Indian police have arrested 514 people for deadly Hindu-Muslim violence that broke out in the capital, the government said, as it faced mounting international criticism for failing to protect minority Muslims.
Police said the toll from days of blood-letting stood at 35, but local media, citing unnamed sources, said it was likely to be more than 40 as the full extent of the violence that began on Sunday in a densely-packed locality in northeastern Delhi becomes clear.
Police are still searching drains and homes that were burnt down for bodies, officers said.
More forces had been deployed at mosques in the area for the weekly Friday prayers, the government said. There had been no new violence since Wednesday morning, it said in a statement late on Thursday.
The violence began over a citizenship law that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government introduced in December providing a path to Indian citizenship for six religious groups from neighbouring countries, but not Muslims.
Critics say the law is discriminatory and comes on top of other measures such as withdrawal of autonomy for Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir that has deepened disquiet about the future of India’s 200 million Muslims.
Critics of the government however blamed this week’s violence on members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was trounced in local Delhi elections at the beginning of the month. The BJP has denied the allegations.
Ultimately, the violence morphed into street battles between Hindu and Muslim groups with the police largely ineffective in controlling the situation.
‘Gun down traitors’
In December at least 30 people were killed, mostly in police action in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to a significant Muslim population, after the citizenship law was passed.
Many of India’s 200 million Muslims fear the citizenship law — combined with a mooted citizens’ register — will leave them stateless or even sent to detention camps.
They and critics see Modi’s right-wing ruling party, which is linked to once-banned militaristic Hindu group RSS, as wanting to turn officially secular India into a Hindu nation.
His party has denied the allegations but in recent weeks BJP politicians, in an ugly recent campaign for Delhi elections, called the demonstrators “anti-nationals” and “jihadists”.
One BJP leader, Parvesh Verma, said protestors “could enter houses and rape and kill your sisters”, while another, Anurag Thakur, encouraged a crowd to chant “gun down traitors”.
A call on Sunday by another BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, for “Hindus” to clear a northeastern Delhi sit-in protest is being seen as the spark for the current unrest.
On Wednesday a Delhi High Court judge, Justice S. Muralidhar, sharply criticised the police and called on them to investigate BJP politicians for inciting violence.
Muralidhar was transferred to another state court in a late-night order, prompting a social media storm. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad insisted it was a “routine transfer”.
Turkish, US reaction
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on India’s political leaders to “prevent violence”, while the Organisation of the Islamic Conference said it “condemns the recent and alarming violence against Muslims in India”.
On Wednesday the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises Washington but does not set policy, voiced “grave concern” about the violence as President Donald Trump was visiting.
Trump, asked at a news conference in the capital about the violence, said the issue was “up to India” and praised Modi’s “incredible” statements on religious freedom.
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit out against “massacres” of Muslims in India.
“India right now has become a country where massacres are widespread. What massacres? Massacres of Muslims. By who? Hindus,” Erdogan said during a speech in Ankara.
Erdogan accused the mobs attacking Muslims of hurting children studying in private tuition centres with “metal sticks as if to kill” them.
“How will these people make global peace possible? It is impossible. When making speeches — since they have a large population — they say `we are strong’ but that is not strength,” Erdogan added.
Meanwhile, the United States urged India to respect the right to peaceful assembly and called on all sides to refrain from violence.
In a cautious statement, the top US diplomat for South Asia sought to show little distance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was welcoming President Donald Trump on a visit when the violence erupted.
“We echo (Modi’s) call for calm and normalcy and urge all parties to maintain peace, refrain from violence and respect the right of peaceful assembly,” Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells wrote on Twitter.
Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front-runner seeking to challenge Trump in November elections, denounced Trump’s response to the “widespread anti-Muslim mob violence”. “Trump responds by saying, `That’s up to India’. That is a failure of leadership on human rights,” Sanders tweeted.