Canadian-Indians worry for their families as riots break out in India

Naila Saeed could do nothing but worry from afar when rioters descended on her family home in India, firing shots, burning barns and breaking the legs of pet horses.

Most of her relatives live in the city of Muzaffarnager, one of many Indian communities that have seen increasingly violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in recent weeks.

Members of the country’s Muslim minority have been protesting a new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for religious minorities of all major faiths in South Asia except Islam.

“We have so much fear for our family back home,” said Saeed, who has lived in Canada for the last two decades. “When they step out of their house, we don’t know what’s going to happen next… The fear is not only with my family, it’s everywhere around them.”

Saeed is one of many Muslim Indian-Canadians grappling with concern for their families as unrest in the country boiled over into the capital city’s worst communal riot in decades earlier this week.

At least 40 people were killed in New Delhi and more than 100 were arrested by the end of the riots, which dragged on for 72 hours and left city streets looking like a war zone.

Hindus and Muslims attacked each other with guns, swords, metal rods and axes.

Helmeted, camouflaged and baton-wielding police marched down pavement littered with broken glass and charred vehicles.

Tensions between Hindu hard-liners and Muslims protesting the Hindu-first policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had been building for months when the violence exploded Sunday night.

Since cruising back to power in a general election last May, Modi has aggressively carried out his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda. The citizenship law passed in December, seen as a precursor to a nationwide citizens registry that would culminate in the jailing or deportation of foreigners, appeared to embolden both his followers and his opponents.

Saeed said the internet had been shut down when the rioting reached her family’s home town, leaving her unable to contact her family.

“There was a lot of fear and stress, but ultimately I came to know everybody was safe,” said Saeed, who operates a daycare company in the Greater Toronto Area.

“It’s a lot of stress to carry when we’re taking care of our family, of our work… any call you receive from India, you get so much fear about what’s coming up now.”

Zafar Shamim, who is Indian and working towards obtaining Canadian citizenship, said he isn’t sure whether it’s safe enough to travel back home to visit his family anymore.

“There’s always a fear of how soon the atmosphere could turn,” said Shamim.

He said his sister is relatively safe because she lives in an affluent neighbourhood, but said the tensions in India make his family concerned about going about their daily lives.

“When someone is away from home and if there is a certain kind of news, we’re always on our toes.”

Shafiq Beig, a member of the Canadian Council of Indian Muslims, said he missed his nephew’s wedding in India because of the current political climate.

“I don’t feel like breathing the air of hatred and intolerance,” said Beig.

He said that although his own family is fairing well so far, the riots have touched off a sense of helplessness throughout the community. That feeling is most pronounced among more impoverished residents who are more vulnerable to the violence, he said.

Meanwhile, Saeed said one of her biggest concerns is that divisive rhetoric from India about Hindus and Muslims is showing up on Canadian social media circles too.

“I’ve already gotten indirect threats here and reported it to the police as well,” said Saeed, noting the threats stem from her work as an activist.

“People are openly using abusive language here and (we’re) seeing how this hate is getting transferred to Canada.”

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