashed violently in a city where they have lived integrated for years. Law and order collapsed. The police was paralyzed and complicit. Though officials characterized the riots as clashes between supporters and opponents of the citizenship law and there were initial reports of some violence by groups on both sides of the trenches, by the end of the day, it became absolutely clear that it was Muslims who were essentially being terrorized in an organized and deliberate matter.
I personally received dozens of messages from complete strangers pleading for intervention. As rampaging mobs began to identify and enter the homes of Muslims to drag them out, many Muslims made emergency calls to the police help line. My field producer saw a young man clambering on top of the minaret of a mosque that had been burned by a mob.
The police simply stood by, either from shocking ineptitude or willful participation. Though more than 50 police officers were reported injured and a head constable was killed, there was a clear institutional collapse. Videos online showed officers hanging about as men wielding sticks and stones violently lunged down streets in attack mode. In another video, you can see a group of men pleading for mercy, lying injured on the street, as police officers force them to sing nationalist songs.
In Delhi, the police report to Home Minister Amit Shah, the prime minister’s closest aide and the second-most powerful man in the country. Though Shah chaired several meetings on the situation in Delhi and appealed for peace, the otherwise voluble minister made no further public comments. The prime minister did not address the riots directly on Tuesday. When asked during a conference about the violence and the citizenship law, Trump only perfunctorily nodded to the issue, saying religious liberty had been discussed at length with Modi, who he said was “incredible” and “had worked very hard” to guarantee it.
That was it. Trump’s casual tone and the silence from the top echelons of the Indian government are alarming in the face of the rising number of fatalities. But they don’t seem particularly alarmed. Just days ago, a ruling party leader, Kapil Mishra, had threatened protesters against the law to clear the streets. He said this with a police officer standing by his side.
For months, there have been protests, sit-ins and vigils in different parts of New Delhi against the citizenship law; the most prominent of these protests is being led by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh. Their demonstration has been largely peaceful and built around symbols of Indian pride, such as the flag, the freedom movement and the constitution.
But in the last 72 hours, violence first simmered and then erupted, this after counter-demonstrations were organized at the same sites as many of the protests, clearly to pressure them to clear the public spaces they have occupied. Inflammatory speeches have been made, warning that the protesters must “clear the road or clear the country.”
A group of men told me their mission was to shut down the protests against the citizenship law. “Even Trump knows there are some wrong religions and wrong people,” one of them said in a brazen display of bigotry against Muslims citizens that he did not even bother to hide.
At the hospital, the brother of another man killed, Mohammed Furqan, 32, blamed the governing party. He said Mishra, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, had incited the violence.
But Mishra had been clear in his threat: “We will hold our peace until Trump leaves.” It didn’t even last that long.