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India Capital Experiences Worst Religious Violence In Decades — During Trump Visit


India's capital is experiencing the worst religious violence it has seen in decades.


CHANG: The riots in Delhi kicked off on Sunday and have now led to more than 20 deaths. This all took place while President Trump was visiting India, when he appeared at an enormous rally with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We are joined now by Joanna Slater. She's The Washington Post's India bureau chief, and she is in Delhi.



CHANG: So can you just tell us what you've been seeing on the streets where you are?

SLATER: So what we have seen over the last several days is violent confrontations between groups of Hindus and Muslims, sometimes with both groups claiming self-defense. At the same time, there have been Hindu mobs targeting Muslims, sometimes, witnesses have told us, with the tacit approval or the active assistance of the police.

CHANG: And I understand these riots began, in part, because of a citizenship law that Modi's government had passed. Can you tell us a little more about what this law does?

SLATER: The citizenship law was passed in December. It enshrines religion as a criterion for citizenship for the first time. It creates a fast track to citizenship for migrants from three neighboring countries, provided they belong to six religions, excluding Islam. So for critics, this law is both unconstitutional and discriminatory.

CHANG: But apart from anger towards this law, you also mentioned that there's now anger towards the police and how they've been conducting themselves during these protests. Has that become a separate issue that protesters are protesting?

SLATER: The role of the police is definitely a source of anger at the moment, but the real impetus for these clashes started with the Citizenship Act and also the broader atmosphere in the country at the moment, which is one of increasing polarization, increasing fear, particularly among Muslims, that Narendra Modi's government intends to marginalize them.

CHANG: And what's been Modi's government's response to all of this violence?

SLATER: Well, until this afternoon, the prime minister - Prime Minister Modi - had not said anything at all. Earlier today, he issued a plea for calm. But until then, he had been largely occupied with President Trump's visit and, perhaps, did not want to draw attention to something that reflected badly on him.

CHANG: Yeah, I was curious about that. I mean, this was all going on during Trump's high-profile visit there. Did Trump address any of these protests at all?

SLATER: He did not. He did not address the protests. He did not address the communal violence. He did not address the Citizenship Act. He simply said on those items that they were, you know, India's internal affair, and it was a matter for India to decide. At the same time, he praised Narendra Modi for his efforts on religious freedom. That appears troubling, ironic - you can pick the word - that President Trump was offering praise like that at a time when violence was unfolding about 10 miles away - religiously based violence, violence that involved supporters of Narendra Modi in some cases targeting Muslims.

CHANG: But ultimately, what are the goals of these protesters? I mean, is there a real possibility that this law could be changed anytime soon?

SLATER: It doesn't look that way. The government has made it clear that it will not entertain any changes to this law. I think the protesters will continue to register their opposition to the law. And in any case, it's still the most significant opposition to Modi's government since he took office in 2014.

CHANG: That is The Washington Post's India bureau chief, Joanna Slater. She is in Delhi.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

SLATER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.