New Delhi: Mohammad Zubair was on his way home from a local mosque in northeast New Delhi when he came across a large crowd. He turned towards an underpass to avoid the commotion; it proved to be a mistake.
Within seconds, he was cowering on the ground surrounded by more than a dozen young men, who began beating him with wooden sticks and metal rods. Blood flowed from his head, spattering his clothes. The blows intensified. He thought he would die.
Zubair provided his version of events at a relative’s home in another part of the capital, his head wrapped in bandages.
The mid-afternoon attack on Monday, captured in a dramatic Reuters photograph, came against a backdrop of tension and violence.
Near the area of the national capital where it occurred, protesters had been fighting pitched battles for hours across a concrete and metal barrier that divided the main thoroughfare, throwing rocks and primitive petrol bombs.
But the sight of a mob screaming pro-Hindu slogans suddenly turning on an unarmed individual, apparently because he was a Muslim, was a sign that growing tensions between members of India’s two dominant religions may be hard to contain.
Unrest across India began in December with the passing of a law that makes non-Muslims from some neighbouring nations eligible for fast-tracked citizenship — a move many Muslims say is discriminatory and marks a break from India’s secular traditions.
Persecuted religious minorities including from Hindu, Sikh, or Christian communities are eligible for citizenship, but those from Islam do not enjoy all the same advantages.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says the new citizenship law is necessary to protect persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and denies any bias against India’s Muslims.
“They saw I was alone, they saw my cap, beard, shalwar kameez (clothes) and saw me as a Muslim,” Zubair told Reuters. “They just started attacking, shouting slogans. What kind of humanity is this?”
“Everything will be fine”
BJP spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga said his party did not support any kind of violence, including the attack on Zubair. He blamed rival parties for stoking the chaos during US President Donald Trump’s visit in order to damage India’s image.
“This was 100% pre-planned,” he said of the violence, adding his party or its policies had nothing to do with the chaos. Reuters has no independent evidence that the protests were planned in advance.
Bagga said the central government, which controls the Delhi Police, moved to deploy paramilitary forces in order to bring the situation under control. “I believe within 24 hours everything will be fine,” he added.
Delhi Police were not immediately available for comment on the attack on Zubair.
“Remembering my Allah”
Delhi Police said in a statement on Tuesday they were making every effort to contain the clashes and urged people to maintain the peace.
Witnesses said police and paramilitary forces were patrolling the streets in far greater numbers on Wednesday. Parts of the riot-hit areas were deserted.
Several of those killed and injured had been shot, according to two medics at the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, where many of the victims were taken. Reuters could not determine who had fired on them.
Among them, 33-year-old Yatinder Vikal was brought in with a gunshot wound to his right knee. His brother said Yatinder was driving a scooter when a bullet hit him.
Reuters witnesses at a local hospital spoke to victims who were injured in the violence.
An unconscious Zubair was eventually dragged to safety by others who came to his aid after throwing stones to disperse his attackers.
The 37-year-old, who makes a living doing odd jobs, was rushed to hospital where he was treated for wounds to his head and released late on Monday. “I was thinking ‘I’m not going to survive this’,” he recalled. “I was remembering my Allah.”