BBC News – India coronavirus: Trouble ahead for India’s fight against infections

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

On the face of it, things may not look bad.

New Delhi – India, 28 May 2020. Since the first case of corona-virus at the end of January, India has reported more than 150,000 Covid-19 infections. More than 4,000 people have died of the infection.

To put this in some context, as of 22 May, India’s testing positivity rate was around 4%, the death rate from the infection around 3% and the doubling rate of infection, or the amount of time it takes for the number of coronavirus cases to double, was 13 days.

The recovery rate of infected patients was around 40%.

All this is markedly lower than in the countries badly hit by the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the world, there are hot-spots and clusters of infection.

More than 80% of the active cases are in five states, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and more than 60% of the cases in five cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad, according to official data.

More than half of people who have died of the disease have been aged 60 and older and many have underlying conditions, hewing to the international data about elderly people being more vulnerable to the disease.

The more than two-month-long grinding lock-down, official data suggests, has prevented the loss of between 37,000 and 78,000 lives.

A paper published in Harvard Data Science Review appears to support that, it shows an eight-week lock-down can prevent about two million cases and, at a 3% fatality rate, prevent some 60,000 deaths.

“Infection has remained limited to certain areas. This also gives us confidence to open up other areas. It is so far an urban disease,” says V K Paul, who heads the medical emergency management plan on Covid-19.

This is where such claims enter uncertain territory.

India is now among the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of total reported infections, and among the top five in the number of new cases.

Infections are rising sharply, up from 536 cases on 25 March when the first phase of the world’s harshest lock-down was imposed. The growth of infections is outpacing growth in testing, tests have doubled since April but cases have leapt fourfold.

Epidemiologists say the increase in reported infections is possibly because of increased testing. India has been testing up to 100,000 samples a day in the past week. Testing criteria have been expanded to include asymptomatic contacts of positive patients.

Yet, India’s testing remains one of the lowest in the world per head of population, 2,198 tests per million people.

The bungled lock-down at the end of March triggered an exodus of millions of informal workers who lost their jobs in the cities and began returning home in droves, first on foot and then by train.

Some four million workers have travelled by rail from cities to their villages in more than half a dozen states in the past three weeks.

There is mounting evidence that this has already led to the spread of infection from the cities to the villages.

And with the messy easing of the lock-down earlier this month, there are growing fears of infections spreading further in the cities.

Rising infections and a still-low fatality rate possibly points to milder infection in a younger population and a large number of asymptomatic cases.

The focus, says Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government think-tank NITI Aayog, should be “bringing down fatalities and improving the recovery rate”.

But if the infection rate continues to grow, “things are going to get pretty grim in a few weeks time,” a leading virologist told me.

Doctors in the capital, Delhi, and the western city of Mumbai tell me they are already seeing a steady surge in Covid-19 admissions and worry about a looming shortage of hospital beds, including in critical care.

When the infection peaks in July, as is expected, a spike in infections could easily lead to many avoidable deaths as hospitals run out of beds for, or delay treatment to, infected patients who need timely oxygen support and clinical care to recover.

“That is the real worry. A critical-care bed needs an oxygen line, a ventilator, doctors, nursing staff. Everything will be under pressure,” Dr Ravi Dosi, who is heading a Covid-19 ward at a hospital in Indore, told me. His 50-bed ICU is already full of patients battling the infection.

With the lock-down easing, doctors are feeling jittery. “It’s a tactical nightmare because some people have begun going to work but there is a lot of fear”, says Dr Dosi.

“One co-worker sneezed in the office and 10-15 of his colleagues panicked and came to the hospital and demanded they get tested. These are the pressures that are building up.”

One reason for the confusion is the lack of, or the opacity of adequate data on the pandemic to help frame a strategic and granular response.

Most experts say a one-size-fits-all strategy to contain the pandemic and impose and lift lock-downs will not work in India where different states will see infection peaks at different times.

The reported infection rate, the number of infections for every 100 tests, in Maharashtra state, for example, is three times the national average.

“The infection is not spreading uniformly. India will see staggered waves,” a leading virologist, who insisted on anonymity, told me.

The lack of data means questions abound.

What about some 3,000 cases, which are not being assigned to any state because these people were found infected in places where they don’t live? (To put this into context, nine states in India have more than 3,000 cases.) How many of these cases have died or recovered?

Also, it is not clear whether the current data, sparse, and sporadic, is sufficient to map the future trajectory of the disease.

There is, for example, no robust estimate of carriers of the virus who have no symptoms, last month a senior government scientist said at least “80 out of every 100 Covid-19 patients may be asymptomatic or could be showing mild symptoms”.

If that is indeed true, then India’s fatality rate is bound to be lower. Atanu Biswas, a professor of statistics, says the predicted trajectory could change “with the huge inclusion of asymptomatic cases”. But, in the absence of data, India cannot be sure.

Also, epidemiologists say, measures like the doubling time of the infections and the reproduction number or R0 have their limitations.

R0, or simply the R value, is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread. The new coronavirus, Sars-CoV-2, has a reproduction number of about three, but estimates vary.

“These measures are good when we are in the middle of a pandemic, less robust with fewer cases. You do need forecasting models for at least a month’s projection to anticipate healthcare needs. We should always evaluate an aggregate of evidence, not just one measure, but a cascade of measures,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told me.

Others say even calculating the number of recorded infections every day is “not always a good indicator of how an infection is spreading”.

A better option would be to look at the number of new tests and new cases every day that would provide a “degree of standardisation”, K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, told me.

Likewise, he believes, a measure of how many Covid-19 deaths have occurred compared with the size of a country’s population, the numbers of deaths per million people, is a better indicator of the fatality rate. Reason: the denominator, the country’s population, remains stable.

In the absence of robust and expansive data, India appears to be struggling to predict the future trajectory of the infection.

It is not clear yet how many deaths are not being reported, although there is no evidence of large scale “hidden deaths”.

Epidemiologists say they would like to see clearer data on deaths due to pneumonia and influenza-like illnesses at this time over the past few years to quantify excess deaths and help with accurate reporting of Covid-19 deaths.

They would also like to see what racial disparities in infections and deaths there are to help improve containment in specific community areas. (In Louisiana, for example, African Americans accounted for 70% of Covid-19 deaths, while comprising 33% of the population.)

What is clear, say epidemiologists, is that India is as yet unable to get a grip on the extent of the spread of infection because of the still limited testing.

“We need reliable forecasting models with projection for the next few weeks for the country and the states,” says Dr Mukherjee.

Epidemiologists say India needs more testing and contact-tracing for both asymptomatic and symptomatic infections, as well as isolation and quarantine.

There’s also the need to test based on the “contact network” to stop super-spreader events, frontline workers, delivery workers, essential workers, practically anybody who interacts with a large group of people.

“We have to learn how to manage and minimise risk in our daily lives as the virus is going to be with us,” says Dr Mukherjee.

Without knowing the true number of infected cases India is, in the words of an epidemiologist, “flying blindfolded”.

That can seriously jeopardise India’s fight against the virus and hobble its response in reviving the broken economy.

Published in: on June 1, 2020 at 6:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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BBC News – Mumbai: India hospital delivers 100 babies from Covid-19 mums

Soutik Biswas – India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 21 May 2020. More than 100 healthy babies have been born to mothers infected with the novel coronavirus in one hospital in India’s western city of Mumbai.

Three of the 115 babies born to infected mothers at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital in the past month initially tested positive for Covid-19, but subsequent tests cleared them, doctors said.

Two other infected pregnant women died at the hospital, including one who died before her baby was born. With nearly 24,000 reported infections and more than 840 deaths so far, India’s financial and entertainment capital has become the epicentre of Covid-19.

More than half of the babies born to infected women at the hospital, also called Sion Hospital, were delivered through C-section, while the rest were natural births, officials said.

Fifty-six of them were boys, while 59 were girls. Twenty-two of these infected mothers were referred to from other hospitals: it is not clear whether the majority of these women contracted the infection at home, outdoors or in a hospital ward.

A team of 65 doctors and two dozen nurses have been treating these Covid-infected mothers in a 40-bed special ward. With the surge of infections, the hospital is planning to add another 34 beds for infected pregnant patients.

The deliveries are happening on half a dozen tables in three operation theatres where doctors, and nurses and anaesthetists are using protective gear.

“We are fortunate that most of the women who have tested positive are showing no symptoms at all. Some of them had fever and reported breathlessness. We have treated them and sent them home after delivery,” Dr Arun Nayak, head of gynaecology at the hospital, said.

“There is a lot of anxiety among the mothers. They keep telling us they might die but we have to make sure that the child is healthy.”

After giving birth, the mothers remain in the special ward for Covid-19 patients for a week and are administered hydroxychloroquine. After that they are quarantined up to 10 days in a separate centre. The babies are not isolated and are breastfed by mothers wearing facemasks.

In February, a Chinese newborn was diagnosed with the new coronavirus just 30 hours after birth in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus.

And in March, an infant who had tested positive for Covid-19 died in Chicago, the first known death of a child younger than a year infected with the virus in US.

A six-week-old infant reportedly died of complications relating to Covid-19 in Connecticut. And earlier this month, a three-day-old baby died after his mother tested positive for the virus in Wales.

Mother to child transmission of the virus, in the womb or at the time of delivery, prior to contact of the infant with the mother’s respiratory secretions, is rare, Dr Adam Ratner, the director of paediatric infectious diseases at New York University School of Medicine and Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health, told me.

This is, of course, with a caveat, he says, that “this is a rapidly changing situation and new data may arise”. Dr Ratner says there is some emerging data that suggests that the novel coronavirus can be detected in placental tissues.

There have also been reports of babies dying in the foetus in pregnant women with acute infection, he said, “but that may be for reasons other than direct infection of the foetus”.

Dr Ratner said there has also been a report of “antibody responses” in newborns that could be “consistent with infection in the womb or at delivery”. That would mean that the baby could have been infected in the womb.

“It is very important to continue to examine these questions and look at the outcomes of infants born to mothers with Covid-19, even if they are not infected in the womb,” Dr Ratner said. Dr Ratner said he had helped care for a number of infants born of infected mothers at his hospital.

“We have allowed feeding of expressed breast milk and we are trying to find arrangements to protect the infant from acquiring the virus in early life. “The very young children that I have seen with the infection have generally done well,” he said.

At the Mumbai hospital, the number of infants born to Covid-19 positive mothers have been a little more than 20% of the total babies born in the same period.

“The one time we felt really upset when a 28-year-old infected mother passed away last week after delivering a healthy boy. Her liver was failing and she was sinking fast,” Dr Nayak told me.

“He realised how helpless we were during treatment. She kept asking, helplessly, ‘Can anything be done?'”

BBC News – Coronavirus: Black African deaths three times higher than white Britons – study

Rianna Croxford, Community affairs correspondent

BBC News, 1 May 2020. Coronavirus patients from black African backgrounds in England and Wales are dying at more than triple the rate of white Britons, a study suggests.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said a higher proportion of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in areas hit harder by Covid-19. However, they tend to be younger on average, so should be less vulnerable.

But the report found various black, Asian and minority ethnic groups were experiencing higher per capita deaths.

And after accounting for differences in age, sex and geography, the study estimated that the death rate for people of black African heritage was 3.5 times higher than for white Britons.

It added that for people of black Caribbean heritage, per capita deaths were 1.7 times higher, rising to 2.7 times higher for those with Pakistani heritage.

The IFS study said given demographic and geographic profiles, most minority ethnic groups are dying in “excess” numbers in hospitals.

A government review into the issue is currently under way, led by Professor Kevin Fenton, regional director for London at Public Health England.

Ross Warwick, a research economist at IFS, said there was “no single explanation and different factors may be more important for different groups”.

“Black Africans are particularly likely to be employed in key worker roles which might put them at risk,” he said, “while older Bangladeshis appear vulnerable on the basis of underlying health conditions.”

Two-thirds of Bangladeshi men over the age of 60 have a long-term health condition that would put them at risk from infection.

More than 20% of black African women are employed in health and social care roles while Pakistani men are 90% more likely to work in healthcare roles than their white British counterparts.

Similarly, while Indian people make up just 3% of the working population in England and Wales, they account for 14% of doctors, according to the research.

Professor Tim Cook, honorary professor in anaesthesia at the University of Bristol, said the high number of ethnic minority healthcare workers dying from Covid-19 was “striking”.

BBC News analysis of 135 healthcare workers whose deaths have been publicly announced found 84 were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Within this, 29 are reportedly from black communities; 26 from South Asian backgrounds; 23 from East Asian backgrounds, of which 17 are Filipino; and four from Arabic backgrounds.

In a letter to local trusts and GPs sent this week, the head of NHS England advised staff from black, Asian and ethnic minority groups should be “risk-assessed” as a precaution based on the growing data.

‘Economically vulnerable’

Professor Lucinda Platt, from the London School of Economics, said there were also noticeable differences in economic vulnerability between ethnic groups as a result of the lockdown.

“Bangladeshi men are four times as likely as white British men to have jobs in shutdown industries, with Pakistani men nearly three times as likely,” she said. This is partly because of their heavy concentration in the restaurant and taxi sector, she suggested.

“Household savings are lower than average among black Africans, black Caribbeans and Bangladeshis,” she added.

“By contrast, Indians and the largely foreign-born other white group do not seem to be facing disproportionate economic risks.”

BBC News – India rejects scathing US religious freedom report as ‘biased’

India has rejected the findings of a US religious freedom panel which has named it a “country of particular concern”, since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected.

New Delhi – India, 29 April 2020. The annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) places India alongside Pakistan, China and North Korea.

Delhi said the report was “biased” and a “new level of misrepresentation”. This is the first time India has been placed in this category since 2004.

In its key findings, the USCIRF report says that following the landslide victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP in 2019, “the national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims”.

It also made special mention of India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), adding that “Home Minister Amit Shah referred to migrants as ‘termites’ to be eradicated”.

Nadine Maenza, the vice chair for the religious freedom watchdog, said that the CAA “potentially exposes millions of Muslims to detention, deportation, and statelessness when the government completes its planned nationwide National Register of Citizens”.

India’s government rejected the observations in the report.

“Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new,” said external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava. “On this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”

The religious freedom panel had even recommended “targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious rights”.

Two of the nine-member panel expressed dissent over the recommendations. Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee said “India does not belong to the same category as authoritarian regimes like China and North Korea. India is the largest democratic nation in the world, where the CAA has been challenged openly by the opposition Congress Party and law makers, civil society, and various groups”.

The Indian American Muslim Council, an advocacy group, welcomed the report. In a statement, it said: “As a part of the Indian diaspora that only wishes well for the country of our birth, we view international criticism of India’s religious freedom record as distressing but painfully necessary, given the escalating level of persecution of minorities.”

It further said that in March, “along with its partners, International Christian Concern (ICC) and Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), it had written to USCIRF urging it to bring India into its list of the worst offenders of religious freedom violations in the world”.

BBC News – India corona-virus: Officials suspended over large crowds at Hindu festival

Imran Qureshi BBC Hindi

Kalaburagi – Karnataka – India, 17 April 2020. Indian officials have suspended a local magistrate and a police official for allowing large crowds to attend a chariot-pulling festival at a Hindu temple on Thursday morning.

A case has also been filed against the trustees of the temple and another 20 people, police told the BBC.

Pictures of the crowds caused outrage after they surfaced on social media.

It comes weeks after Covid-19 clusters were linked to a Muslim religious gathering in the capital, Delhi.

Revoor village, which is in the state’s Kalburagi district, has been sealed off and officials are rushing teams of medical personnel to set up fever clinics there, the deputy commissioner of the district, told the BBC.

Kalaburagi recorded India’s first coronavirus-related death – it is also the first district to implement “containment areas”, which involves sealing off villages where infections are reported.

Revoor is also close to another village that has been sealed off after a two-year-old tested positive for coronavirus.

The festival was held despite temple trustees giving officials an undertaking that it would not go ahead, a state lawmaker, Priyank Kharge, told the BBC.

Officials say that the daily rituals were performed at the temple on Wednesday evening in the presence of a few priests and temple trustees.

But early the next morning, the chariot was brought out of the temple premises and was pulled by “hundreds of people,” according to one official. They estimate that under 1,000 devotees attended the event.

Hindu virus terrorism ?

BBC News – Tablighi Jamaat: The group blamed for new Covid-19 outbreak in India

The Tablighi Jamaat have come into the spotlight after an event they held in the Indian capital Delhi has spawned a number of Covid-19 clusters across the country. But exactly who is this group and why did they hold a big gathering in Delhi? BBC Hindi’s Zubair Ahmed reports.

Who are the Tablighi Jamaat?

The organisation was founded in 1926 in the northern Indian region of Mewat by prominent Islamic scholar Maulana Mohammed Ilyas Kandhlawi.

Its aim was to inculcate “true” Islam among the “Umma” (Global Islamic community), many Muslims at the time felt that their political and religious identities were being compromised under the British Raj.

The organisation flourished in what was then undivided India. This did not change when the country was partitioned after independence in 1947. It has a strong following in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

What is its mission?

The Jamaat’s founder, Mohammed Ilyas, once famously said, “Oh Muslims be good Muslims”, and that is in essence, the organisation’s main objective, to promote the ideals of Islam among Muslims.

India event sparks huge hunt for coronavirus cases

Its members claim that it is a non-political organisation which aims to build an Islamic society based on the teachings of the Koran.

The Jamaat sends out delegates to different countries for 40 days a year and sometimes for shorter durations. The preachers believe in person-to-person contact, so they knock on the doors of ordinary Muslims to give them the message of Islam.

What happened in Delhi?

The Delhi conference, an annual event, was inaugurated on 3 March though there are differing accounts of when it may have ended. What is clear is that once it ended many people, including 250 foreigners, chose to stay on.

It is thought that some of them were carrying the Covid-19 infection, that has now been transported across the country.

One of its members, Waseem Ahmed, told BBC Hindi that hundreds of delegates left before the lockdown came into effect on 24 March, but that more than 1,000 followers, including many foreigners, got stranded, as all modes of transport and international flights were cancelled.

Since then, police have cleared out the hostel where these foreign nationals were staying and quarantined them in another location in Delhi. Efforts are now on in every state to trace and test people who were at the event as the number of Covid-19 cases linked to the event steadily rises. On Thursday morning, local media put that number at 389.

How large is the group?

Tablighi Jamaat is now a global religious movement, with followers in more than 80 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and the US.

The Jamaat has its own headquarters in every country it operates in, but its global spiritual centre remains the Markaz (centre) in Delhi.

This is housed in a multi-storey building in Nizamuddin, a prominently Muslim residential area in Delhi. The Markaz comprises a mosque and dormitories that can accommodate 5,000 people.

The Jamaat also organises big events in other countries.

In Bangladesh, it holds an event called the Biswa Ijtema which is believed to be the second-largest gathering of Muslims in the world after the Haj. The group also has some famous South Asian personalities as its followers.

Some of its more famous followers include members of Pakistan’s national cricket team, including 90s batting stars Shahid Afridi and Inzamam ul-Haq. South African cricketer Hashim Amla is also a follower.

Former Pakistani Presidents, Farooq Legari and Mohammed Rafiq Tarar were also believed to be the followers while former Indian president Dr Zakir Hussain was also associated with the movement.

BBC News – Omar Abdullah: Kashmir leader released from months-long detention

Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India, 24 March 2020. Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, has been released after nearly eight months in detention.

The decision was taken amid concern for his health because of Covid-19, a police official told BBC Urdu.

He added that Mr Abdullah would be home “anytime today”.

He was among thousands of local leaders put under house arrest a day before the disputed region was stripped of its semi-autonomous status on 5 August.

His house arrest was further extended in February under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without charge for up to two years.

But last week India’s top court asked the federal government for an update on his release, in response to a petition by Mr Abdullah’s sister.

Another former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, whose house arrest was also extended under the PSA, is still in detention. It’s also unclear how many Kashmiris continue to be held. Some estimates put the number in the thousands.

The Kashmir region has been tense since August. The government deployed tens of thousands of troops to quell unrest and enforced a crackdown on communications after it decided to strip the region of its special status and split it into two federally-administered territories.

The governing Bharatiya Janata Party defended the decision, saying it was necessary to uphold law and order.

Although phone connections and internet services have been restored, access remains poor and speeds are below what is common in the rest of India.

BBC News – Farooq Abdullah: Kashmir leader released from seven-month detention

Indian authorities have announced the release of a veteran Kashmiri MP and former chief minister who had been in detention for seven months. The order did not give any reason for Farooq Abdullah’s release.

Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India, 13 March 2020. He said he was “grateful” to all those who fought for his freedom, and called for the release of other detainees. He was among thousands of local leaders put under house arrest a day before the disputed region was stripped of its semi-autonomous status in August.

The government deployed tens of thousands of troops to quell unrest and enforced a crackdown on communications. Mr Abdullah’s detention under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA) had generated debate, especially as he is an MP.

Days ago, eight opposition parties wrote a letter to the government, demanding his release along with other Kashmiri leaders.

The joint resolution warned that “democratic dissent is being muzzled” in the state. Two other former chief ministers, including Mr Abdullah’s son Omar and Mehbooba Mufti, are still in detention.

Thousands of others, including political party workers, activists and lawyers are also in custody, with many taken to jails in cities outside the region. The government said the move, decried by critics as draconian, was necessary to maintain law and public order in the region.

It also moved to block internet and mobile connectivity in the region, these have only been partially restored.

A five-time chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, Mr Abdullah was widely considered to be a “pro-India” politician in the state.

Both India and Pakistan claim the region in its entirety, but control only parts of it.

When he was first placed under house arrest, MPs demanded an explanation as the procedure is to inform parliament if a member of the house is to be arrested. This prompted Home Minister Amit Shah to tell the house that Mr Abdullah was “not detained or arrested”.

In one of his last public interviews since then, Mr Abdullah gave an emotional television interview where he accused Mr Shah of lying. “Why would I stay inside my house on my own will when my state is being burnt, when my people are being executed in jails? This is not the India I believe in,” he said.

BBC News – Why Delhi violence has echoes of the Gujarat riots

The religious violence which has roiled Delhi since the weekend is the deadliest in decades.

Soutik Biswas India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 26 February 2020. What began as small clashes between supporters and opponents of a controversial citizenship law quickly escalated into full-blown religious riots between Hindus and Muslims, in congested working class neighbourhoods on the fringes of the sprawling capital.

Armed Hindu mobs rioted with impunity as the police appeared to look the other way. Mosques and homes and shops of Muslims were attacked, sometimes allegedly with the police in tow. Journalists covering the violence were stopped by the Hindu rioters and asked about their religion.

Videos and pictures emerged of the mob forcing wounded Muslim men to recite the national anthem, and mercilessly beating up a young Muslim man. Panicky Muslims began leaving mixed neighbourhoods.

On the other side, Muslim rioters have also been violent, some of them also armed, and a number of Hindus, including security personnel, are among the dead and injured.

Three days and 20 deaths later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his first appeal for peace. There were no commiserations for the victims. Delhi’s governing Aam Aadmi Party was criticised for not doing much either.

Many pointed to the egregious failure of Delhi’s police, the most well-resourced in India, and the inability of opposition parties to rally together, hit the streets and calm tensions. In the end, the rioters operated with impunity, and the victims were left to their fate.

Delhi tense after deadly religious riots

Not surprisingly, the ethnic violence in Delhi has drawn comparisons with two of India’s worst sectarian riots in living memory. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in anti-Sikh riots in the capital in 1984 after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

And in 2002, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died after a train fire killed 60 Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, Mr Modi was then the chief minister of the state. The police were accused of complicity in both riots. The Delhi High Court, which is hearing petitions about the current violence, has said it cannot let “another 1984” happen on its “watch”.

Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University who has extensively researched religious violence in India, believes that the Delhi riots are beginning to “look like a pogrom”, much like the ones in 1984 and 2002.

Pogroms happen, according to Professor Varshney, when the police do not act neutrally to stop riots, look on when mobs go on the rampage and sometimes “explicitly” help the perpetrators. Evidence of police apathy in Delhi has surfaced over the past three days. “Of course, the violence thus far has not reached the scale of Gujarat or Delhi. Our energies should now focus on preventing further escalation,” he says.

Political scientist Bhanu Joshi and a team of researchers visited constituencies in Delhi ahead of February’s state elections. They found the BJP’s “perfectly oiled party machinery constantly giving out the message about suspicion, stereotypes and paranoia”.

In one neighbourhood, they found a party councillor telling people: “You and your kids have stable jobs, money. So stop thinking of free, free. [She was alluding to free water and electricity being given to people by the incumbent government.] If this nation doesn’t remain, all the free will also vanish.”

Such paranoia about the security of the nation at a time when India has been at its most secure has “widened” existing ethnic divisions and “made people suspicious”, Mr Joshi said.

In the run-up to the Delhi elections Mr Modi’s party embarked on a polarising campaign around a controversial new citizenship law, the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy and building a grand new Hindu temple on a disputed holy site.

Party leaders freely indulged in hate speech, and were censured by poll authorities. A widely reported protest against the citizenship law by women in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Delhi, was especially targeted by the BJP’s campaign, which sought to show the protesters as “traitors”.

“The repercussion of this campaign machine is the normalisation of suspicion and hate reflected in WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages, and conversations families have among themselves,” says Mr Joshi.

It was only a matter of time before Delhi’s fragile stability would be shaken. On Sunday a BJP leader issued a threat, telling the Delhi police they had three days to clear the sites where people had been protesting against the citizenship law and warned of consequences if they failed to do so. The first reports of clashes emerged later that day. The ethnic violence that followed was a tragedy foretold.

BBC News – Delhi riots: ‘Hero cop’ who braved a mob to save lives

New Delhi – India, 26 February 2020. An Indian policeman is being hailed as a hero after he braved rioting mobs to save families during days of religious violence in the capital Delhi.

Riots in the city broke out on Sunday, killing 39 people and injuring more than 200.

Neeraj Jadaun, a superintendent of police in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, told the BBC’s Vikas Pandey that he was patrolling a border checkpoint on 25 February when he heard sounds of gunfire coming from Karawal Nagar in Delhi, just 200m (650ft) away from him.

He saw a mob of 40-50 people setting vehicles on fire when one of them jumped into a house with a petrol bomb. At that point, Mr Jadaun decided to break with traditional police protocol and made a split-second decision to cross the state border into Delhi.

In India, police officers need explicit permission to cross state borders.

“I chose to cross. I was willing to go alone despite being aware of the danger and the fact that it was beyond my jurisdiction. Those were the most terrifying 15 seconds of my life. Thankfully, the team followed me, and my seniors also supported me when I informed them later,” he said.

“It was dangerous as we were outnumbered and the rioters were armed. We first tried to negotiate with them and when that failed, we told them that police would open fire. They retreated but seconds later, they threw stones at us and we also heard gunshots,” he added.

However, Mr Jadaun and his team held their positions and kept pushing back until the rioters finally left.

Richi Kumar, a reporter with the Hindi daily Amar Ujala, described Mr Jadaun’s decision as the “bravest act” he had ever seen.

“The situation was very dangerous. The rioters were fully armed and they were not ready to listen anybody. I can describe them as bloodthirsty. They were throwing stones at the police but Mr Jadaun did not back down. There was real danger of policemen being shot at by rioters,” he told the BBC.

The violence first broke out in north-east Delhi between protesters for and against a controversial citizenship law. But they have since taken on communal overtones. Mr Jadaun said the rioters he saw had come prepared for arson.

“The area had many shops with stocks of bamboo. A fire would have engulfed the whole area and had that been allowed to happen, the death toll in Delhi would have been much higher.”

But, Mr Jadaun is uncomfortable about being hailed as a hero. “I am not a hero. I have taken oath to protect any Indian in danger. I was just doing my duty because I wasn’t willing to let people die under my watch. We were in a position to intervene and we did that,” he added.

Similar small acts of heroism – of Hindus and Muslims standing together – have also begun to emerge.

Subhash Sharma, from Ashok Nagar, one of the worst-affected areas, described how he ran to help after mobs set a mosque on fire.

“There were thousands of people in the mob and there were only a handful in the mosque. As soon as I saw it set on fire, I switched on the water pump in my house and ran there with a hose,” Mr Sharma told BBC Hindi.

Murtaza, a man from the same neighbourhood, said that he wanted to flee the area, but his Hindu neighbours told him not to leave.

“They assured us they would not let anybody harm us,” he said.

BBC Hindi’s Faisal Mohammed also spoke to two neighbours, a Hindu and a Muslim, from the Vijay park area in Maujpur, one of the areas worst-affected by the violence.

The two described how they rallied their neighbours to chase away a mob that had been burning vehicles and shattering windows in the vicinity. “The next day we shut the main road and people from the neighbourhood gathered together and sat outside,” one of the men, Jamaluddin Saifi, said.

Residents there also set up a “peace committee”, made up of both Hindus and Muslims, who went from house to house telling people not to believe rumours and to keep children inside.

As the Indian capital struggles to pick up the pieces, it is these stories that are giving residents some hope that life can eventually go back to normal.