Updated at 2:50 pm ET
Riots and mob violence have rocked neighborhoods for three nights in New Delhi — the Indian capital's worst sectarian tumult in decades. At least 20 people have been killed in the fighting, which follows months of mostly peaceful protests over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim refugees.
Clashes erupted Sunday after a local official from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party vowed to clear anti-government protesters from the city. The local politician, Kapil Mishra, led a rally in Jaffrabad and tweeted that Delhi police had three days to clear the protest sites. Groups were soon throwing rocks and attacking one another.
Mishra and other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have been accused of inciting violence through their speeches.
Hindu mobs appear to have targeted Muslims primarily — not people protesting the citizenship law. Most of the clashes have taken place in neighborhoods in northeast Delhi, where followers of many faiths live. Hundreds of people reportedly have been injured.
"While fresh clashes have not been reported on Wednesday, the city continues to simmer," the BBC reports, adding that people are coming into hospitals with head injuries and bullet wounds and saying they are too scared to go home. Mobs have stopped people and demanded to know their religion. "At least one photojournalist said he was asked to remove his pants to prove his religious identity," the BBC adds. (Circumcision is common among male adherents of Islam.)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose BJP party has been accused of marginalizing India's Muslims, put out a call for peace Wednesday.
"Peace and harmony are central to our ethos,'' he tweeted. "I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times."
India is roughly 80% Hindu. Muslims make up the largest minority, with about 14% of the population — or more than 180 million people.
The photo of a Muslim man crouching and shielding his head as he is beaten Monday in Delhi by a mob of people reportedly shouting pro-Hindu slogans has quickly become a symbol of the violence. In Kolkata on Wednesday, a demonstrator opposing the violence held a placard with this photo and the words "Muslim Lives Matter." The man, identified by Reuters as 37-year-old Mohammad Zubair, survived but says that at one point, he thought he would die.
Most of those who were killed in the recent clashes died of gunshot wounds, local doctors told The New York Times, and witnesses told the newspaper that that firing came from the direction of police officers. Muslims have complained that police are standing by while their homes and businesses are attacked.
India's Parliament passed the new citizenship law in December. Demonstrations followed, as protesters argued the law is unconstitutional because it treats Muslims differently from Hindus, Buddhists and other religious groups. In one New Delhi neighborhood, many Muslim women had been protesting against the law for several weeks. On Sunday, hundreds of the women sat in protest, blocking a road that had been reopened after two months.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi warned American citizens on Wednesday to exercise caution and avoid demonstrations.
Among those killed in the past three days was Mohammed Furkan, a father of two. His brother, Mohammed Imran, told local TV that Furkan had gone out in search of a grocery store that was open. His children were hungry, and their local market was closed because of the riots.
Imran doesn't know whether his brother was shot in the crossfire or targeted for being Muslim.
"My world is shattered. He has small children, a son and a daughter," the brother said.
Some Muslim residents were seen leaving the Mustafabad quarter on Wednesday with bundles of their belongings, fearing continued violence.
On Tuesday, a mob of Hindu men climbed atop a mosque, broke down its doors and flew an orange Hindu flag from the minaret.
"I do not even know what to say," a local Muslim man who did not want to give his name told The Guardian. He said he watched as the mob destroyed the mosque, then looted and burned two Muslim houses next door.
"In 35 years, I have never seen a situation like this, Hindus and Muslims always lived peacefully here," he said. "We all celebrated Eid and Diwali together. Hindu women often came into the mosque with their children, so this was not just a building for Muslims but for the whole community. But whatever peace we had is now gone."