Just after 1:30pm on Friday last week, the loudspeaker outside Sarai Alawardi mosque crackled to life, and more than 1,000 foreheads were touched to the hessian mats that lined the ground. Towering over them were the skyscrapers of Gurgaon, a satellite town south of Delhi that houses technology companies, bowling alleys and other symbols of the “new India.”
A day after Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed a landslide election victory, some in the congregation were anxious about whether this new nation had a place for them.
“These days, it isn’t safe for us here any more,” said Haji Shezhad Khan, the chairman of a local Muslim activist group, sitting in a shaded courtyard a few meters from the mosque.
For many Indian Muslims — whose population of about 200 million would comprise the seventh-largest nation on Earth — Modi’s emphatic re-election has been an isolating experience.
The country’s most acrimonious election campaign in recent history was studded with references to unauthorized migrants from Bangladesh as “termites,” the nomination to parliament of a Hindu accused of terrorism and a debate over whether Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin — who killed India’s founding father for supposedly cowing to Muslim demands — was in fact a patriot.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, a record 270 million Indians cast their votes for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its allies.
“We truly believed it would be fought back,” said Nazia Erum, an author who has written a book about raising a Muslim child in today’s India. “We believed that a lot of voting that happened in 2014 was based on Modi’s development agenda and people would be able to see through it now and things would be different, and as it turns out we were entirely mistaken.”
Friction between Hindus and Muslims, as well as tension among sects within both faiths, has been a persistent feature of Indian life.
However, over the past five years violence against Muslims has increased, including at least 36 killings by “cow vigilantes” of cattle farmers and traders accused — usually spuriously — of harming the revered animals.
In Gurgaon, where hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants have in the past few years arrived along with Hindus to work in factories and on construction sites, tension has been boiling over.
Bitter campaigns have been waged against Muslims praying in public spaces because mosques have no capacity or are too far away. Sanctioned prayer spaces have been gradually whittled down to just more than three dozen after protests by Hindu organizations.
“They are not allowing us to pray,” Khan said.
Rajeev Mittal, the head of a Hindu nationalist group that has campaigned against mosques in the area, said that his campaign is strictly about upholding municipal planning laws.
“We are not against people offering prayer, but it should be done in the mosque or in all the areas designated for them,” he said.
The BJP points to statistics that show there have been no large-scale religious riots under Modi’s leadership, and no surge in bias crimes in the nation’s official data — although some rights groups say that this information is patchy and unreliable.
The effect of Modi’s rule has been to embolden extremists, his critics say, and create a culture where religious chauvinism and impunity can flourish.
“More than riots, Muslims fear the pinpricks,” Human Rights Watch South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said. “It’s the Muslim vegetable vendor who is suddenly beaten up, it’s when Muslim families say they are worried about taking lunch boxes, because they don’t know when they’re going to be accused of carrying beef.”
“People feel entitled to impose their voices, and to do so violently, and there is no assurance the state will step in and protect them,” Ganguly said.
Modi’s supporters and opponents alike recognize that his victory on Thursday last week is the cementing of an ideological shift in what is soon to be the world’s most populous nation.
Most elections are a choice between competing visions, but India’s polls this year were, in the words of Indian Legislator Shashi Tharoor, a Congress party member, “a battle for India’s soul.”
In dispute is a century-old argument about the myths that should fuel Indian nationalism.
The nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, surveyed the extraordinarily diverse subcontinent and conceived it as a parchment “on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”
Opposing him were Hindu nationalists such as Vinayak Savarkar, an atheist, but one who viewed Hinduism in its innumerable manifestations as a set of cultural practices that bound the subcontinent’s people together as a single nation.
His vision left little room for Muslims or other minorities.
“Mohammedan or Christian countrymen ... are not and cannot be recognized as Hindus,” Savarkar wrote in a 1923 treatise. “Their holy land is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and godmen, ideas and heroes are not children of this soil.”
The modern Hindu nationalist movement has evolved from Savarkar’s views, said Rajat Sethi, a fellow at the India Foundation, a think tank aligned with the right-wing Hindu umbrella group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which Modi is a lifelong member.
“Savarkar talks about a more militarized Hinduism... The RSS would say, no, it’s about culture,” Sethi said. “Hinduism is a community based on shared culture practices rather than a dogmatic book.”
In this way, he said, Muslims and Christians were also Hindus: their lifestyles and rituals also inflected by India’s Hindu civilization.
“Muslims form an integral part [of the nation], because a lot of what we stand for is incomplete without Muslims as a religion,” Sethi said.
The ostensibly “secular” politics of Nehru’s Congress party was really a byword for courting Muslim votes by giving the community special privileges, he added, such as political autonomy for Kashmir, and the right to govern marriages and other social affairs according to Islamic law — both of which Hindu nationalist groups target for reform.
Nehru’s vision now appears to be in terminal decline. The Hindu nationalism he tried to sideline, including by banning the RSS, has been granted a clear popular endorsement.
Its worst excesses might be borne by the poor, but wealth and privilege are no shield, said Erum, who researched her book by interviewing more than 100 children and their parents at some of the nation’s most elite schools.
“It’s happening in classrooms, in playgrounds: Kids are bullied on religious lines, they are reflecting the fractures in our society,” she said. “It’s happening in the best schools, the most metropolitan cities. This is no longer the fringe.”
Erum blames in part the nation’s 24-hour news channels, which, along with social media, fixate on divisive issues that draw eyeballs but promote a vision of a nation in perpetual argument.
“It is an unending culture war,” she said. “Growing up in India was one of the best experiences.”
“Religion was not a factor you considered when you played or shared tiffins, but now it is,” Erum said.
Late last month, Beijing introduced changes to school curricula in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, requiring certain subjects to be taught in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. What is Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seeking to gain from sending this message of pernicious intent? It is possible that he is attempting cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia, but does Xi also have the same plan for the democratic, independent nation of Mongolia? The controversy emerged with the announcement by the Inner Mongolia Education Bureau on Aug. 26 that first-grade elementary-school and junior-high students would in certain subjects start learning with Chinese-language textbooks, as
There are worrying signs that China is on the brink of a major food shortage, which might trigger a strategic contest over food security and push Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), already under intense pressure, toward drastic measures, potentially spelling trouble for Taiwan and the rest of the world. China has encountered a perfect storm of disasters this year. On top of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in the Yangtze River basin, China’s largest agricultural region. Floodwaters are estimated to have already destroyed the crops on 6 million hectares of farmland. The situation has been
In 1955, US general Benjamin Davis Jr, then-commander of the US’ 13th Air Force, drew a maritime demarcation line in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, known as the median line. Under pressure from the US, Taiwan and China entered into a tacit agreement not to cross the line. On July 9, 1999, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) described cross-strait relations as a “special state-to-state” relationship. In response, Beijing dispatched People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft into the Taiwan Strait, crossing the median line for the first time since 1955. The PLA has begun to regularly traverse the line. On Sept. 18 and 19, it
Midday in Manhattan on Wednesday, September 16, was sunny and mild. Even with the pandemic’s “social distancing” it was a perfect day for “al fresco” dining with linen tablecloths and sidewalk potted palms outside one of New York City’s elegant restaurants. Two members of the press, outfitted with digital SLR cameras and voice recorders, were dispatched by The Associated Press to cover a rare outdoor diplomatic meeting on one of these New York streets. American diplomat Kelly Craft, Chief of the United States Mission to the United Nations, lunched in the open air with Taiwan’s ambassador-ranked representative in New York, James