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Muslim’s in Modi’s divided India

Muslim’s in Modi’s divided India


September 03, 2023


In the aftermath of last month’s violent events in northern Haryana state, where mobs set fire to Muslim-owned shops, a mosque, and tragically killed its imam, the streets remain eerily deserted, with tensions in the region still running high.

Home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, in India, the world’s largest democracy, constitutional promises stand at odds with the stark realities of India’s Muslim minority. For decades, they’ve borne the weight of systematic discrimination, bias, and violence, but under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has actively pursued a Hindu nationalist agenda since their election to power in 2014, the specter of anti-Muslim sentiment looms larger than ever.

What deeply concerns the community is the normalisation of hatred against them by members of the ruling party and their allies.

In the wake of Modi’s sweeping reelection four years ago, a slew of contentious policies has taken center stage, policies critics claim blatantly disregard the rights of millions of Muslims, threatening to disenfranchise a significant segment of the population. During BJP’s tenure, violence against Muslims has become all too routine, igniting fervent protests within India’s borders, and sparking international condemnation.

But later this month, in New Delhi, India’s capital, several world leaders are expected to assemble for the G20 summit. At the gathering, which will be India’s first, Modi will be eager to showcase the economic transformation he has overseen, positioning his nation as an increasingly influential global player. Simultaneously, emphasizing his commitment to democratic principles. However, a contrasting narrative is beginning to emerge, defining India in a more somber light.

Accusations of systematic oppression, marginalisation, and the fomenting of hatred against India’s 220-million Muslim minority have gained traction over the years, and Prime Minister Modi has only made matters worse. This evolving situation has also raised concerns about the state of India’s democratic health.

Hate rallies against Muslims have become a common sight across the country. Large throngs of people have taken to the streets, channeling their sentiments of anger and hate against Muslims, demanding the removal of what they refer to as “termites” and “traitors,” derogatory terms commonly used for members of the Muslim community in India. During these events, hardline Hindu rightwing groups, more emboldened under Modi, have been seen displaying signs that presented Muslims with a stark choice between “Pakistan or Qabristan” (Pakistan or the graveyard).

Rights groups that have documented India’s trajectory believe that sectarian violence targeting the Muslim minority, who make up about 14% of the population, have become increasingly frequent. But none of this comes as a surprise. Not too long ago, Modi himself faced criticism for failing to take responsibility for quelling the 2002 riots in the western state of Gujarat, which claimed over 1,000 lives while he served as the state’s chief minister.

A recent BBC documentary accused him of stoking tensions leading up to the tragic events in Gujarat. In its damning revelations, Jack Straw, who was the UK’s foreign secretary at the time of the violence, said that Modi had ‘played a pretty active part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists’. As expected, the documentary drew the ire of the Hindu nationalist government, and the London-based broadcaster was subjected to a tax evasion inquiry by Indian authorities. In the years that followed the Gujarat massacre, members of Modi’s BJP have become more emboldened, and they continue to fan the flames of hatred and intercommunal tensions.

The demands for proclaiming India as a Hindu state are also growing increasingly vocal and conspicuous. A recent example of this trend took place in Maharashtra, where Devendra Fadnavis, the deputy chief minister, organized a rally near the site where a Hindu mob famously demolished the historic Babri mosque in 1992. This rally coincided with the BJP government’s plans to construct a new Hindu temple on the same site ahead of the 2024 general elections. In a fervent declaration to a cheering crowd of far-right Hindu nationalists at the rally, Fadnavis proclaimed that India is already a Hindu rashtra (state).

In another equally concerning development in the northern state of Uttarakhand, a provincial minister in the Modi government made a declaration that the government would not tolerate what they referred to as “land jihad” – a dangerous dog-whistle, implying that Muslim immigrants are purchasing land with the intent to displace the Hindu majority. Such rhetoric is yielding troubling consequences. Shortly after these speeches, during celebrations marking the birth of Lord Rama, multiple attacks occurred across the country. The most notable incident involved approximately 1,000 Hindu rioters setting fire to a century-old Muslim religious school in the northern state of Bihar, resulting in the destruction of the school’s library.

The surge of hostility targeting Muslims is often ignited with the incendiary songs broadcasted by Hindu far-right mobs, inciting violence. The culmination of this hostility has left several Muslim neighborhoods resembling a war-torn landscape, strewn with shattered glass, charred vehicles, and scorched mosques.

On April 10 this year, in Khargone city, Madhya Pradesh state, a Hindu festival commemorating the birth anniversary of Lord Ram descended into chaos as Hindu mobs, armed with swords and clubs, paraded through Muslim neighborhoods and mosques. Videos captured hundreds of them dancing and chanting in unison, amplifying songs through loudspeakers that advocated violence against Muslims.

Soon after, altercations erupted between groups of Hindus and Muslims, as reported by the police. When the violence eventually subsided, it was evident that the Muslim community bore a disproportionately heavy brunt. Their businesses and residences fell victim to looting and arson. Mosques suffered desecration and fire damage. Overnight, numerous families found themselves displaced by the turmoil.

A similar pattern emerged during an incident outside New Delhi, the capital of India. Hindu far-right mobs compelled 3,000 impoverished Muslims to flee out of fear. Shops, shacks owned or operated by Muslims, and their residences in two extensive slum areas were padlocked. According to Reuters, clashes in Haryana state’s Nuh and Gurugram districts also resulted in the tragic loss of seven lives.

Meanwhile, Modi himself praised an extremely Islamophobic film at a rally leading up to local elections this month.

Although numerous civil society groups have been vocal advocates for a pluralistic India and the safeguarding of Muslim rights, the Supreme Court has emerged as the most influential institution in monitoring the actions of the BJP. Nevertheless, even within the highest echelons of the judiciary, a prevailing sense of exasperation and powerlessness is palpable. In a recent court hearing, Justice K.M. Joseph openly criticized local BJP authorities for their failure to prosecute instances of hate speech at a rally.

“The state is impotent; the state is powerless. It does not act in time. Why do we have a state at all if it is remaining silent?” noted Justice K.M. Joseph.

Yet, as India approaches an upcoming election next year, with Modi poised to secure a third term, apprehensions are mounting that these episodes of violence may continue to escalate, exacerbating societal divisions along religious lines.

Interestingly, even as the Indian prime minister remains notably silent in response to the events that disproportionately affect Muslims, Modi is anticipated to assert that he is an indispensable global leader with a pivotal role in securing world peace. All of this unfolds at a moment when minority communities across the nation are seeking a place of safety and peace.

To discuss the situation in India, we interviewed Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch. Roth is currently a visiting professor at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

ET: Can you provide an overview of the concept of “mainstreaming hate” and how it applies to the situation of religious minorities in India under Narendra Modi?

KR: Modi’s BJP runs its election campaign by promoting Hindu majoritarianism. The flip side of that emphasis is the targeting of religious minorities. BJP leaders have made remarks about forced conversions, illegal cow slaughter, inter-faith marriages, and even terrorism—all of which can incite violence against minority Muslim, Sikh, and Christian communities.

India and Pakistan have a long history of distrust, but it is extraordinary that in both countries, the response to legitimate criticism of the government is to allege a lack of patriotism and senselessly urge critics to move to the other country.

The recent attacks on Christians in Pakistan, as well as the targeting of Shia and Ahmadiyya groups, demonstrate that both countries need to do a lot more to embrace the idea of pluralism and equal rights for all citizens. Just as the Modi government uses “Hindu nationalism” as an excuse to crack down on religious minorities, the Pakistani government has been far too tolerant of charges of “blasphemy” to justify vigilante violence against religious minorities.

ET: What specific policies of the Modi government have contributed to the alleged mainstreaming of hate against Muslims and other religious minorities?

KR: The Modi government has adopted discriminatory laws and policies, with authorities often displaying bias in prosecuting incidents of communal violence. Courts have even reprimanded the police for making arrests without evidence.

During my time with Human Rights Watch, we opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act brought by the Modi administration. This act fast-tracks asylum claims for non-Muslim irregular immigrants from neighboring Muslim-majority countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. While religious minorities in those countries may indeed need protection, the deliberate exclusion of Muslims seeking refuge is unjust. I would especially encourage Indian authorities, as well as those in Pakistan, to respect the rights of Rohingya Muslim refugees, who are among the world’s most persecuted minorities. They were forced to flee crimes against humanity and acts of genocide committed by the Myanmar military.

It was heartening to witness millions of Indians participating in protests against this law, expressing concern that it might be used to target Indian Muslims. These protests demonstrate that the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian campaign is not widely accepted in a country rooted in secularism. However, it is disappointing that Indian authorities continue to prosecute students and activists for leading these protests. Such actions fall far short of the conduct expected in a democracy.

Similarly, I am disheartened by the Indian government’s clampdown on journalists and human rights activists in Kashmir, including through the use of draconian counterterrorism laws.

ET: How has the social and political climate in India evolved in recent years, and how has this impacted the perception of religious minorities?

KR: Populist leaders around the world have used divisive language about religion or race to promote themselves. Such official hatred is dangerous for human rights. As a democracy with a diverse population of various ethnicities and faiths, India should show leadership in promoting rights. Modi has done the opposite.

ET: The “Love Jihad” rhetoric has gained attention, alleging forced conversions. How has this narrative impacted the treatment of religious minorities and contributed to the mainstreaming of hate?

KR: Some BJP politicians, as well as others from affiliated groups, promote a baseless theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam. Instead of countering these claims, states have adopted laws that are ostensibly designed to stop forced religious conversions but are, in fact, used to persecute young Muslim men. Christian priests and churches have also been attacked over allegations of induced conversion to Christianity. Additionally, Hindu groups have interfered with the religious freedom of Dalit or Adivasi communities who might choose to become Christians.

These suggestions undermine the right of Indian women to choose their partners in an informed and consensual manner. It disparagingly treats them as children who can be deceived, rather than adults who can make up their own minds. Such claims are often driven by Hindu extremist leaders who allege that Hindu women in Pakistan and Bangladesh are being forced to convert as well. All states have the responsibility to uphold freedom of religion and belief for every citizen, including women.

Q- Social media platforms have played a role in spreading hate speech. How has the government’s approach to regulating these platforms influenced the narrative against religious minorities?

KR: The Indian government has regularly shut down the internet, ostensibly to maintain order and prevent the spread of communal hate, although in fact, often just to curtail dissent. The better approach would be for the Indian government to ensure access to credible information. An open internet, where lies and hatred can quickly be refuted, is the best way to counteract rumors. Social media companies also have the responsibility to weed out incitement to violence, yet these highly profitable companies continue to underinvest in monitoring the use of their platforms.

ET: Various instances of mob violence, like the cow protection vigilante attacks, have targeted religious minorities. How have these incidents contributed to the perception of hate being mainstreamed?

KR: Indian authorities should credibly investigate and prosecute all those responsible for violence. There should be no exemption for supporters of the ruling BJP. Bias in the criminal justice system undermines the rule of law.

Q- The role of education in shaping perceptions is significant. How have changes in school curriculum or educational policies influenced the narrative around religious minorities?

KR: All education around the world, including in faith-based institutions, should be rooted in the promotion of universal human rights. We should resist governmental efforts to infiltrate agendas of hate, exclusion, and discrimination into school curricula.

ET: The Indian government’s response to communal violence and hate crimes has been scrutinized. Could you discuss how this response has shaped the atmosphere for religious minorities in India?

KR: Religious minorities inevitably suffer when a government builds its political platform around hatred and exclusion. The essence of a democracy is that minorities should enjoy the same rights as the majority. A political platform based on prioritizing the asserted majority is an invitation to violating the rights of minorities.

ET: While intolerance in India appears to be rising, on the global stage, leaders of established democracies seem to have developed a tendency to ignore such violations in India. What are your thoughts on this? Is India’s position in the geopolitical sphere forcing developed countries to ignore ongoing violations of minority rights?

KR: During my nearly three decades leading Human Rights Watch, we regularly called on all governments to speak frankly about human rights to each other. No government has a perfect record. Every government has a responsibility to encourage others to do better.

In recent times, many democratic governments have given a pass to the Modi administration as it and its supporters attack minorities and restrict basic freedoms within the media and civil society. The unstated rationale is often that the Indian government is needed as an ally to oppose the Chinese government’s threats to the global human rights system and to its neighbors, including Taiwan.

That is a misguided rationale. To begin with, given India’s longstanding border dispute with China, the Indian government hardly needs others to turn a blind eye to its anti-democratic behavior to be persuaded to stand up to Beijing. More importantly, democracy will lose if the global contest between democracy and autocracy is pursued by building alliances at the expense of democratic principles. Such short-term “pragmatism” is misguided and counterproductive.

ET: What steps can the Indian government and civil society take to counteract the mainstreaming of hate and promote religious pluralism and coexistence?

KR: India has a strong tradition of an independent and vibrant civil society. That is an essential part of any strong democracy. It is important for the Indian government to protect the space for civil society instead of cracking down on criticism in the name of defending the Modi administration.

Similarly, in Pakistan, I am deeply troubled by the extraordinary efforts being made to sideline Imran Khan and his party. The establishment seems to be throwing every conceivable charge at Khan in the hope that something might stick and thus that it will not face a candidate with considerable political support in the next election.

Kenneth Roth can be contacted on Twitter: @KenRoth



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