02:07 - Source: CNN
Several dead after violent clashes in India

Editor’s Note: Akanksha Singh is a journalist based in Mumbai, India. She covers politics and social justice, and has written for the BBC, The Independent and the South China Morning Post, among others. Follow her on Twitter @akankshamsingh. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

For decades following World War II, the free world has looked to the United States for democratic and civil guidance. So, when President Trump wrapped up his two-day visit to India in February and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India’s “religious freedom” following Hindu-Muslim riots in parts of the capital, it didn’t just feel like Indian democracy was crumbling further; it felt as though it had got the go ahead from a global superpower.

“We did talk about religious freedom, and I will say that the prime minister was incredible on what he told me,” Trump said while announcing a $3 billion trade deal with India at a press conference in New Delhi on February 25. “[Modi] wants people to have religious freedom … he said that in India they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom.”

Akanksha Singh

In reality, this religious freedom is under considerable threat, particularly for Muslims. The violence in New Delhi began over a disputed citizenship law on February 23, which led to clashes between Muslims and Hindus. The citizenship law, passed by the Indian government on December 11, 2019, grants fast-tracked citizenship to undocumented immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh based on their religion —provided they aren’t Muslim. Critics of this law see it as unconstitutional for purposely leaving out a religious group. India, the world’s largest democracy — where 80% of the population is Hindu, compared with 14% Muslim — has been secular since its birth in 1947.

So far, 52 people have died and more than 500 have been injured. The riots have also been accompanied by arson, stone-pelting, and larceny. The last time the city saw religious violence on this scale was during anti-Sikh riots in 1984, which followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

This recent violence isn’t just an isolated incident. It’s part of a disturbing trend in Modi’s India. Since the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power 2014, there has been a rise in violent crimes against minorities. The violence has followed a rise in overtly religious nationalism in India’s politics; several members of the BJP advocate for “Hindutva,” a principle that aims to define Indian culture through Hindu values.

So far, the US has declined to criticize the direction in which India is heading.

At his press conference in New Delhi, Trump declined to discuss the citizenship law, saying it was “really up to India” to handle. In describing Modi, Trump said he was a “very religious man” whom he admired and described India as “an incredible country. It’s got unbelievable energy.”

This isn’t the first time Trump has shown his support for Modi. Last year, Trump featured at the “Howdy, Modi!” event held on September 22, in Houston, Texas, attended by an estimated 50,000, many of them Indian Americans.

Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, also sought a warm relationship with Modi despite his record. Modi was, after all, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out under his watch in 2002. More than 1,000 people perished in those riots, most of whom were Muslim. The US State Department denied Modi a visa in 2005 over the issue. He has never apologized over what happened in Gujarat to date.

Given the divisive turn India has taken under Modi’s leadership, Trump’s support for Modi — offered, as it is, without much qualification and without any criticism — sends a dangerous signal that the US doesn’t have any problems with his ethno-nationalist politics.

The New Delhi riots were — as some of my colleagues have pointed out — a pogrom. There is nothing to debate there, no matter what right-wing media mouthpieces in India say. Muslims were specifically singled out, their houses torched, their livelihoods destroyed, and their lives threatened — just like they had been, years before, when Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister. Critics have leveled charges that police did not stop the violence, and the hatred for this minority has come from the uppermost levels of the BJP. “Shoot the traitors” has become a common cry at BJP rallies recently, after Anurag Thakur, the minister of state for finance, was seen leading a crowd with the inflammatory slogan in January. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Modi did not condemn these comments either.

The only statement Modi made came nearly three days after the riots erupted in New Delhi — in the form of a tweet: “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,” he wrote, adding in a second tweet, “Had an extensive review on the situation prevailing in various parts of Delhi. Police and other agencies are working on the ground to ensure peace and normalcy.”

The location in which the recent riots took place is small but significant. Muslims are being targeted by radical Hindus in the national capital, and violence has erupted without anyone in power taking decisive action to stop it. Since riots erupted, locals have accused police of standing idly by.

At present, the New Delhi police force is under the jurisdiction of the BJP-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, not the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party), the opposition party that controls the local government in New Delhi. Before the riots, some Hindus flew saffron flags outside their shops and homes to stay safe in northeast New Delhi. A CNN reporter observed a saffron flag hoisted above a mosque.

We in India are still in the early phases of this terrifying regime, but if the world doesn’t stand up and take notice soon, it will only get worse. India is very concerned about her image globally right now — it’s the reason a wall was built to hide slums before Trump’s visit.

In the months leading up to the US presidential election, it is imperative that Americans consider Trump’s support of Modi. India is the world’s second-largest country by population.

It’s important for the president of the world’s top superpower, as well as the candidates seeking to replace him, to condemn the ongoing hate crimes against Muslims as they unfold within the borders of an important ally and trading partner as it gains attention on the world stage.