India’s Muslims Accuse Police of Targeted Killings
As protests against a new citizenship law sweep the country, signs that the authorities are condoning and even instigating violence have India’s Muslims alarmed.
MEERUT, India—Every evening before dark, Mohammad Asif returned to his parents’ house after a day’s work ferrying commuters on his electric rickshaw. But on Dec. 20, 2019, night had fallen, Asif still wasn’t home, and his parents were very worried. That day in Meerut, the city in northern India where they lived, hundreds of their fellow Muslims had been protesting against India’s new citizenship law—which curtails some Muslims’ access to citizenship—and were clashing with police. Around 10 p.m. that night, someone forwarded Asif’s parents a photo of their son that had been circulating on WhatsApp—dead, face upturned, and mouth still open, a gaping red hole in his chest. He had been shot and died on the spot. “The man who brought him to the hospital said he saw a policeman shoot my son,” Asif’s father told Foreign Policy.
Aleem Ansari was Asif’s neighbor. When he wasn’t taking care of his elderly parents, Ansari worked in a restaurant baking chapatis in a tandoori oven. As the protests were picking up that day, the restaurant’s owner shut down early and sent Ansari home. On his way there, he was shot in the head. “The bullet pierced his skull and came out the other side,” said his brother, Sallauddin. In a video he showed Foreign Policy, a bystander in a black leather jacket holds up Ansari’s hand and says, “The police killed this man, he has just died.” In another clip seen by Foreign Policy, Ansari’s brain is spilled on the pavement. He was just 21 and had recently gotten married.
Asif and Ansari were among more than 20 Muslims whose families say were killed by mainly Hindu police officers that day in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Meerut is located. Thousands more were arrested. Since then, protests against the new citizenship law have continued across India, many of them drawing not just Muslims but Indians of various backgrounds who oppose their country’s first-ever law imposing limits on civil rights based solely on religion. Lately, however, the protests have turned into deadly sectarian clashes. Last week in New Delhi, 34 people were killed as mainly Hindu mobs swept through the city.
If the accounts of witnesses and civil rights activists are true, then the police in Meerut and other cities of Uttar Pradesh played a crucial role in instigating and escalating the violence, drawing increasing numbers of Indians onto the streets, and setting Muslims and Hindus against each other. Since then, civil rights activists say, police elsewhere have often stood by during violence—or actively sided with Hindus.
That the initial bout of police violence took place in Uttar Pradesh carries special significance for Indians. As India’s most populous state, it is a bastion of political power whose affairs echo far beyond its borders. It is also home to India’s largest Muslim population—about one-fifth of the state’s 200 million inhabitants—outside disputed Jammu and Kashmir. In Meerut, almost 40 percent of the city’s 1.2 million inhabitants are Muslim, including many Dalit Muslims, whose ancestors converted from Hinduism to Islam to escape oppression as so-called untouchables under the Hindu caste system. As part of India’s complex fabric of religions and ethnicities, the communities have lived largely at peace since Partition in 1947. While that peace has sometimes been punctuated by flares of communal violence, the events in Meerut on Dec. 20 had a different quality, because they did not involve a clash with the Hindu majority. If the allegations are true, Muslims were deliberately targeted by police.
The protests and clashes go back to early December, when the Indian parliament passed a new nationality law that many Muslims see as a threat to their status as equal citizens. The law gives a special track to Indian citizenship to immigrants from surrounding countries—but only if the applicants are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, Jain, or Christian. Critics say that the law is a blatant attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to implement his vision of a Hindu-dominated state, shore up support among the non-Muslim majority, and whip up sectarian tensions. Critics also say that Modi is using the law—and the conflict it has unleashed—to distract from other issues, including a worsening economy that grew at the slowest pace in more than six years during the final quarter of 2019.
Indian Muslims have always been terrified of Modi’s politics. He was in power in the state of Gujarat in 2002, when about 1,000 Muslims were killed in a pogrom. He was accused of condoning the massacre and not doing enough to stop the killings. In 2005, the U.S. government denied him a diplomatic visa for his suspected role in the riots.
Several politicians in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have publicly approved of the deaths in Uttar Pradesh. Dilip Ghosh, the leader of the BJP in the state of West Bengal, said the victims had been “shot like dogs”—and that “given a chance, we will do the same here.” A firebrand BJP politician in Delhi, Kapil Mishra, called on his supporters to “shoot the traitors.” Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed Hindu nationalist monk, swore “revenge” if any protesters were caught breaking the law, which most of his audience took to apply mainly to Muslims.
Critics blame BJP politicians for condoning and even encouraging police violence aimed at Muslims. Their comments “indicate an absolute carte blanche given to policemen to silence protests by gunning down people in the vicinity,” said Sanjay Hegde, a prominent civil rights lawyer who has brought cases before India’s Supreme Court. “The messaging seems to be that policemen will not be called to account,” he said. Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India, told Foreign Policy that most victims were shot above the chest, which to her suggests that the perpetrators’ intention was not to contain the crowd, but to kill.
Muslims are aware that the road to justice will be tedious. Sallauddin, the brother of one of the Meerut victims, said there were more than 10 witnesses of his brother’s death, but none is willing to come forward because they fear reprisal. He said the family has been looking for the eyewitness speaking in the video, but they have been told he’s left town. Police have arrested hundreds of people for throwing stones and other forms of violence, and they continue to add names to the list of suspects. Many young men have fled their homes in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods in Meerut and other cities in Uttar Pradesh—not because of any wrongdoing, but because they fear they may be the next to be arrested.
Uttar Pradesh authorities say police were only responsible for two of the deaths on Dec. 20—two protesters in the town of Bijnor, allegedly shot in self-defense. In Meerut, police said protesters accidentally shot each other or that the victims were killed somewhere else. But videos of the clashes show police firing at the protesters in plain sight. Ali Zaidi, a Delhi-based lawyer representing Ansari’s family, said police claims that Ansari died elsewhere before being anonymously dropped at the hospital are untrue. In a video he shared with Foreign Policy, police officers can be seen carrying Ansari’s body to a black car. “The police are trying to cover their tracks,” Zaidi said.
Many Muslims in India suspect their government is working to deny them their place in Indian society—and that the new law is just the first step. Civil rights activists accuse the Modi government of deliberately instilling fear among Muslims in order to pressure them to start leaving the country. In Uttar Pradesh, Hindu police ransacking some Muslims’ homes told them that “their property and their homes would soon belong to [the Hindus],” Krishnan said.
That leaves the victims’ families doubly devastated. They say they have made peace with their status in a Hindu-majority country but cannot understand why India should no longer be their home. “Why do they keep asking us to go to Pakistan, is Pakistan our uncle?” Ansari’s brother, Sallauddin, said. “We are Indians, we love India, our ancestors chose to stay in India. It’s our homeland too.”