Mohammad Zubair closed his eyes, brought his forehead to the ground and prayed as 30 strangers beat him with batons without stopping.
“The blows kept raining on my head, hands and back,” said Zubair, 37. “I did not ask them to stop beating me. I became silent, tried to hold my breath and stiffen my body.”
“First I asked, ‘Why are you attacking me? What wrong have I done?’ But they did not listen to my words and went on hitting me from all sides. They were shouting maroshaalemulleko [kill the bastard Muslim]and jai Sri Ram [a Hindu nationalist slogan]. There were many other men who stood by who did not come to save me.”
The photo of Zubair being ruthlessly beaten in broad daylight in the streets of Delhi by a mob of young Hindu men was one of the most shocking images of the brutal religious riots that engulfed Delhi, where Hindus were pitted against Muslims, thousands were injured and 43 people killed.
The violence raged across the north-east of India’s capital for four days as mosques were set alight, Muslims were burned alive in their homes or dragged out into the streets and lynched. Muslim businesses and property were also set alight.
In streets where Hindus and Muslims had lived peacefully side by side, bodies lay bloodied alongside discarded and burned-out cars, bikes, shattered glass and smouldering shopfronts. The police have been accused of enabling, encouraging or even joining in with Hindu mobs.
Hindu mobs were stopping men in the streets demanding to see their ID cards. If anyone refused, they were forced to show whether or not they were circumcised, as is common among Muslim men.
Imran Khan, 30, a street hawker who lives in Shiv Vihar, north-west Delhi, was walking home on Monday evening when a group descended on him.
“Some of them forced me to pull down my trousers,” he said. “They started beating me violently as soon as they became sure that I was Muslim.”
Armed with iron rods, crowbars and metal pipes, the Hindu mob beat Khan unconscious. When he came to hours later, he found that the attackers, assuming he was dead, had tied a rope around his neck and dragged him into a gutter.
There has been brutality on both sides, but it was the Muslim community of Delhi who were overwhelmingly targeted by Hindu mobs in their tens of thousands. In Chand Bagh, one of the worst hit areas, only the Muslim businesses – hairdressers, ice-cream shops, butchers – lay in ruins.
Violence has been a stain on India’s history since partition in 1947, when Pakistan was formed as a separate Muslim state and up to two million people died in the fighting and its aftermath. Riots have continued to erupt along religious lines in a country where around 14% of the population are Muslim, with an 80% Hindu majority.
The fracturing of relations began in the 1960s and 1970s, but a flashpoint took place in 1992, when a right wing Hindu mob of thousands, which included several members of the now ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), tore down the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
When the BJP were elected to government in 2014, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, divisions widened. The BJP is the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation that has been accused repeatedly of orchestrating attacks on Muslims.
The BJP, which believes that India should be a Hindu, not a secular, nation, has fostered an environment of hate in India. Lynchings of Muslims began and Muslims have been gradually relegated to second-class citizens in their own country.
Even before he became prime minister, Modi’s reputation had been tainted by hatred and violence. As chief minister of Gujarat, he had been accused of encouraging sectarian riots in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead, 800 of them Muslims. Modi denies the charges, which resulted in him being banned from the US. He was cleared by the Indian Supreme Court in 2012 but has never apologised nor expressed remorse for the killings.
His landslide re-election victory in May 2019 prompted an escalation of the Hindu nationalist agenda. But it was the passing of a citizenship amendment act (CAA) in December last year that proved the tipping point. The law, which grants citizenship for refugees of every major South Asian religion except Muslims, was widely condemned as discriminatory. Many saw it as an attempt to enshrine the Hindu nationalist agenda into law and undermine the country’s secular foundations.
The controversy has triggered India’s longest period of unrest in 40 years, with millions of people of all religions taking to the streets in protest. But the BJP response has been to ramp up their rhetoric, particularly in the recent Delhi state assembly elections.
The spark for the latest violence was provided by Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader who had just lost his seat in those elections, when he incited a Hindu mob to violently remove a group of Muslims who were blocking a road in north-west Delhi in protest against the CAA. Addressing the peaceful protest, Mishra issued an inflammatory ultimatum: “If the roads are not cleared … we will be forced to hit the streets.” Stone pelting began between Muslims and Hindus, which quickly descended into the violence that spread through the city. (Source: The Guardian)