Thu, May 30, 2019 - Page 9 News List

India’s Muslims quiver in the face of an emboldened Modi

The prime minister’s critics fear that the Hindu nationalist BJP’s election victory will change the culture of a nation already battling discrimination

By Michael Safi  /  The Observer

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.

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