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New Delhi streets turn into battleground during Trump’s visit

A shop was set on fire during violence between two groups in New Delhi Tuesday.
A shop was set on fire during violence between two groups in New Delhi Tuesday.Associated Press

NEW DELHI — In one part of New Delhi, President Trump was sightseeing and talking about his warming relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In another, a neighborhood was ripping apart in flames, along religious lines.

A mob of Hindu men, their foreheads marked by a saffron stripe, angrily patrolled the streets carrying iron bars, clubs, and a bright blue aluminum baseball bat. They were itching for a fight.

The streets were littered with scraps of brick. All shops were closed, and almost no women or children were out — except for two Hindu women brandishing sticks and threatening journalists. The whole area felt as if it were about to ignite.

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Gangs of Hindus and Muslims have been clashing in the neighborhood, Maujpur, and surrounding areas since Sunday, killing at least 11 people, including a police officer bashed in the head with a rock.

As Trump and Modi continued with their program Tuesday, discussing geopolitics and lunching together, thousands of furious residents faced off again, hurling gasoline bombs, attacking vehicles, hospitalizing several journalists and drawing more and more police officers and paramilitary troops.

The violence is connected to the ongoing protests against India’s divisive citizenship law, but this was the first time that the protests have set off major bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims. It is an old and dangerous fault line, and any sign of communal violence raises alarm instantly.

“The situation is volatile and tense,” said Alok Kumar, a senior police officer. “It’s a mixed neighborhood and in seconds you can have crowds of tens of thousands. Even a small thing can lead to violence.”

In the Muslim quarters, many people felt victimized and accused Modi’s government of abandoning them. This is a longstanding grievance: that Modi’s ruling political party, which is rooted in a Hindu-nationalist worldview, has taken sides and abetted violent religious extremists.

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Modi had choreographed Trump’s visit as a demonstration of India’s rising stature on the world stage, seeking to turn the page on months of street protests.

Demonstrations keep breaking out against the citizenship law, which makes it easier for migrants of every significant South Asian religion except Islam to become Indian citizens. Hundreds of thousands of Indian Muslims have protested, joined by students, academics, human rights activists, and those worried about the country’s direction. Many of them say the new law is a grave threat to India’s traditions of being a secular and inclusive nation.

Since last year’s election handed Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party another term in power, many Indians feared a resurgence of communal violence, sparked by Hindu triumphalism and Muslim desperation. Until now, however, most of the demonstrations remained peaceful.

Maujpur is a working-class neighborhood about a half-hour’s drive from the center of Delhi. Gray, two- and three-story buildings stand along its roads, housing small factories and many migrant workers.

For the past several weeks, Muslim residents, many of them women, have been protesting the citizenship law. On Saturday night, they began to block a major road.

The next day, Kapil Mishra, a local leader from Modi’s political party, showed up. He threatened to mobilize a mob to clear out the protesters. He said he did not want to create trouble while Trump was visiting but warned the police that as soon as Trump left India on Tuesday night, his followers would clear the streets if the police didn’t.

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Tensions shot up. As Sunday evening approached, gangs of Hindu men and Muslim men began throwing rocks at each other. This quickly degenerated into wider violence, with Hindu residents accusing Muslims of attacking Hindu statues and Muslim residents expressing fear that a Hindu mob was forming to get them.

Shoaib Ahmad, a Muslim businessman who makes a living repairing tires, said his shop was burned down Monday night by a Hindu mob as he stood on the roof of his house.

“All my dreams were destroyed in those flames,” Ahmad said.

What made it even worse, he said, was that police officers encouraged the mobs to burn down Muslims’ property.

Images circulating on social media showed a group of Hindu men beating a Muslim man with sticks, leaving him on the ground, curled up in a ball and covered in blood.

Several Muslim residents in Maujpur and adjacent neighborhoods said that police officers had stood by while they were attacked. In mob lynchings of Muslims in the recent past, in other parts of India, many people have made similar accusations against officials in Modi’s party, saying that police officers under their command did not intervene.

A stretch of highway between Maujpur’s Hindu neighborhood and a nearby Muslim-dominated area called Jaffrabad now serves as a no-man’s land. It is lined by deserted shops, the asphalt marred by burn marks. Few people dare to walk through here. India is about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim.

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Several police officers conceded that they felt more comfortable deployed in the Hindu crowd that had gathered at one end of the buffer zone than with the Muslims massed at the other. While the Muslim crowd hoisted a big Indian flag, the Hindu crowd chanted religious slogans.

Members of a Hindu mob, armed with crude weapons, begged police to let them attack Muslims.

“Give us permission, that’s all you need to do,” one mob leader said. “You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score,” he said, and then used a slur to refer to Muslims.