Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s stand on recent religious violence in India’s capital and the subsequent police crackdown on Muslims may be politically expedient, but critics question whether it’s moral, writes the BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi.
An anti-corruption crusader, Mr Kejriwal entered politics a decade ago promising to clean up the political system and focus on development.
In Delhi, where his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been in power since 2013, they have been credited with turning around government-run schools, setting up affordable neighbourhood clinics and providing cheap water and electricity. Recently, they expanded their footprint to Punjab by sweeping the state election.
Mr Kejriwal has often said that his party believes in equality of all religions and justice for all. In a country where politics relies heavily on caste and religious divisions, many found AAP’s promise to refrain from “divisive politics” refreshing and hoped it would become a viable alternative to the big national parties.
But since last week, after Delhi’s Jahangirpuri neighbourhood was shaken by Hindu-Muslim violence, critics have been asking why he is not speaking up for the city’s Muslims.
Hindus and Muslims have blamed each other for the violence, which broke out after a Hindu religious procession marched past a mosque while celebrating a festival.
Afterwards, the federal government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sent in its police forces, which arrested mostly Muslim men.
The civic authorities, also controlled by the BJP, brought in bulldozers – officially to demolish illegal encroachments but widely seen to be aimed at “teaching a lesson to Muslim rioters” as most shops and businesses targeted belonged to the community.
The crackdown hasn’t come as a surprise – anti-Muslim violence has risen in India in recent years and there have been similar actions in some BJP-ruled states recently.
But critics say Mr Kejriwal’s response has been rather underwhelming. More than a week has passed since the violence, but he has not visited the area.
And his condemnation of the incident has been selective – he’s criticised the “stone-pelters who attacked the Hindu procession” but not the armed marchers who allegedly chanted provocative religious slogans, some of which have been used in recent years to mock Muslims.
“It’s the responsibility of the government to stand up for all citizens. But Mr Kejriwal has behaved like the chief minister of Hindus,” says Ashutosh, senior journalist and a former member of Mr Kejriwal’s party.
The chief minister’s tweet criticising the stone-pelters, he says, is “offensive because he’s failed to condemn what caused the stone pelting. The crowd was armed, they jeered Muslims and raised offensive and abusive slogans”.
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Ashutosh, who uses only one name, says Mr Kejriwal thinks that if he criticises the demolition, people will construe that he is supporting Muslims. In a country where 80% of the population is Hindu, he says, Mr Kejriwal is catering to a majoritarian vote bank.
“It’s unfortunate that Mr Kejriwal does not have the moral courage to stand up for universal values,” he says.
Mr Kejriwal’s response to the riots and the demolitions is also drawing comparisons with other opposition parties and leaders who strongly condemned last week’s events.
In particular, Communist leader Brinda Karat won much admiration when she turned up at the demolition site with a court decree ordering a halt to the drive.
After widespread criticism of Mr Kejriwal and his government on social media, AAP finally sent two of its legislators to the violence-affected area last Thursday – a day after the demolitions.
I spoke to two AAP lawmakers – Pawan Sharma, who was among the legislators who visited Jahangirpuri, and Abdul Rehman.
Defending the party’s decision to not comment on the religious violence, they insisted that “AAP is not silent but we choose not to indulge in the politics of Hindu-Muslim or temple-mosque”.
“We believe in equality of all religions. We do politics of development, we focus on education and health, we provide cheap water and power to people.”
Mr Sharma said the party had condemned the demolitions, the way it was carried out, and blamed the BJP for the mess.
“How did these encroachments happen in the first place? Why did the civic bodies, controlled by the BJP for the past 15 years, allow these illegal constructions to go ahead?” he asked.
In Jahangirpuri, the men and women who lost their livelihoods in the demolitions accuse Mr Kejriwal and his party of abandoning them in their hour of need. They include poor daily-wage workers, ragpickers, scrap dealers and roadside vendors.
“No party has visited us. The government is for everyone, but it seems there’s no one for us,” Anwari Bibi told me when I visited the area after the demolitions.
Sareja, who uses only one name, said, “Mr Kejriwal has washed his hands of all responsibilities. For everything, he blames the central government.”
Their neighbour, Sheikh Safijuddin, said Mr Kejriwal “doesn’t care for us anymore. He got what he wanted from us – our votes”.
Senior journalist Rakesh Dixit alleges the Delhi government has behaved like “a bystander” during the riots and the demolitions because it serves their purpose.
Mr Kejriwal, he says, has adopted “a policy of conservatism without offending Muslims”. He’s not shy about flaunting his religion in public – after his election win in 2020, he led a procession to a Hindu temple to offer prayers. He also often talks about equality and respect for all religions.
But, Mr Dixit says, AAP is no longer a party with difference. “It’s driven by political exigencies like any other party. It realises that Hindu nationalism will remain the dominant sentiment in the foreseeable future, so Muslims have become dispensable for them.”
He points out that this is not the first time “Mr Kejriwal has kept mum while Muslims have been targeted”, such as when they protested against a controversial citizenship bill or during the Delhi riots of 2020. He was also among the first to support the Indian government’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status.
“They choose their ideology based on what helps their cause at a particular time or in a particular place. At the moment their eyes are set on the forthcoming state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat where Muslim populations are small and societies are already polarised,” he says.
“By distancing itself from Muslims, AAP is trying to ensure that it does not lose the Hindu votes in those states”.