New Delhi: Riots Over Divisive Citizenship Law

The last week of February was filled with an outbreak of religious violence in northeast Delhi, India over a citizenship law passed in December. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) provides minority groups from neighbouring majority-Muslim countries a fast-track to Indian citizenship. Critics of the new citizenship law claim it is discriminatory and see the CAA as part of Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda, which includes revoking the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. The scope of the CAA being limited to those from Muslim-majority countries has led to criticism of trying to make religion a criterion of citizenship. 

Peaceful protests have been going on for months. Muslim protesters were attacked by Hindu nationalist mobs when a local leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Kapil Mishra, held a rally against the protesters. The resulting violence between Hindus and Muslims lasted four days and is the worst New Delhi has had in decades. It included the destruction of homes and shops, leaving dozens dead and hundreds wounded. The presence of security forces finally calmed the violence on Thursday. Sonia Gandhi, interim president of the opposition Indian National Congress party, was among those criticizing the federal and local government for being “mute spectators” to the violence

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also received criticism for the failure to control the violence.  After three days of silence, he tweeted, “Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times. It is important that there is calm and normalcy is restored at the earliest.” Amid claims that police were not intervening in attacks, a Delhi high court judge, Justice S. Muralidhar, criticized police negligence and called for an investigation into Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.  

On Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Anurima Bhargava in response to the riots wrote, “the government is failing in its duty to protect its citizens. These incidents are even more concerning in the context of efforts within India to target and potentially disenfranchise Muslims across the country, in clear violation of international human rights standards.” USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins added that “one of the essential duties of any responsible government is to provide protection and physical security for its citizens, regardless of faith. We urge the Indian government to take serious efforts to protect Muslims and others targeted by mob violence.”

India has been an example of people of different religions peacefully coexisting, but it is in the most integrated Delhi neighbourhoods that the recent violence took place.  The CAA protesters have been peaceful for months. After the recent riots, it is important to prevent the violence from escalating.  Peace can exist, but it requires leadership to be invested in bringing people together instead of dividing them.