After Delhi’s burst of violence, a Muslim artist takes stock

Why We Wrote This

Some Indian Muslims have looked to the secular constitution as a badge for their protection, even as rhetoric and violence from Hindu nationalists rise. But faith that its promises are more than words is weakening.

Altaf Qadri/AP
A television reporter holds a microphone as she walks through a street vandalized during violence in New Delhi, Feb. 27, 2020. Dozens were killed during four days of attacks last week.

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Rehan was at work, teaching art, when he got the call that changed everything. Mobs were gathering in their New Delhi neighborhood, his wife said. Over and over, he called her to check in, but the situation grew worse. Get ready to leave, he told her. I’m coming home.

“It was like war in our neighborhood,” Rehan says. “We only came out with the clothes we wore.” 

That was last Monday: the start of four days of violence that left four dozen people dead in India’s capital, mostly Muslims. Tension had been building over a new law providing a path to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants. After years of growing concerns that the ruling Hindu nationalist party was pushing religious minorities to the sidelines, many Indians took to the streets.

Now, accusations that Delhi police stood by or even participated as mobs attacked Muslim homes, mosques, and businesses last week have fed the fears that India’s secular character, and religious freedom for all, are up for grabs.

“I have read the constitution of India, understood it,” says Rehan, whose home and art studio were set aflame. “I also understood the value of justice and courts, but nothing is left anymore.”

In just one day, Rehan lost his home, his art, and his faith. 

Not his faith in God, he says. But his beliefs about what it means to be one of India’s 200 million Muslim citizens – and the government’s willingness to protect them.

“Everything has changed now,” he says. 

Tension had been building in New Delhi for weeks, amid India’s largest demonstrations in decades. Hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets since December, when legislators passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), opening a path to citizenship for non-Muslims from nearby Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

The government defended the law as a means of protecting religious minorities in those countries. Critics at home and abroad, however, assailed it as discriminating on the basis of religion, in a violation of India’s secular constitution. Where were the protections, they asked, for groups like Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, one of the world’s largest refugee crises? Many viewed it as one more step in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindu nationalist agenda. For years, critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have said his government is pushing Muslims to the sidelines of the world’s largest democracy.

Thousands of demonstrators had been arrested, and two dozen killed. Counterprotesters and officials labeled the protesters “anti-nationals” and “traitors of the nation” – and one junior minister encouraged crowds to “shoot the traitors.”

Rehan, five years out of art school, sports a trimmed beard and short hair. (His last name has been omitted for his safety.) Coming from a family of skilled workers, he says his forefathers were his inspiration for becoming an artist.

“Like war in our neighborhood”

Last Monday, he was teaching an art class when he started to see the news: communal tensions erupting in northeast Delhi, where he lives. But still, he says, nobody expected disaster. He didn’t, either, until his wife called him at work. 

Mobs were gathering in their neighborhood, she said, and his mother instructed him to stay away. Over and over that night, he called his wife. But the situation had only grown worse by morning.

Mobs were searching for Muslim houses, mosques, and shops to loot and burn, and beating and shooting Muslims in the streets and their own homes. Collect my documents and your jewelry, he told his wife. Get ready to leave. I’m coming home.

“It was my responsibility to bring my family out safely,” he says. “It was like war in our neighborhood, but I still went ahead. Hindus were looking at us as if something major was coming. We only came out with the clothes we wore – my wife hadn’t collected the documents, either.”

He had to force his parents to leave, and abandon all the art in his studio. They fled on foot toward his brother’s rented house near the Al Hind hospital in Mustafabad – a Muslim-majority area – where many frightened residents have taken refuge.

For four days, the riots continued, killing at least 52 people – mostly Muslim – and injuring more than 350. Hindu mobs attacked Muslims, and Muslims retaliated. Video that Rehan received from a neighbor shows a cloud of smoke coming out of a house, burnt by mobs, and a blast, perhaps from cooking gas. In another video, Rehan points out a damaged mosque, saying, “I offer prayers at this mosque every day.”

But where the attackers were Hindu, many Muslim residents allege, police turned a blind eye, or even facilitated the violence. Video went viral of Delhi police beating a group of men, forcing them to sing the national anthem and mocking them with the word “Azadi,” or “freedom” – the slogan of the separatist movement in Muslim-majority Kashmir. 

Delhi police are directly under control of the federal government, and many were tasked last week with security for President Donald Trump’s state visit. On the first day of attacks, Prime Minister Modi responded to the riots on Twitter, saying police were working to restore calm.

“Peace and harmony are central to our ethos,” he wrote in a separate tweet. “I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times.”

Days later, however, at a march in Delhi, there were reports of BJP supporters chanting, “Shoot the traitors of the nation!”

History repeating?

Ghayur ul Hassan, a local resident and doctor who has been volunteering at the Al Hind hospital, says the violence recalls the Gujarat riots of 2002: three days of interreligious attacks that killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslim. Mr. Modi, then chief minister of the state, was barred from the United States over accusations that he failed to stop the killings.

Last week, Dr. Hassan wondered if history would repeat itself. “We didn’t receive any immediate help from the government,” he says. “We asked local medical stores for medicines, and doctors, paramedics came to volunteer as the situation escalated.”

For now, Rehan is staying at his brother’s rented apartment near the hospital, a small, private institution now hosting people who lost their homes. As an artist, he wants to return to his work. But his family, feeling traumatized, hasn’t let him venture out. A neighbor told him the house was looted and partly burned last Thursday, ruining several paintings in his studio.

Patriotism runs through Rehan’s work. His paintings show themes about communal harmony and nationalism: children standing next to the national flag, a mural of a yoga pose. In one of his classes, the children are drawing Hindu gods.

“I have read the constitution of India, understood it,” he says. “I also understood the value of justice and courts, but nothing is left anymore. The current rulers are not following it in the same form. People are so angry and hateful – if you go back to your house, even the police will not help you.”

Many who were displaced from northeast Delhi say they will not go back, including Rehan’s family, which hopes to sell its house and rent space in a Muslim-majority area. He feels increasingly pessimistic about the future, for him and all Indian Muslims. But he has not given up on his skill. 

“Art is a way to bring my emotions out,” Rehan says. “I used to be quiet about religion or communal issues. Religion is a way of living in peace, but in India it has become a reason to fight. Now, I want to express what people felt in these riots, what I felt.”

Already, he is brainstorming a project about the riots and residents’ suffering, sketching out what he has witnessed. He shows one picture he’s been drawing in the past few days, of a crying house.

“People have hesitation and fear,” he says. “I want to make an art installation around this. ... I want to display it somewhere.” 

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