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As New Delhi Counts the Dead, Questions Swirl About Police Response

Did the police fail to act as the country descended into its worst spasm of religious violence in years?

Mr. Musharraf’s wife, Mallika, being consoled by their daughter Muskaan in New Delhi on Thursday. Photographs by Atul Loke.

NEW DELHI — The mob smashed through the gate and cut the electricity. The men stormed up the steps, chanting the name of a Hindu god and brandishing knives, chains, iron bars and pieces of pipe.

The Musharraf family, who are Muslim, locked themselves in a dark room. The breadwinner, a 30-something rickshaw driver, threw himself under the bed and curled up in a wooden box. But the mob of more than 25 men found him. “Please, I’m also your brother,’’ he pleaded and folded his hands in front of his chest, a gesture for mercy, according to several survivors. “I also have young kids, like you.”

They clubbed him in the face and dragged him out. Family members, in hiding around the neighborhood, frantically called the police. No one came.

Mr. Musharraf’s wife, Mallika, waited in the darkness for the mob to leave her home and then tried to escape her besieged neighborhood with a band of Muslim children. She ran to the nearby house of a Hindu and put a bindi, a colored dot traditionally worn by Hindus, on her forehead.

When another mob, armed with sticks, bats and iron bars, halted her and demanded an identification card, she pretended she was Hindu. The men even stopped a 2-year-old child, pressing to see if he had been circumcised (which Muslims tend to do, but many Hindus do not). Luckily, it had not yet been performed.

“We were surrounded, they were killing us,’’ said Shakir, Mr. Musharraf’s brother-in-law. He and other relatives called the police dozens of times, he said, but either there was no answer or they were told that officers were busy.

“Nobody came to help,’’ he said.

Mr. Musharraf’s family received a call on Wednesday morning, after he had been dragged away the previous night. His wife, Mallika, said she had never given up on her husband coming back. “He’s the only person I have in this world,’’ she said.

A neighbor saw his corpse being lifted out of a ditch, along with six others, she said. His face was smashed.

The Musharraf family’s ordeal, which unfolded Tuesday night, is just one of many disturbing accounts of how pointed this violence has become.

As India’s worst spasm of religious violence in years entered its sixth day, with the death toll climbing to at least 38, questions are intensifying about why the New Delhi police failed to quell the bloodletting.

Since Sunday, gangs of Hindus and Muslims have clashed with crude weapons and homemade guns. Scores of homes, shops and cars have been set aflame. Many once-integrated communities are ripping apart along sectarian lines, with more accounts emerging of brazen religious targeting.

Police officers patrolling the streets of Jaffrabad in eastern New Delhi on Wednesday.

Witnesses have said that police officers, under the command of a Hindu nationalist governing party that has a long history of vilifying Muslims, intentionally stood back and let Hindu mobs slaughter Muslim civilians.

There are also growing concerns that President Trump’s visit this week, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had touted for weeks, drew away high-level attention and personnel, leaving neighborhoods completely exposed at a time of life or death.

Intelligence agents within the police services sent several alerts on Sunday asking for more forces to be deployed, but the chaos only grew, according to the Indian media. Delhi was preparing for Mr. Trump’s arrival and thousands of police officers were deployed to line the roads on Monday as Mr. Trump’s motorcade cruised into town.

“The whole city knew that riots were impending,’’ said Harsh Mander, a human-rights activist who is pressing the courts to investigate the ringleaders. “Why didn’t the police act?”

At a court hearing on Thursday, in which Mr. Mander accused several members of the governing party of engaging in hate speech and inciting the killings, the government asked for more time to investigate. Critics saw this as a stall tactic by Mr. Modi’s government to protect its own. The court gave the government four more weeks.

Alok Kumar, a senior police commander, said he was not aware that Mr. Trump’s visit had affected deployments. But two other government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that there had been a shortage of officers because so many had been assigned to provide security for Mr. Trump.

New Delhi, a city of about 20 million people, has about 80,000 police officers. Since it is the capital, they fall under the command of Mr. Modi’s central government. It was only after Mr. Trump left, on Tuesday night, that forces were shifted, the two officials said.

When Raveesh Kumar, a top government spokesman, was asked Thursday if Mr. Trump’s visit affected the way the riots were handled, he declined to answer.

“Frankly, what led to this and why this happened, I think this of course will be a matter of investigation,” he said. He added that law enforcement agencies were “working to bring the situation back to normal.”

It is not there yet.

The violence was triggered by dueling protests for and against India’s new citizenship law, which is widely seen as anti-Muslim. Many people have blamed Kapil Mishra, an ambitious politician in Mr. Modi’s party known for making anti-Muslim statements, for instigating the violence. He is among those accused of hate speech.

India is about 80 percent Hindu, 14 percent Muslim, and the areas hardest hit this week have been a string of hardscrabble, religiously mixed neighborhoods in eastern Delhi, about a half-hour drive from Mr. Modi’s office. The immensity of India is revealed out here.

Mile after mile of two-, three- and four-story apartment buildings stretch to the smoggy horizon. The buildings are constructed from the same drab concrete blocks, packed close together, and figures in bright clothes stand on the rooftops, stringing up laundry or simply looking out across the endless city.

Out here, the violence refuses to quit. A Muslim family who fled their home this week and dared to come back to collect their things on Thursday was nearly lynched.

Smoke still rises in some places. Bodies are still being found.

A mosque burned by rioters in the Mustafabad area of New Delhi on Wednesday.

The family of Mr. Musharraf (he had used one name) was instructed to go to the Guru Teg Bahadur mortuary, the nearest big one. But the authorities delayed releasing his body, prolonging the family’s grief. Nobody was giving any answers. And his was hardly the only body locked behind steel gates.

The growing crowd at the mortuary is becoming more suspicious. Some whisper that the government is intentionally delaying the funerals, as a way to lower tensions. But the stories being passed around aren’t helping matters.

“That guy in the white kurta,’’ someone pointed out, “His brother was burned alive.’’

“And that person over there,’’ another man chimed in, “his 80-year-old mother got trapped in a burning house and the police didn’t come.’’

Though both Hindus and Muslims have died, the killings and property destruction have been lopsidedly against Muslims. Many people believe this is because the state security services are controlled by Hindu nationalists and that police officers abetted the Hindu mobs. Witnesses say officers stood by when Hindu mobs attacked Muslims.

Near the mortuary gates, Mallika leaned against a wall. She closed her eyes. She looked exhausted.

But she wasn’t going anywhere.

A funeral on Thursday for a 22-year-old who died in the riots this week.

Sameer Yasir, Kai Schultz and Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

Jeffrey Gettleman is the South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. He was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for international reporting. @gettleman • Facebook

Suhasini Raj has worked for over a decade as an investigative journalist with Indian and international news outlets. Based in the New Delhi bureau, she joined The Times in 2014.

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 28, 2020, Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: As New Delhi Reels, Questions Swirl About Police Response.

Copyright 2020 The New York Times Company

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