NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace in Delhi on Wednesday after days of Hindu-Muslim clashes over a disputed new citizenship law sparked some of the worst sectarian violence seen in the capital in decades.
At least 24 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in the riots, according to hospital officials, with many suffering gunshot wounds, amid incidents of stone-pelting, arson and looting that coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s first visit to India.
Police and paramilitary forces patrolled the streets in far greater numbers on Wednesday, and swaths of the riot-hit areas were deserted.
“Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times,” Modi said in a tweet.
Modi’s appeal came after criticism from opposition parties over the government’s failure to control the violence, despite the use of tear gas, pellets and smoke grenades.
Sonia Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah, who is directly responsible for law and order in the capital.
The violence erupted between thousands demonstrating for and against the new legislation passed by Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.
Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has denied having any bias against India’s 180 million plus Muslims.
On Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said it was alarmed by the violence and it urged the Indian government “to rein in mobs and protect religious minorities and others who have been targeted.
The commission, which advises the U.S. government but does not set policy, voiced “grave concern” about the violence.
“One of the essential duties of any responsible government is to provide protection and physical security for its citizens, regardless of faith,” said chairman Tony Perkins, a conservative Christian close to the Trump administration.
Anurima Bhargava, a commissioner appointed by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voiced alarm at reports that Delhi police “have not intervened in violent attacks against Muslims.”
The criticism stands in contrast to the reticence of elected U.S. leaders. Trump, asked at a news conference in Delhi about the violence, said the issue was “up to India” and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “incredible” statements on religious freedom.
Separately, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi urged its citizens on Wednesday to be cautious following disturbances.
One victim, Mohammad Zubair, was on his way home from a local mosque in northeast New Delhi when he came across a large crowd on Monday. He turned toward an underpass to avoid the commotion. That 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.
“They saw I was alone, they saw my cap, beard, shalwar kameez (clothes), and saw me as a Muslim,” he said. “They just started attacking, shouting slogans. What kind of humanity is this?”
Mobs wielding sticks and pipes walked down streets in parts of northeast Delhi on Tuesday, amid arson attacks and pillaging. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed from a tire market that was set ablaze.
In northeast Delhi’s Brijpuri district, where Hindus and Muslims live in densely packed houses separated by narrow lanes, parts of a mosque lay charred and an adjoining anti-government protest site lay in rubble and burnt.
A first-aid post near the mosque stood smashed to bits, and the inside of the mosque was scorched, with melted fans hanging from the ceiling and molten prayer mats fused to the floor.
“The police should have protected both sides, but they only helped one side,” local resident Mohammad Arif said.
Both sides appeared involved in the violence, however, and there were both Hindu and Muslim victims being treated for injuries in a local hospital.
At Arun Modern Public School, a few houses down from the mosque, entire classrooms were burnt and on the street outside, desks pulled out from classrooms lay strewn on the road.
“A Muslim mob of several hundred broke in and ransacked the school,” said Pawan Kumar, a guard at the school.
A nearby building owned by a Hindu was still smoldering.
“If the police hadn’t come, we wouldn’t have survived,” said Sudama, a Hindu resident.