March 3, 2020 10:22 AM EST

Surrounded by smoldering houses and the blackened skeletons of burned-out cars, Mohammed Efaz picked his way through the streets of Khajuri Khas, a neighborhood in north-east Delhi.

The 32 year-old Muslim said he would never return to India’s capital after what he saw happen here last week.

“We will never come back here to live among Hindus,” Efaz told TIME on Saturday as he loaded a burlap sack into his small truck, preparing to travel back to his home village. “The divide between Hindus and Muslims is unbridgeable now.”

The violence began on Feb. 23 and lasted for several days, leaving at least 46 people dead in Delhi, the majority of them Muslims. It was the worst religious violence in India in years. Though some Hindus too were killed in the riots, it quickly emerged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Delhi police force his government oversees, had tacitly supported the mobs, who chanted Hindu nationalist slogans as they burned buildings and beat Muslims while police reportedly looked on.

Since the riots, hundreds of Muslims have fled the city, unsure if they will ever feel safe enough to return. Although both Hindu and Muslim houses were burned down in this corner of Delhi, on Saturday it was only Muslim families loading up their possessions to flee. “The ruling party has built an atmosphere against Muslims,” Efaz said. “Now, hate is being preached openly against us.”

For India, the violence has marked a bloody milestone after six years of governance by Hindu nationalists, who are now more politically dominant than ever before. Since winning reelection in a landslide last May, Modi has stoked his far-right Hindu nationalist base, many of whom see Muslims as invaders of a rightfully Hindu India. In August, Modi put Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, on lockdown and stripped it of its semi-autonomous status. His government is planning to construct a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. And his Home Minister, Amit Shah, is pushing forward plans to deport “infiltrators” from India with the help of a mass population registration program.

After days of silence, Modi condemned the violence in Delhi on Feb. 26. “Peace and harmony are central to our ethos,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is important that calm and normalcy is restored at the earliest.” But Muslims and academics alike say it was his own rhetoric that led to the riots. “The trend we see across India is that a lot of the violence perpetrated against Muslims these days is actually perpetrated by subsidiaries of the Hindu nationalist movement,” says Thomas Blom Hansen, a Stanford professor of anthropology who has studied religious identities and violence in India for three decades. “The government and the BJP can wash their hands and say, ‘we have nothing to do with it, these are just patriots acting on their own.’”

Security personnel patrol near burnt-out and damaged residential premises and shops in New Delhi on February 26, 2020.
Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

The policies and rhetoric of the ruling party are felt directly, too. The BJP has tried to cast India’s Muslims as terrorists, says Mohammed Numan, a Muslim resident of the Khajuri Khas neighborhood whose house was burned down on Feb. 25. Numan told TIME he had long expected the BJP’s rhetoric would cause riots targeting Muslims. “A vast majority of Indians have come to believe that Muslims are a threat to India — which we are not,” he said. “We are as Indian as they are.” Refusing to turn his face toward the smoldering ruin of his home, Numan recalled how his Hindu neighbor used to taunt him, saying that soon Muslims would be stripped of their voting rights and thrown in detention camps.

“I’ve never seen Muslims more nervous than they are at the moment,” says Blom Hansen. “They live under this feeling that something bad is going to happen soon.”

As mobs rampaged through the streets, chanting Hindu nationalist slogans and targeting Muslim homes and businesses, Delhi’s police did almost nothing to stop them. In one video posted online, police are seen beating a group of Muslim men — one of whom has since died. As of Monday, police said they had arrested 903 people in connection with the violence — though activists say police investigations have disproportionately targeted Muslims. “I’ve seen, with my own eyes, police harassing Muslims in Muslim neighborhoods in the run-up to riots,” Blom Hansen tells TIME. “This is very well-documented. In India, Muslim neighborhoods are wildly over-policed in a way that’s akin to the way African-American neighborhoods are policed in the U.S.”

Mohammad Sahil Pervaiz said police were escorting rioters along when his father, watching nervously from a rooftop, was shot from close range by the mob. Pervaiz delayed taking his father for medical treatment in order to put a vermilion strip on his forehead — to disguise himself as a Hindu — because rioters hunting for Muslims had blocked all the roads leading to the hospital. It didn’t work. “I could not save my father,” Pervaiz, 26, said outside the morgue of a Delhi hospital, where over a dozen corpses were being kept. “[Hindu nationalists] think everything in this country belongs to them: the police, the administration and now even the roads,” he said. “It is as if we Muslims have no rights in this country.”

Violence in India between Hindus, who make up some 80% of the population, and Muslims, the country’s largest minority, punctuate the history of the world’s largest democracy. Even under India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who envisioned a secular nation where all India’s religions could live in harmony, sporadic religious violence broke out. (During the partition of British India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India in 1947, as many as two million people died.) But under Modi, the most powerful Hindu nationalist Prime Minister in Indian history, the violence has taken on a new, imbalanced, dimension. The Hindu nationalist alliance that Modi represents avowedly sees India as a “Hindu nation,” and as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi was accused of instructing police not to prevent a pogrom in which thousands of Muslims were killed. When he was elected in 2014, there was a sharp uptick in lynchings of Muslims. Since being reelected with an even bigger majority in May 2019, his government has “moved on to larger-scale, if still localized, state-sanctioned mob violence,” says Sumantra Bose, professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics. “This is a natural progression, given the nature, logic and purpose of the Modi-Shah government.”

A general view of the riot-hit in New Delhi on February 27, 2020.
Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, many of India’s 200 million Muslims are reckoning with a future as second-class citizens. In December, the BJP pushed through a new citizenship law that makes it easier for all of South Asia’s major religions, except Islam, to gain asylum in India. Shah, Modi’s Home Minster and de-facto deputy, hailed the law as proof of the BJP’s commitment to helping refugees, and said Muslims had nothing to fear. But taken together with a separate BJP project to combat illegal immigration, which would require all Indian citizens to prove their residency with papers many do not have, critics see ominous signs. In Assam, a northeastern state that has served as a testing ground for the population register, the Indian government is already constructing detention camps to house those who can’t prove they belong — many of them Muslims. “India is now face to face with the darkest period in its history as an independent country,” Bose tells TIME.

Against this backdrop, a widespread protest movement began in December. At universities and public spaces across the country, people still sympathetic to Nehru’s vision of a secular India gathered under tricolor flags and portraits of Mahatma Gandhi. Shaheen Bagh, a crossroads in a Muslim-majority southern Delhi neighborhood, quickly became the movement’s symbolic center. But staffed 24 hours a day by volunteers, many of them Muslim women, it just as rapidly became a potent political target for the BJP, which has sought to paint opposition to the citizenship law as an “anti-national” project facilitated by India’s arch-rival Pakistan.

If the rioting in Delhi was inevitable in the current climate, its immediate spark came on Feb. 23 when Kapil Mishra, a local politician for Modi’s BJP, made a speech. Addressing a crowd, and flanked by an Indian Police Service official, he called for police to clear protesters in Jafrabad in northeast Delhi, who had been inspired by those at Shaheen Bagh. Mishra, who as an unelected local politician has no official sway over law enforcement, later wrote on Twitter: “Giving a three-day ultimatum to Delhi Police to clear the roads. Don’t try to reason with us after this, because we won’t pay heed.” (When a judge in Delhi reprimanded the police for failing to arrest Mishra for hate speech, the judge was quickly transferred to another state by Modi’s government.)

Directly afterward, people inspired by Mishra’s speech clashed with anti-government protesters. On Feb. 24 and 25, the clashes became more violent, with Hindu mobs seeking out Muslim homes and businesses, too. Whenever a building went up in flames, mobs responded with loud chants of “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Ram” — a deity who has become an icon to Hindu nationalists). In one video posted online on Feb. 25, a man climbed a mosque carrying a saffron flag, a symbol of Hindu nationalism, as black smoke billowed in the background. As the dust settled, stories and photographs emerged of Muslims being beaten to death on the streets or burned alive inside their homes. One week on, the city is still counting its dead.

The riot-struck neighborhoods of Northeastern Delhi now look like a war zone, complete with refugees. As Efaz prepared to leave India’s capital forever to return to his home village in Bihar, India’s poorest state, he was in no doubt about who to blame. “The BJP has won in its battle to paint all Muslims as traitors,” he said, before driving off with his wife and four year-old son. “The hatred is so deep. This is what the Hindu nationalists wanted. They wanted to polarize society, to the point where it would be very difficult for us to return.”

Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com.

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