It took days to find the neighbor, a jeweler named Sanjiv Kumar. He lived in a narrow alley where the tenements are built alongside a drain and the houses hug one another. Kumar broke down as he described the night the rioters came for his Muslim friend. “Some people call me a terrorist because I saved a life,” he said in an interview. His family has been getting death threats. Kumar’s aunt told me the family was ready for the consequences. “It’s better to die than to live in fear,” she said.
More than 40 people, the majority of them Muslims, were killed last week. Both Hindu and Muslim communities have suffered pain and anguish, so the displays of solidarity gave me hope. In recent years we’ve seen division and hatred inundate the airwaves, social media and almost all aspects of political life, but many practiced something above all that. More stories have emerged of neighbor standing up for neighbor. One man was burned trying to save his Muslim friends, and Muslims formed a human chain around a local Hindu temple to ensure no harm would come to it.
These were all powerful, redemptive moments, to be sure, but they cannot be invoked to gloss over the fact that every institution in our democracy has failed the riot victims. Thousands of distress calls were ignored; there is even clear evidence of instances where the police participated in mob violence. Officers were seen in a video beating young Muslim men and forcing them to sing national songs as they pleaded for help. Faizan, a 23-year-old seen on that video, has died. Another man, Kausar Ali, is critically ill. Other men assaulted by the police are too terrified to speak.
If the police first failed the people with a combination of ineptitude and willful participation, now it is the government and other institutions of the state who are failing. The riot victims have effectively been left to fend for themselves as official agencies abdicate their duties to keep people safe and help them rebuild their lives. The cynical indifference of politicians and the police, the bias of the news media, the apathy of many Delhi residents already “moving on” — all have conspired to erase and abandon the victims.
In the aftermath of Delhi’s engineered violence, political leaders are not taking any responsibility. They are not even willing to show perfunctory compassion.
India’s home minister, Amit Shah, blamed the opposition for instigating violence and expressed no empathy for those who have suffered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made calls for calm but has made no further attempts to reach out to the desolate citizenry. When an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, the Modi government announced help within hours. It has been a week since the riots, and the BJP government has yet to make any similar effort or announcement for its own citizens.
The riots took place in the context of sustained protests, including a major vigil by Muslim women, against the government’s divisive citizenship legislation and counter-agitations by its supporters, including inflammatory speeches by BJP politicians such as Kapil Mishra, who called for “shooting traitors.”
The ruling BJP has clearly not offered any sympathy or solutions for a situation its policies have been accused of fomenting, but where is the opposition?
The Congress made some rhetorical noises, but none of its people are on the ground helping victims. The local government, led by Arvind Kejriwal (who just won a stunning victory over Modi’s party), has been strangely limp and tentative. Faced with loud criticism, the Delhi government has finally sent relief teams into the field and opened shelters and community centers. But the response has been strikingly slow. Besides, one would have expected Kejriwal and his legislators to be at hospitals, community kitchens and standing by the grieving families burying and mourning their lost ones.
Instead, citizen initiatives and community groups have had to lead the relief effort, including providing food and medical assistance.
At the house of Prem Singh, a rickshaw puller and father of three who was shot in the chest by a mob, his family wants to know where is the help, where are the politicians. “No one has come to meet us, neither our parliamentarians nor our legislators,” Singh’s brother screamed.
Meanwhile, bodies are still being recovered. The death toll could continue to climb.
And our leaders are still not ready to offer solace to the living.