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As violence sweeps New Delhi, one friendship crosses the Muslim-Hindu divide

At least 30 people were killed and more than 200 injured in sectarian riots engulfing the Indian capital.
Image: A shop burns as a mob sets it on fire during violence between two groups in New Delhi, India
A shop burns as a mob sets it on fire during violence between two groups in New Delhi on Tuesday.AP

As sectarian violence engulfed entire neighborhoods of New Delhi last week, Sreekanth Sivadasan watched as his good friend Abdulla Shaheen was forced to hide his religion out of fear Hindu rioters would kill him.

"Had they known he was a Muslim, he would have been killed right there. The situation is as bad as that," Sivadasan, a Hindu, told NBC News via the WhatsApp messaging service.

The pair's interfaith friendship has propelled them to document the bloody violence rocking the South Asian country.

At least 30 people were killed and more than 200 injured in India's capital during three days of riots over proposed citizenship laws earlier this week, according to The Associated Press. Tensions reached their boiling point during President Donald Trump's visit Tuesday.

A teenager is taken to hospital after being shot in the waist in Kardam Puri, New Delhi on Tuesday, Feb. 25.Sreekanth Sidavasan

Sivadasan and Shaheen, both 24, have been chronicling the violence since December, when police forced their way onto the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia university, where both are studying journalism. Police fired teargas into the library and attacked students inside its mosque.

Since then, Shaheen says he has been arrested five times while covering the protests. When NBC News spoke to him by phone Wednesday, he had just been released after being detained overnight after reporting on a protest in front of the home of a Cabinet minister.

"I feel numb. We're trying not to have more casualties. We say to the police, ‘Don’t beat the students coming in.’ We tell the students not to talk back. I’m kind of like a people manager now," he said, laughing.

Sivadasan has had his own run-ins while trying to document the tensions and the violence. Last Monday, he said he was stopped and threatened by a mob.

"I was stalked by a fringe mob carrying batons and sticks and chanting 'Jai Shri Ram,'" he said Wednesday. The Hindi phrase means "Victory to Lord Ram," and is often used as a greeting in India in reference to the beloved Hindu deity Ram, but it has also been picked up as a cry of intimidation by Hindu nationalist rioters.

Unrest began sweeping the country after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government proposed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which would give preference to non-Muslim applicants for Indian citizenship.

Modi's government insists the legislation is necessary to help protect the rights of persecuted minorities from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who settled in India before 2015, as Reuters has reported.

Human rights groups like the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have denounced the bill as "fundamentally discriminatory" against Muslim Indians, who make up approximately 14 percent of the nation's population, or 180 million people. Resulting protests in favor of and against the bill have been largely divided down sectarian lines.

Sivadasan has documented civilians who were attacked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One photo shows a young man with a serious head injury who was beaten while cycling home from work; another a young teen face down on a gurney on his way to a hospital after being shot in the waist.

In another image, a factory worker stands in shock, covered in blood after he was shot in the face while sitting in front of his home in Kabir Nagar, an industrial area of New Delhi. The man's wife weeps in horror next to him. She said his attackers were police officers — a claim NBC News was not able to verify.

A woman sobs at the sight of her husband, who was shot in the face while sitting outside his home on Tuesday, Feb. 25.Sreekanth Sidavasan

In a tweet Wednesday, Modi appealed for calm.

"Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times," he wrote.

In videos shared on social media and analyzed by NBC's Social Newsgathering team, protesters have been seen climbing the minaret of a mosque in the city's Ashok Nagar neighborhood, vandalizing the tower's Islamic crescent moon symbol and raising a flag depicting a Hindu deity.

While uncomfortable that his Hindu identity has shielded him from much of the violence and allowed him to document the unrest, Sivadasan finds comfort in his friendship with Shaheen.

“We know we’ll be there for each other. I just know that he won’t ditch me. That’s more than enough at this moment," he said.