What does Modi’s return to power mean for India’s Muslims?


Days after returning to power with a resounding mandate, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a conciliatory tone by saying his party needed to win the trust of Muslims – the country’s largest minority.

Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a landslide win on the back of a divisive campaign that ostensibly targeted Muslims.

The Indian prime minister said that the opposition parties “deceived minorities” by not addressing their basic needs such as healthcare and education.

“Due to vote bank politics, minorities were crushed, boxed into a corner, subjected to imaginary fears, and exploited during the elections,” he said addressing the newly elected parliamentarians.

But Asaduddin Owaisi, one of India’s most prominent Muslim leaders, was not impressed by Modi’s apparent minority outreach.

“Just hours after the results were declared, Muslims were publicly attacked in many places by those celebrating Modi’s victory,” Owasi, the president of the All India Majlis-e-ittadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) party, told Al Jazeera.

Since the BJP won the election last week, at least five incidences of hates crimes have been recorded.

In Madhya Pradesh state, three Muslims, including a woman, were badly beaten by a mob on the suspicion of carrying beef. 

On Sunday, a Muslim man was attacked in Gurugram, a suburb of Delhi. He was stripped of his prayer cap and made to shout slogans in praise of Hindu gods.

Stop lynchings

Owaisi told local media that if Modi cared about Muslims, then he should stop cow vigilantes from lynching Muslims.

In the past five years of Modi’s rule, 44 people have been lynched, most of them Muslims, by cow vigilantes, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

The BJP stoked fear among Hindus of potential Muslim threat, with campaigning raising divisive issues such as construction of a temple in place of a demolished mosque, and change in citizenship law to bar Muslims.

Author and senior journalist Saeed Naqvi said that religious polarisation was the main key to the BJP’s success.

“Such polarisation was last seen during the partition of India and Pakistan,” Naqvi told Al Jazeera, referring to the 1947 division of the Indian subcontinent to form the Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India.

Naqvi, the author of “Being the Other: The Muslim in India”, said the partition marked the beginning of the “Hindu project, which has now come of age”.

“With the election verdict, the majority Hindus have given vent to their unfulfilled aspiration for a Hindu India. This process is only going to intensify in the coming decades.”

More than a million people were killed during the partition and 17 million people were displaced in one of the worst tragedies of modern times.

Kashmir and Assam

Parvez Imroz from India-administered Kashmir and Aman Wadud from Assam, both human rights lawyers, fear that Muslims in their states will be the first to bear the brunt of the BJP’s Hindu supremacist agenda.

The BJP adopted national security as one of their main poll planks after a suicide attack in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian security forces in February.

In Assam, the BJP based its campaign on the promise that it will rid the state of undocumented Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, while promising to keep the Hindu immigrants in contravention of India’s secular constitution.

BJP president Amit Shah had referred to Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” and “infiltrators” during the poll campaign, a statement that a BJP spokesperson defended in an Al Jazeera programme.

Muslims form one-third of Assam population but their citizenship has always been suspected. A Supreme Court monitored body published a draft list of citizens last year, leaving out nearly four million people.

Wadud feels the election mandate will further embolden the BJP to execute its vision of an Assam free of Bengali Muslims.

“Of the four million people left out of NRC, we can expect Muslims to be arbitrarily left out of the final list and stripped of all basic entitlements such as healthcare, education and voting rights,” he said.

“Now, there’s nothing stopping the BJP.”

For Imroz, Modi’s victory has raised fears among Kashmiris that the BJP will abolish articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, which provide special safeguards to the disputed region administered by India.

Kashmir has witnessed an armed rebellion since late 1980s during which more than 60 000 civilians have been killed. India has stationed nearly half a million forces to fight the rebels, who either want independence or merger of Muslim-majority region with Pakistan.

‘Working class hero’

He warned that repealing those safeguards will trigger a massive uprising in Kashmir and “radicalise” even those sections of Kashmiris, who have so far stayed clear of politics.

“Going by past record, we can expect the resistance to be met with more brutal military repression,” said Imroz.

“India under Modi has been adopting methods used by Israel in Palestine. There’s also growing proximity between the two nations. The question in Kashmir is: Will India follow Israel’s footsteps in ignoring international opinion?”

Professor Sumeet Mhaskar of Jindal School of Government and Public Policy sought to downplay the influence of Hindutva (Hindu supremacy) on people’s minds.

“It is incorrect to say people have suddenly turned right and sanctioned the purge of Muslims. There is an element of that, but this is not a purely ideological mandate,” he said.

Mhaskar, an expert on unorganised labour and anti-caste politics, said the lower castes, who form the bulk of the unorganised workforce, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP. The party, he said, has been extremely successful in projecting Modi as a working class hero.

The BJP campaign played up Modi’s identity as a leader from the backward castes (OBC), an ordinary tea-seller and watchman. This, Mhaskar said, was a powerful tug on the emotions of the lower caste voters, who form the biggest chunk of the Indian electorate.

Mhaskar said that the BJP captured the imagination of lowered castes, who were traditionally on the fringes of Hindu society, by promoting the vision of a new Hindu nation, united against Muslims, in which even an OBC and former tea seller can become the prime minister.

“This vision of political Hindusim, which is known as Hindutva, is very different from ritual or religious Hinduism in which one’s profession is decided at birth by divine decree,” he said.

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