Muslims in Narendra Modi’s India

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 16 Oct 2023

Moin Qazi - TRANSCEND Media Service

The Indian prime minister was speaking from the historic Mughal-era Red Fort in New Delhi, and the event marked the 400th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru. The occasion and the venue, in many ways, were appropriate. Modi reminded people of India’s most despised Muslim ruler, who died over 300 years ago. Back,” Aurangzeb severed many heads, but he could not shake our faith,” Modi said during his address. His invocation of the 17th-century Mughal emperor was not a mere blip.

Aurangzeb Alamgir remained buried deep in the annals of India’s complex history. The country’s modern rulers are now resurrecting him as a brutal oppressor of Hindus and a rallying cry for Hindu nationalists who believe We must salvage   India from the shame of the so-called Muslim invaders. The friction between Hindus and Muslims is a permanent feature of Indian life, and periodic bouts of bloody rioting are common. But since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the B.J.P. party, violence against Muslims has increased

Hindu nationalist B.J.P. encourages young Hindu men to become cow vigilantes who physically attack Muslims by brandishing their patriotism and faith. Even a rumour that a Muslim family ate beef for dinner or a Muslim man ferried a cow to a slaughterhouse can prove fatal in the hinterlands today.

They are attacked for marrying Hindu girls, sporting a beard, or wearing a skullcap or other symbols of religious identity. They are humiliated by popular, state-favored news channels for being ungrateful betrayers and traitors who have no love for the national flag.

After 2019, we saw something new. We saw things changing in the laws. A fundamental rule, for instance, was the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It was passed to make religion the criterion for accessing Indian nationality. Only non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were eligible for citizenship. Also, the government passed new laws to make interreligious marriages more difficult.

There was also the revocation of Article 370, which had granted some autonomy for Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. These laws were all passed simultaneously after the 2019 election. These elections transformed a de facto ethnic democracy into a de jure ethnic democracy. But they also marked a shift toward authoritarianism. And this authoritarianism took different forms.

First, we saw an attack on the judiciary. B.J.P. tried to change the procedure for appointing judges. They failed. They forgot that Benjamin Netanyahu is on the precipice—not so much because of popular demonstrations but because the Supreme Court’s judges said, no, we don’t want to change how people are appointed. But, in retaliation, the Modi government refused to fix the judges the judiciary had selected for the job. And therefore, in 2017, 2018, and 2019, you had a fantastic number of vacancies. And now the court was on the defensive. They finally internalized this and stopped nominating judges they knew the government would not accept. They also started to become very complacent. So either they validated any law the government passed or refused to take a stand.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is illegal, but the judges are sitting on it and don’t want to give any verdict. The abolition of Article 370 was unlawful, too. There are a significant number of laws that are in contradiction to the Constitution and which the judges should invalidate. That’s one symptom of authoritarianism.

The press in India used to be vibrant, like the judiciary. That’s over. [The B.J.P.] used the leverage they had on the owners. The people who own the media in India are all businessmen. And these businessmen have other businesses. They need the government’s support, and if the government is not happy with some of the journalists, they ask the business people to ease out the journalists.

 Modi seems more prevalent across India than it has much to do with the magnitude of anti-Muslim prejudice. It is so strong. People find refuge in the B.J.P. against Muslims and Pakistan. It has a lot to do with the public sphere. They have propagated such diabolical images of Muslims that now it’s deeply rooted in the society’s psyche. So, for that reason, you can say the popular support remains strong.

 The scale of anti-Muslim prejudice in India and how it has openly infected many areas of Indian public life, especially in the past decade, is astonishing and depressing. I’m curious why you think that is or how it’s happened.

There is a push factor, and there is a pull factor. Islamophobia was encouraged by Partition and how Pakistan supported jihadi groups in the two-thousands. That was horrendous. That’s a factor in the mobilization against Muslims, seen as a fifth column of Pakistan articulating a jihadi discourse. But there is also a pull factor: we’ve seen a Hinduization of society.

You are against Muslims on the one hand, and you are against Hinduism on the other. These two factors are combined. But why has Hinduism become such an appealing identity? You can only understand it if you look at the modernization of Indian society after 1991 when economic liberalization resulted in more growth, urbanization, and consumerism. These were the ingredients of a new middle class to become the core electorate of the B.J.P. This group became affluent but also rootless. They searched for an identity and found it in Hindu nationalism, which endowed them with cultural anchor points. This upper-caste middle class turned to new, modern, English-speaking gurus and sectarian movements in Gujarat and elsewhere. It started to follow the yoga classes of saffron-clad masters on television. The B.J.P. has been very good at tapping that source of legitimacy by co-opting these gurus. More generally, the Ayodhya movement for building the temple in Ayodhya has enabled the B.J.P. to capitalize on this appetite for Hinduism and pride in a Hindu identity.

 Finally, they won because, in 2020, the Supreme Court of India said, go ahead, you can lay the first stone. Modi acts as though he were a priest, as if he were the tremendous priestly head of India. You have a kind of theocracy in the making here, right? It explains an essential part of his popularity now that Modi is actively courting the world’s gaze to felicitate his country’s achievements.

Modi is keen to highlight the economic transformation he has presided over, making India an increasingly vital player on the world stage. And he is playing up his democratic bona fides.

But a much darker narrative is starting to define Modi’s India. The government has been systematically oppressing, marginalizing and inciting hatred toward its 220-million Muslim minority. This campaign has been slowly gathering momentum over the years and has reached new intensity levels today. India is not a healthy democracy.

The toxic rhetoric is having an effect. Shortly after these speeches, during celebrations commemorating the birth of Lord Rama, multiple attacks took place all over the country. The most prominent attack saw about 1,000 Hindu rioters set fire to a century-old Muslim religious school in the northern state of Bihar. The rioters burned down the school library. The dangerous provocations continue. Meanwhile, Modi was praising an extremely Islamophobic new film at a rally ahead of local elections this month.

It is no longer just our leaders we must fear, but a whole section of the population. The banality of evil and the normalization of corruption are now manifest in our streets, classrooms, and many public spaces. The mainstream press and the hundreds of 24-hour news channels have drafted to the cause of fascist majoritarianism. The government subtly reoriented India’s Constitution to suit its ideology. The government is rewriting the Indian Penal Code to suit its ideology. We will likely see a new Constitution if the regime wins a majority in 2024.

Outside of several civil society groups standing up for a pluralistic India and Muslim rights, the Supreme Court has been the most potent check on the B.J.P. But even among the country’s highest judges, there is a sense of exasperated helplessness. “The state is impotent. The state is powerless. It does not act in time. Why do we have a state if it remains silent?” Justice K.M. Joseph exclaimed during a recent hearing that condemned local B.J.P. authorities for not prosecuting hate-speech violations at rallies.

What’s happening in India is not that loose variety of internet fascism. It’s the real thing. We have become Nazis. Our leaders, our T.V. channels, newspapers, and vast sections of our population have joined this brigade. Large numbers among the Indian Hindu population who live in the U.S., Europe, and South Africa support the fascists politically and materially. We must stand up for the sake of our souls and children’s children. It doesn’t matter whether we fail or succeed. That responsibility is not on us in India alone. Soon, if Modi wins in 2024we will shut down all avenues of dissent. None of you in this hall must pretend to change the world with her writing. But it would be pitiful if she didn’t even try.

Foreign nations that buy into the P.R. blitzkrieg calling India the world’s largest democracy out of commercial and geostrategic interests or lazy naivety are complicit in the accelerating decline of democratic values in India. For now, the host of the G20 summit is reeling under one of the most un-democratic periods in its history. But now the time for warning is over. We are in a different phase of history.

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Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a member of NITI Aayog’s National Committee on Financial Literacy and Inclusion for Women. He is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Oct 2023.

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