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Attacks on Indian journalists during recent riots shine spotlight on growing tensions

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Reporting in India has never been without its risks, but journalists say attacks on the media during last week’s deadly communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in New Delhi show the situation is deteriorating.

One reporter was shot and survived, another had his teeth knocked out, and many more said Hindu mobs demanded proof of religion and tried to keep them from documenting vandalism and violence that included people attacking one another with axes, swords, metal pipes and guns.

Authorities have yet to provide an official account of what sparked the 72-hour clash that left 42 people dead and hundreds wounded, though tensions between Hindus and Muslims have been building for months over a new citizenship law.

Nor have they addressed journalists’ allegations that they were singled out by Hindu mobs.

But experts and journalists say the attacks on reporters covering the riots — and censorship of critical content in the aftermath of the violence — are a sign of growing intolerance for independent reporting in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist led government.

Anindya Chattopadhyay, a photographer for the Times of India newspaper, said that as he reached the scene of the riots Tuesday, a man approached him, offering to put a tilak, a mark indicating a person is Hindu, on his forehead.

The man said it would make his work easier. Chattopadhyay refused, but later, after he rushed to take pictures of a building on fire, he was approached by a group demanding to know whether he was Hindu or Muslim, threatening to remove his pants to check whether he was circumcised per Muslim custom.

“I folded my hands and pleaded with them to let me go, saying I was a lowly photographer,” Chattopadhyay recalled.

He noted that while journalists in India have always been targeted for their work, under Modi “the attackers are much more open, furious and fearless.”

Similar demands for proof of religion were made during 2002 riots in Gujarat, Modi’s home state and where he was the chief elected official at the time.

The state erupted in violence when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob and caught fire and 60 Hindus burned to death. In retaliation, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the state.

Modi was accused of tacit support for the rampage against Muslims, and was even banned by the U.S. from travelling there, though he was ultimately cleared by a court of wrongdoing and the travel ban was lifted.

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