The Hindu-Muslim divide in India has always loomed large over the nation. Since the election of Narendra Modi, the rightwing BJP leader, that divide has only become more prominent. In February, the divide led to some of the worst violence seen in India’s capital of Delhi in years. An article published in the New York Times examines how one man’s words led to the deaths of 25 people.
The person – BJP politician Kapil Mishra.
The 39-year-old is known for his outspoken views and flexible politics. He recently lost the seat he was contesting in Delhi’s 2020 assembly elections to elect the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for India’s capital region. Acquaintances said he has been looking for a way to bounce back.
Many Indians, including Hindus, believe that Mr Mishra and his Hindu nationalist supporters have weaponized 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.
Riots overtake Delhi
On the 23rd of February, Mishra spoke out in a rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) bill that the Indian government had passed earlier in the year. The protestors, mostly Muslim, wanted the bill revoked as they felt it discriminated against Muslim migrants, and is widely seen as a precursor to the National Registry of Citizens (NRC). The NRC is meant to help the Indian government identify illegal migrants and deport them.
Protestors in Jaffrabad and Chand Bagh were just some of the many thousands of Indians who have been on the streets for weeks, fighting against the bill. At the rally against the CAA, he vented his anger in a fiery speech in which he issued an ultimatum to the police: either clear out the demonstrators, who were blocking the main road, or he and his followers would do it themselves.
Within a few short hours, riots engulfed the streets. Groups of Hindu and Muslim protestors were fighting each other with bricks, bats and swords, while shops and cars became collateral damage. The riots ensured for three days, all while US President Donald Trump was on his first official state visit to India.
By the 26th of February, 25 people had been killed, mostly from gunshot wounds. Death knew no religion. Both Hindus and Muslims were killed in the riots. Property destruction was also rampant and many Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods were burnt down. This included a Mosque, where Hindu protestors climbed on to the minaret and planted a saffron flag (the colour associated with Hinduism and the BJP party). For older generations, the act evoked the iconic image of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sevaks atop Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid, which was destroyed in 1992.
In all, four mosques were burnt down in the three days of the recent rioting. Journalists too were not spared, with several assaulted and attacked by Hindu rioters. The Editors Guild of India issued a statement on the 25th, expressing concern and calling it an assault on the freedom of the press.
In the area that suffered the worst in the fighting, many residents laid blame on Mr 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.”
While the city was burning, the Delhi Police seemed to completely vanish. Dozens of Muslim residents have accused police officers of standing passively by while the destruction was underway. Several victims claimed that the police did not respond promptly even when called. Some reports even alleged that the police encouraged the riots, physically attacking residents in the riot-affected areas. The allegations have been strongly denied though.
Asgar Ali, whose grocery shop was burned to the ground on 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. Muslim families in northeast Delhi are now abandoning their homes. Several said in interviews that they no longer felt safe.
On the 26th, a video clip went viral on social media showing a group of men being assaulted by the police, who demanded that they sing the Indian national anthem. On the 27th, the Delhi High Court bench ordered the police to file reports against the people whose speeches triggered the riots, the police and the government remarked that they had consciously not done so, citing that arresting them would not restore immediate peace.
S. Muralidhar, a judge in the High Court responded by saying “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 political career
The speech was seen by many as an attempt by Mishra to curry favour with the BJP party. In 2015, he was elected as an MLA with the progressive Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). However, he soon fell out with his colleagues and defected to the BJP. He then started espousing Hindu nationalist views and vilifying Muslims, more out of political expediency than true belief, argued Mr Bathla, who claims to have known Mr 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, Mr Mishra posted what was widely viewed as an incendiary Twitter message, framing the contest as “India vs Pakistan.” After losing the elections, Mishra began taking a harder stance against the Muslim protestors, so as to improve his standing in the party.
“He wasn’t getting much attention from the higher-ups,” said Hasrat Ali, a legal officer who lives the same area where Mr Mishra’s family lived for many years. “This was all a plan to get a firmer position.” And it seems to have worked, no leader from the party has yet condemned Mishra’s words. Only Gautam Gambhir, a former cricketer now Member of Parliament spoke up, saying “Kapil Mishra’s speech is not acceptable.”