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 Indian capital where it occurred, Muslim and Hindu 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.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist 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 spokesman 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 U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit in order to damage India’s image.
“This was 100 percent pre-planned,” he said of the violence, adding that 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 that the federal government, which controls 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.
Since cruising back to power in May, Modi has pursued a Hindu-first agenda that has emboldened his followers, who account for about 80 percent of the population, and left India’s 180 million Muslims reeling.
Now opponents and supporters of the law, largely divided between Muslims and Hindus, are facing off against each other. Some say the polarization evokes a dark chapter in India’s past.
“The violence is now happening in tiny pockets of Delhi and reminds you of the beginning of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist who leads a small political party opposed to the BJP.
He was referring to mob attacks on the Sikh minority after members of the community assassinated then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Thousands of Sikhs were killed in cities including Delhi in what Indian investigators said was organised violence.