India's Modi appeals for calm as riot death toll rises to 24

Congress Party workers shouting slogans as they burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest against the violence occurring in New Delhi, in Amritsar on Feb 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appealed for calm as the death toll in violent protests in Delhi reached 24. More than 200 people have injured and at least a dozen were in critical condition.

Three days after deadly clashes broke out in north-east Delhi, and with the situation remaining tense, Mr Modi tweeted: "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. It is important that there is calm and normalcy is restored at the earliest."

The Prime Minister's remarks came even as authorities asked people to trust the police, who have been criticised by the opposition, the media and those affected by the riots for failing to rein in the violence.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urged the federal government to call in the Army even as opposition leader Sonia Gandhi called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah.

"Situation alarming. Police, despite all its efforts, unable to control situation and instil confidence," tweeted Mr Kejriwal.

The unrest in Delhi is the worst violence in the capital city in decades, exposing religious faultlines deepened by what critics say is the Hindu nationalist agenda of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party.

The police said they had arrested 106 people but have been accused of inaction and even of aiding and abetting rioters, a charge denied by those in authority. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval urged people to trust the police force, which comes under the federal government, to do its job. One policeman has been killed in the violence.

Critics have accused BJP leaders of making incendiary remarks that deepen the religious rifts, blaming in particular Mr Kapil Mishra, a second-rung BJP leader, who issued an ultimatum to the police that if anti-CAA protestors were not removed from his neighbourhood, people like him would do so. The Delhi High Court on Wednesday asked the police why they had not registered cases against BJP leaders who had made such incendiary remarks and asked it to make a call by Thursday.

Both Hindus and Muslims have been killed in the sectarian violence which broke out on Sunday between those supporting and opposing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Act gives citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The BJP said the Act protects persecuted minorities in thees Muslim majority countries.

One victim of the violence, 21-year-old Mehtab, was dragged off in front of his family on Tuesday by a mob shouting "Jai Shree Ram" or "Glory to Lord Rama", a few metres from his house in Brijpuri in the northeastern part of Delhi.

He was going out to buy milk.

"Our neighbours had locked the gate leading into the lane, fearing a (rampaging) mob would get in. We told him not to go," said his sister-in-law, Jasmeen Begum.

A few hours later, the family received an anonymous call saying Mehtab, who helped his elder brother in his business, had been set on fire. "He had been burnt and stabbed. His clothes had melted into his skin," said his elder sister, Saira Begum, weeping outside the mortuary at GTB Hospital.

"It is like brother against brother. I never felt this division between Hindus and Muslims, I feel it now."

Around 200 people have been treated in hospitals with injuries ranging from bullet and knife wounds to burn and acid injuries, and blunt weapon trauma. One victim had a hand drill pushed into his head.

Mr Anil Singh, 25, had gone with a friend, Deepak Kumar, 28 to buy cloth in another locality and was caught by a mob on their return.

"I managed to run away. He was hit so badly that his skull was split open," said Mr Singh, who said he had no clue where the mob came from. "After the mob left I found him. His forehead had been split open. Somehow I got him to the hospital but he was already dead."

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