As President Obama celebrates India’s Republic Day on January 26, he will be visiting the largest democracy in the world and one that has more than 160 million Muslim citizens. That’s roughly half the population of the US.
Multicultural India, home to the third largest population of Muslims in the world, has a rich tradition of peaceful coexistence among its various communities.
It has also, however, witnessed bouts of caste and communal violence – the worst of which occurred during the country’s independence and partition in 1947.
Since May, the country’s prime minister (and President Obama’s host) has been Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist. The question is what this means for India’s Muslims.
Rise of Hindu Nationalists
Since the rise of Hindu nationalists in Indian politics, from 1980s onwards, the country has had its share of Muslim/Hindu tension. Hindu ascendency in governance has been marked by a parallel increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric and alienating policies.
The Hindu nationalists have consistently accused the previous secular governments of appeasing the Muslims for electoral benefit; this, despite the fact that the latter regularly face discrimination and score low on many socio-economic and education indicators.
Secular parties in India historically offered Muslims security in the face of riots. But they did not do much to improve the economic condition of the Muslims. Party leaders and the members of their respective castes enjoyed expanded access to state resources and power while the Muslims continued to be marginalized.
In the run up to the 2014 elections, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, promoted economic development as its main agenda.
But there was a divisive subtext running throughout the campaign – caste and community. Appeals were made to voters evoking their Hindu identity against the backdrop of riots in populous states like Uttar Pradesh. The rioting is usually prompted by seemingly minor issues like a minor traffic accident or alleged harrasment of girls of one community by men of another community. The 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar which led to several deaths and internal displacement of thousands were the result of one such incident. Historically, it has been been observed that riots are not spontaneous but a result of well oiled “institutionalized riot systems” which are activated during intense electoral competition.
Voter polarization on religious and caste lines is very much in evidence elsewhere too.
Since assuming office Prime Minister Narendra Modi made some initial positive comments about Muslims, indicating an attempt towards rapprochement. In an interview with CNN he said: “Indian Muslims will live for India and die for India. Al Qaeda is delusional to think Indian Muslims will dance to its tunes.”
His Home Minister further affirmed that sentiment asserting that only a handful of Indian Muslims have been attracted to the lure of international terrorist organizations like ISIS.
Influence of extremists
Modi also called for a ten year “moratorium” on all forms of discrimination and conflict based on caste, religion, and regional identities. But he has been reluctant to rein in the powerful section of his party’s leadership and cadre which continues to indulge in hateful rhetoric targeting Muslims and Christians.
The rhetoric and actions of BJP affiliated cultural and militant organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal,Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others have been even more shrill.
His reluctance can be attributed to the fact that the rabble rousing section of his party and their affiliated organizations played an instrumental role in the BJP’s electoral success. And more importantly he is himself a product of the RSS.
His refusal to punish the offenders has emboldened them enough to create one controversy after another. They have been trying to stoke fears in the majority Hindu population by claiming that Muslims, who account for only 14.2 of the population, will soon overtake them (which is statistically impossible).
Narendra Modi’s record on the policy front has also been a disappointment.
His government has taken several measures to cast important state institutions in the right wing Hindu mold. This includes the appointment of RSS affiliated men to key ministries and departments. Their attempts to change the school curriculum to conform to Hindu supremacist worldview has been roundly condemned.
Modi has not, in my view, made any attempts to initiate a genuine dialogue with the Muslim community. This is necessary if he is to come out of the shadows of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat when he was the chief minister.
Even though the Supreme Court had cleared him of involvement many questions remain about his lack of determination in controlling that violence.
His actions so far do not inspire confidence among the Muslims. His Minority Affairs Minister, for instance, refused to acknowledge Muslims as a minority, indicating that there is no need for any special provisions to be carved out for them.
In the light of a majority Hindu upswing, Indian Muslims stand at a crossroads. How to engage with the Modi government? While some Muslims advocate limited engagement others call for a wholehearted embrace.
The fact is that the secular alternatives to the BJP are in a state of decline and disarray.
The Indian National Congress, which has been the main recipient of Muslim votes for the longest period of time, is sulking as it faces a crisis of leadership and direction. The Communist parties and the regional parties have yet to emerge from their electoral defeat and are struggling to present themselves as a viable alternative.
A third way would be that of a national Muslim party.
So far the Muslim parties have had only regional influence. The surge in popularity of the All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) across the country indicates a new moment in Indian Muslim politics. It is too early, however, to predict its success at the national level.
Regardless of the options, it will ultimately be Narendra Modi government’s call on how it responds to Indian Muslim anxieties, demands and aspirations. India’s success and strength will be enhanced if its Muslim population is empowered. As Gandhi said,“a nation is known by the way it treats its minorities.” The Modi government’s Ministry of Minority Affairs ran full page ads in newspapers with the above quote on December 18th which is celebrated as the ‘Minorities Rights Day.’ It also mentioned its commitment to ‘education and economic empowerment.’ But so far it has little to show.