Source: The New Yorker
By Isaac Chotiner, who is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
During the past several days, more than thirty people have been killed in mob violence primarily targeting Muslims in the Indian capital of New Delhi. At the center of the conflict is the Citizenship Amendment Act (C.A.A.), a law passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu majoritarian government that creates a path to citizenship for immigrants of different faiths—unless they happen to be Muslim. Its passage sparked demonstrations across the country, many of which have been met by force from police and right-wing groups. Indian journalists have chronicled police inaction as Muslims’ property has been destroyed and Muslim residents have been beaten. There have also been reports of police officers beating Muslims, including the imam of a local mosque. Many of the Hindu mobs have chanted “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Victory to Lord Ram,” a favored slogan of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.).
Modi, who took office in 2014, has in recent months moved aggressively to restrict the rights of Muslim residents. Before the passage of the C.A.A., in December, 2019, Modi’s government revoked the autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, and implemented the National Register of Citizens (N.R.C.) in the state of Assam, which forced people to verify or forfeit their citizenship. And in Delhi on Sunday, a member of Modi’s party called on the police to get tough with protesters, or watch his followers do so. Several days later, Modi, who was hosting President Donald Trump when the violence broke out, belatedly called for the restoration of “peace and normalcy.”
To discuss the volatile situation in Delhi, I spoke by phone with Raghu Karnad, a journalist and the author of the book “Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.” He was in northeastern Delhi this week, where he and several other journalists barely managed to escape a mob. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his experiences reporting on the violence, how the Modi government capitalizes on the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and the difficulty of finding accurate reporting in India.
What have your experiences been like the past several days?
Wherever you go in the country, something seems to crop up with this protest movement. I went to the northeastern part of the city on Tuesday, to try and assess for myself what was happening there. What was evident through the afternoon was that gangs of young, angry men had been let loose on very marginal, vulnerable neighborhoods, and that police were either doing a very poor job or refraining from controlling them. The word that was used most was “clash”—that young Hindu and Muslim men were “clashing,” and committing violence and vandalism on each other’s property. What happens increasingly with events like this in India is that an intensely polarized and rapid-acting media machine makes it impossible to discern what is really happening, or what the facts on the ground are. Even if you work in the press, it is getting harder and harder to distinguish what an image is actually showing you. Was the video that has been sent to you that is supposed to show one community attacking another what it claims to be? Or is it something completely different? It became necessary for me to go down there and take the temperature of the place myself.
I want to go back to the news environment, but what did you mean by “let loose”? Because it is very hard to understand how much of this is planned and how much is spontaneous.
What was visible and obvious was that young men who were Hindu and young men who were Muslim were in confrontation, and there was an immediate dispute about which group was better armed, and whether it was the Hindus who were carrying firearms or the Muslims who were carrying firearms, whether it was the Hindus setting fire to shops or the Muslims setting fire to shops. If you have lived in India for long enough, or been a journalist here long enough, you try to tune that particular question out. Communal riots have been the permanent black eye on the face of Indian democracy, and it is only because we reduce them immediately to whether more Hindus were killed or more Muslims were killed, and which community was the guilty party, that the real question that never gets enough attention is why authorities fail to act in the moment to stop those riots. And that was exactly the salient question yesterday.
This is the capital of India. These regions are somewhat on the periphery, but you can jump on the metro and be there in thirty minutes from the center of Delhi. The police were obviously there in large numbers, and they were occasionally intervening and mostly standing by, and it is increasingly clear that they were sometimes slipping into participating into the violence themselves. We have images of police destroying security cameras and standing by while young men collect debris to pelt each other, and there are also allegations that the police did some of the throwing themselves. The principal question is why the police and the government allow the riots to take place, because it is clearly in their capacity to stop them. It’s also why it was interesting for me to go late in the evening, when a lot of journalists had drifted back to their newsrooms to file their stories and hand over footage, and to find that the police were literally standing by as gangs of young men continued to set homes on fire.