The 2020 Delhi Riots: Implications for Southeast Asia

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The 2020 Delhi Riots: Implications for Southeast Asia

The recent anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi have elicited a strong rebuke from Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia.

The 2020 Delhi Riots: Implications for Southeast Asia

A Muslim man holds up a poster during a rally outside the Indian Consulate General in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, March 2, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

Since the 1980s, India’s capital city has witnessed a spate of inter-racial and religious riots. In November 1984, there were Hindu-Sikh riots as Hindu mobs took revenge on the Sikh community following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards. A few years later in 1992, Hindu-Muslim riots flared after the Babri Masjid mosque was razed to the ground.

The February 2020 sectarian violence was among the deadliest to engulf New Delhi in over 30 years, and resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds more wounded. It followed months of peaceful protests against a controversial new citizenship law, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which was passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-controlled parliament in December 2019.

The measure fast-tracks citizenship for religious minorities, both legal and illegal, from neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but excludes Muslims, and is seen by its critics as discriminatory toward Muslims. In conjunction with the controversial proposal for a National Register of Citizens, which requires people to produce documents of ancestry to be listed as citizens, the act would make thousands of Indian Muslims stateless, critics say.

It became a lightning rod in the February 2020 local government elections in Delhi, where the BJP, which championed the CAA, was heavily defeated by the Aam Admi Party.

The catalyst for the recent riots was the attempt by the BJP and its defeated local candidate, Kapil Mishra, to remove a sit-in by protesters against the CAA at the Jaffrabad metro station in northeast Delhi on February 22. The following day, Mishra, who had been defeated at the polls earlier in the month, and his supporters, mostly from outside Delhi, many armed with weapons and donning Hindu symbols, attacked the protesters.

Within hours, the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in more than three decades exploded. Between February 23 and March 1, mobs of Hindus and Muslims clashed, resulting in dozens of casualties, while vehicles, shops, and houses were razed to the ground. In all, 53 people were killed, mostly Muslims.

The police, which comes under the purview of the Home Affairs Ministry headed by BJP strongman, Amit Shah, was criticized for both failing to quell the violence or, worse, standing idle while Muslims and their properties were attacked.

Impact of the Anti-Muslim Riot for India

Both within Delhi and around India, the riots served to coalesce unity among Muslims, as well as civil society groups that promote a secularist agenda and oppose the CAA. Even after March 1, when clashes had dissipated, hard-line elements of the BJP, including Mishra, continued to stir animosity by propagating a narrative that the violence was provoked by anti-nationals, aiming to undermine India, including during celebrations of the Hindu festival of Holi on  March 9. In a Hindu-majority nation, the weaponizing of a dangerous mood by Hindu nationalists and their religious supporters has further polarized Delhi, which has a huge Muslim presence tracing back several centuries. This has led to fears that violent Hindu extremism could spin further out of control.

For many Muslims, especially in Delhi, the riots were reminiscent of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, which were then alleged to be targeted attacks organized by Congress leaders. This time, the Delhi riots were seen by some commentators as targeted attacks orchestrated by the BJP, a party with Hindu supremacist ideology, to silence the Muslim protests against the CAA, to take revenge against Muslims for the BJP’s defeat in the February 8 local elections, as well as to fulfill a long-term goal of undertaking “ethnic-religious cleansing” by driving out Muslims from Delhi.

The riots occurred after other contentious policies, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy on Kashmir that revoked the Muslim-majority territory’s special status in August 2019. This means that Indian Muslims’ anger toward the BJP is likely to be protracted in nature. To that extent, domestically, the Delhi riots have been likened to anti-minority pogroms à la Gujarat 2002 and Delhi 1984, undermining India’s image as a peaceful and tolerant secular multiracial state, while alienating its more than 200 million Muslims.

The Anti-Muslim Delhi Riots and Southeast Asia

While India’s relations with Southeast Asia are general good, there has been intermittent friction, particularly involving Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Both have historically been closer to India’s political and military nemesis, Pakistan, also siding with the latter against India’s domestic policy on Kashmir.

Not surprisingly, there was strong criticism in Indonesia and Malaysia against the alleged targeting of Muslims in Delhi, with many viewing the violence as a continuation of Modi’s anti-Muslim policies seen in Gujarat (during his tenure as the state’s chief minister), Kashmir, and the passing of the CAA. The continuous demonstrations worldwide outside Indian embassies, including in Europe and North America, also did little to enhance India’s soft power or image as a modernizing democracy.

Following the Delhi riots, protests, and criticism in Indonesia came from the minister of religious affairs, members of parliament, Majelis Ulama Indonesia, and, expectedly, hard-line Islamic and civic groups such as Front Pembela Islam, Persaudaraan Alumni 212, and Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa-Ulama as well as Islamic groups in Sumatra such as Umat Muslim India Sumatra Utara and Al-Jam’iyyatul Washliyah Sumatra Utara

Indonesian critics accused India of undertaking targeted attacks on Muslims and violating international laws on human rights. These attacks were also seen as part of a wider worldwide persecution of Muslims, in Europe, North America, and Asian countries such as China against the Uyghurs and Myanmar against the Rohingyas.

Actions taken by Indonesians included demonstrations in Jakarta and Medan, attempts to meet the Indian ambassador in Jakarta and consul general in Medan, calls for sanctions against India, including a boycott of Indian products, burning of Indian flags and effigies of Modi, calls for severing of diplomatic ties with India, and even threats to undertake sweeping action against Indian nationals and Indonesians of Indian descent.

Similarly, in Malaysia groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir Malaysia, and ABIM (Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia), as well as hard-line Islamic preachers such as Zakir Naik, openly criticized the Delhi riots as a blatant persecution of Muslims by the majority Hindus, backed by hard-liners in the BJP. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also criticized the CAA as being discriminatory toward Muslims, similar to India’s policy toward Kashmir.

Even though Malaysian Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully, ties between them need to be monitored as there have been anti-Hindu sentiments in the past, with Hindu temples being attacked. In view of the Delhi riots, there is a danger that local Hindus may become targets of radical Malay-Islamic groups, given that UMNO and PAS have exploited this vote bank since May 2018 for domestic political purposes. However, the newly-installed Muhyiddin government is unlikely to tolerate this given its current preoccupation with combating the COVID-19 threat.


Indian actions in Kashmir, the CAA, and the 2020 Delhi riots have come to be seen as targeted and deliberate violence against Muslims, with its impact stretching beyond India’s borders. As India is already facing a serious threat of Islamic radicalism and terrorism, these Indian actions may act as new vectors for the radicalization of Indian Muslim youths. Similarly, in regions outside India, such as Southeast Asia, a similar consequence can be expected, signposting how actions in one region can have negative consequences elsewhere in this globalized world.

Jasminder Singh is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University