India has been jolted by the deadliest communal violence in New Delhi in decades. The fighting began on Sunday, Feb. 23—just before U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in the country for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and quickly escalated into mass riots, with Hindu mobs targeting Muslim homes in the city’s northeast. At least 45 people were killed—mostly Muslims.
Ashutosh Varshney, a Brown University professor and author of the prize-winning Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, believes last week’s riots in Delhi bear some of the hallmarks of an organized pogrom. India has been there before: In 2002, in Gujarat, when Modi was the state’s chief minister, more than 1,000 people were killed in religious riots. Most were Muslims. While Modi was later cleared of wrongdoing by the country’s judiciary, critics say that he could have done much more to prevent the attacks. And in 1984, again in Delhi, an estimated 3,000 Sikhs were targeted and killed after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. In both cases, experts say, riots could not have been conducted without some complicity on the part of the police.
Varshney believes last week’s deadly clashes could be repeated in other parts of the country—and that Muslims are particularly vulnerable. Here is a transcript of Foreign Policy’s interview with Varshney, lightly edited for clarity.
Ravi Agrawal: There’s been a bit of debate about whether the violence in Delhi last week should be defined as a riot or as something more serious—a pogrom. Can you explain the difference?
Ashutosh Varshney: Pogroms are a special class of riots when it’s no longer simply a clash between two mobs or groups. Instead, the police are siding with one group either by looking away or by abetting and sometimes even directly participating in the violence. The key difference between riots and pogroms lies in the behavior of the state—through its police. The term was born in tsarist Russia when pogroms were launched against Jews.
RA: Given what we know now, how would you classify the violence in Delhi?
AV: On the first day and night—Sunday, Feb. 23—we saw two mobs going at each other. There were deaths on both sides. But on the second and third day, the partisanship of the police became clear. A mosque, a Muslim shrine, and Muslim homes and shops were attacked. The police did not respond to calls for help. Logs suggest a high volume of those calls came from predominantly Muslim parts of northeast Delhi. But the police failed to show up. Hindu mobs then attacked with abandon.
The second part is more direct participation. There are videos, in particular one which shows young Muslim men being hit by a Hindu mob. And the cops are asking the fallen and beaten Muslim men to sing the national anthem—as they’re being hit. That is quite egregious.
But the more significant evidence thus far is of the police simply looking away and not responding to Muslim pleas for help as homes, places of worship, and commercial enterprises were attacked with impunity.
RA: The fact that all of this happened in New Delhi, the capital city of India, is significant.
AV: Delhi has a unique structure for police operations. In every other part of India, the police report to the state government, and not to the central government, because law and order is defined as a state subject by India’s constitution. But Delhi’s police reports to the central government, not to the state government—technically, Delhi is not a full-fledged state. The fact that the central government is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would therefore make Modi’s government responsible for law and order in Delhi. And the minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, would be the final authority to which Delhi’s police force would report. So the responsibility for the failure to maintain law and order also lies at his door.
RA: Some of the perpetrators of the attacks were heard shouting “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Victory to Lord Ram.” Can you explain the significance of that chant?
AV: “Jai Shri Ram,” theologically speaking, is a celebration of Lord Ram, the Hindu deity known for compassion and considered to be the embodiment of the highest morality and ethics. But in recent Hindu nationalist ideological campaigns, Jai Shri Ram has been weaponized to express muscularity, masculinity, and coercion—as opposed to kindness and compassion. So, the meaning of Jai Shri Ram has been transformed into a battle cry for the establishment of a Hindu nationalist polity, presided over by a Hindu nationalist state.
RA: Given that you describe last week’s events in Delhi as bearing the hallmarks of the beginning of a pogrom, how severe is the danger of other, similar outbreaks of violence across the country?
AV: The most vulnerable Muslim populations are in BJP-ruled states, because the role of the police is critical—and the police comes under the state government. If BJP governments in various states of India push the police against the Muslims, then only the bravest police officers would resist, because the authority structure is very clear. The danger to Muslim minorities in BJP-ruled states is grave. Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population of 200 million, seems particularly vulnerable. Muslims comprise about 18 percent of the population there, and they are spread out all over the state. There was a big riot in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, for example, and the police were nowhere to be seen. UP is also ruled by a politician, Yogi Adityanath, whose anti-Muslim prejudice and fervor is well-known and has been openly displayed.
RA: What can civil society and the media do to prevent outbreaks of violence?
AV: Civil society can be quite important in creating bulwarks of resistance and peace, but that is not something it can do instantly. The creation of inter-religious networks between Hindus and Muslims takes a few years, if not more. The probability of integrated communities coming apart is much lower than the probability of segregated communities coming apart.
A more immediate issue always is how to minimize the extent or the intensity of violence. And that’s where the media plays a key role. By reporting courageously; by condemning what it finds unacceptable and sees as clear violations of norms, rules, and laws; and by creating a narrative of critique, the media can slow down or reduce the intensity of violence.
Sometimes the police intervene, too—even without political approval. Legally and constitutionally, the police can step in during moments of crisis. However, those police officers, administrators, and bureaucrats seem fewer in number today than was the case earlier. They are not entirely absent: I repeatedly came across in my research examples of police officers and administrators who would simply apply the law and not follow a political script. But a large number of police officers and bureaucrats do not have the courage to stand up to political authorities.
RA: Journalists in India are under threat, meanwhile. One photographer told the Washington Post a mob threatened to remove his pants to check whether he was circumcised—essentially to determine if he was Muslim. How much of this has to do with messaging from the government?
AV: The ideology of the government has created a ground-level situation where instructions do not have to come from the top. So-called agents devise their own strategies and think that by acting in a bigoted manner, by attacking Muslims, they could rise in the political hierarchy. So the incentive structure that gets created from the top begins to acquire a logic of its own and activates storm troopers and lower-level functionaries on the ground who try to interpret what the party bosses might appreciate or be pleased by.
RA: Prime Minister Modi’s second term began last May, after he won a landslide national election. While signs of the current muscular, chauvinistic brand of Hinduism were there in his first term as well—as we saw in several incidents of lynchings of Muslims, for example—there’s been a marked acceleration in the ruling BJP’s push for its social agenda. Why is that the case?
AV: Ahead of Modi’s first term in 2014, the political campaign had very few Hindu nationalist themes. I couldn’t count more than two speeches. You can say there were dog whistles and some displays of bigotry in the functioning of the midlevel politicians, but it wasn’t a dominant narrative.
In the campaign ahead of Modi’s second term, in 2019, the platform was more directly about the Hindu nationalist reconstruction of India. It can be claimed that given that the BJP’s vote share increased by 7 percentage points, India’s elections have authorized a more ideological and cultural push of the Hindu nationalist variety. But it’s also clear from the election data that the mandate was a complicated one. The vote in favor of Modi was not necessarily one of simply pushing a social and cultural agenda. National security was also an issue. Welfare programs had gained popularity: The BJP’s programs for sanitation and cooking gas were popular. To see the May 2019 election as a vote for an ideological restructuring of India would be to place an excessive interpretation on the wishes of the electorate. But that’s what happens in politics. The BJP seems sufficiently emboldened to use the legislative route to start restructuring the polity. And the Citizenship Amendment Act that passed on Dec. 11—leading to the current spate of protests—was the culmination of that.