Pondering their future in their own homeland: Muslims fearful in a hate filled India

Pondering their future in their own homeland: Muslims fearful in a hate filled India
Muslims are being demonised, alienated, and attacked in India like never before. Violence against the country’s biggest minority has dramatically increased since the right-wing Modi government took power in 2014.

12 min read
03 December, 2019
Muslims have feared right-wing Hindu extremism [Getty]
It happened on a weekend.

December 6, 1992 is forever etched in Indian history as the day communal hate was normalised, making vicious attacks against the minority Muslim community more palatable.

Thousands of right wing Hindus descended on a 16th century mosque in northern India, triumphantly taking it apart, brick by brick.

Built by a general of Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, the Babri Masjid (mosque) has been home to Ayodhya's Muslim community for over 400 years, and even witnessed Hindus and Muslims praying together on the same site since the late 18th century.

Built on what the Hindus believe is the birthplace of their chief deity Lord Ram, they have considered the site sacred ground for centuries. The more extreme elements of the Hindu community, however, claim without any conclusive evidence that Ram's temple once occupied the same land, and clamoured for the mosque to be torn down and for a temple built in its place.

In 1992, these militant outliers got their wish. Urged on by senior political leaders, thousands of frenzied right-wing Hindus descended on Ayodhya and tore down the mosque, posing triumphantly atop the famous domes before they came crashing down.

The Babri Masjid's destruction led to some of the worst communal riots India has seen since its independence – Hindu mobs went on a rampage killing thousands of Muslims across the country in its wake.

The Babri Masjid's destruction led to some of the worst communal riots India has seen since its independence – Hindu mobs went on a rampage killing thousands of Muslims across the country in its wake

Neighbour turned on neighbour as rioters swept the nation, raping, pillaging and murdering, forever branding fourteen percent of the population as Muslim rather than Indian. Over 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed.

This was a watershed moment in Hindu-Muslims relations in India that instilled a sense of fear in the Muslim community that would never be forgotten.

Twenty seven years later, on November 10, 2019, India's Supreme Court called the demolition of the Babri Masjid illegal, but chose to reward the same mob that destroyed it the permission to build their temple on the site of the they had destroyed – Lord Ram's mandir (temple) will stand where Babur's masjid (mosque) once stood.

Right-wing Hindu activists hold torches near a model of the Ram Temple during a procession in 2014 [Getty]

Fear and paranoia has heightened among Muslims wary of violence, desperately calling for "peace" and "harmony" in the wake of the verdict.

Acclaimed Indian Muslim journalist Rana Ayyub acknowledged in her article for the Washington Post the pressure she is under from friends and family in India, pleading with her to "shut up" and stop criticising the right-wing government, saying "we cannot have another mob breaking into our house."

Had this verdict been delivered under the tenure of any other Indian prime minister, India's 120 million Muslims would not be as nervous as they are today.

It is the climate of Hindutva – an ideology of Hindu nationalism that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hinduism and the Hindu way of life – that has turned a secular country into an unrecognisable cauldron of fear, mistrust, and alienation.

If the demolition of the Babri Masjid made violence against Muslims palatable, the rise and rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it acceptable.

If the demolition of the Babri Masjid made violence against Muslims palatable, the rise and rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it acceptable

Modi's right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by far the biggest political party in the world, swept to power in India with a commanding majority in 2014. Modi's populist campaign pandered to the Hindu majority and pushed an agenda of development and anti-corruption.

India's Muslims however, were fearful of what a Modi government in New Delhi would mean for them. His role as chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed some 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – is legendary among right-wing groups, while he has remained ambiguous. Those fears, unfortunately, are coming true.

Modi has since used that power to foment the atmosphere of hatred and communalism, maintaining his silence over vigilante killings of Muslims while his ministers and parliamentarians have repeatedly encouraged the violence.

There is clear data to show that India has become more hateful since he took power; 267 hate crimes motivated by religious bias have been reported by Hate Crime Watch since 2014, a full 93 percent of all the hate crimes recorded in the last decade. This has led to the deaths of 98 people.

Vigilante killings over cow slaughter – a sacred animal in Hinduism – has greatly increased. Muslims, Christians, and other minority communities in India have been eating beef for centuries, with clashes over the slaughter few and between.

In the Modi era, these clashes seem to have skyrocketed. Over 98 percent (117 of 120) of cow-related hate crimes recorded since 2010 have taken place after 2014, Indian fact checking initiative factchecker.in reported in 2017.

Of these 120 cow-related crimes, Muslims – 14 percent of India's population – have accounted for 50 percent of the victims. Hindus, who make up 80 percent of India, represented 8 percent of the victims. Dalits (the repressed Hindus of the lowest caste Hindus, who used to be the 'untouchables') and Adivasis (indigenous communities) formed 10 percent and 3 percent of the victims respective.

Forty five people were killed in these crimes - 78 percent (35) of these were Muslim, 16 percent (7) were Hindu, and 4 percent (2) were Adivasi.

The human tragedies behind these numbers make for horrific reading, often ending with brutal violence and death. The stories of Tabrez Ansari and Pehlu Khan have become national news in India, one killed after being forced to chant 'Jai Shri Ram' (Long Live Lord Ram) and the other for transporting cattle.

Both murders were captured on camera, videos and photographs that were later proudly shared on social media by the perpetrators.

The data on its own can be doubted – critics rightly point out that these kinds of statistics can be skewed for two reasons – not every crime is recorded in India, and that data collection methods have improved dramatically over time and therefore recent figures are much higher than before.

Yet what makes these statistics frighteningly believable is the rhetoric used by leaders of the BJP and various Hindu nationalist groups since 2014 that have alienated and othered the Muslim population.

A data analysis by Indian media outlet NDTV reported in April 2018 that hate speech under the Modi government has skyrocketed by 500 percent. 

Hate speech under the Modi government has skyrocketed by 500%

The study compared instances of hate speech by politicians from the Congress-led era between 2010 and 2014 to the BJP-led government from 2014-2018. During the Modi government, there were 125 instances of hate speech made by 45 politicians, vs 21 such instances under the previous government.

A full 90 percent of the hateful comments between 2014 and 2018 were made by politicians belonging to the ruling BJP, including elected officials, chief ministers of states and cabinet members. And the politician in question was on reprimanded 5 percent of the time, often to no consequence.

This clearly illustrates the sudden change in culture in India. In many cases, such as that of Yogi Adityanath, the hatred actually benefited the politician in the polls.

In November 2015 before he assumed his current office, Adityanath said, "There is no difference between the language of Shah Rukh Khan (a popular Bollywood actor) and that of Hafiz Saeed (a Pakistani terrorist)."

In September 2014, he blamed the rise in riots in western Uttar Pradesh to the population growth of Muslims. He has since been elected as the chief minister of India's most populous state – Uttar Pradesh. After his victory, Adityanath has gone on record labelling Muslims a 'green virus', and called for the family of a man who was killed for slaughtering a cow to face criminal charges.

Subramanium Swamy, a BJP lawmaker from the upper house of India’s parliament, has made 17 hateful comments since 2017, tweeting things like "He knows that I am not anti Hindustani Muslim i.e., those Muslims who acknowledge their ancestors as Hindus".

With reference to land that the Babri Masjid stood on, he said: "Hindus wake up! Muslims leaders are refusing to give up on a masjid,that is shiftable,to restore the holiest temple on the birthplace of Ram."

In March 2016, Karnataka BJP leader Anant Kumar Hegde said: "As long as we have Islam in the world, there will be no end to terrorism. If we are unable to end Islam, we won't be able to end terrorism."

He was promoted to Union Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in 2017. Three months later, he vowed to remove the word "secular" from India's Constitution, saying that "…people who call themselves secularists are like people without parentage or who don't know their bloodline."

India's current Home Minister Amit Shah – the person ironically charged with keeping Indians safe – who is also the president of the BJP has likened illegal Muslim immigrants to "termites" and called for them to be thrown into the sea.

India's current Home Minister Amit Shah has likened illegal Muslim immigrants to 'termites' and called for them to be thrown into the sea

The most frightening example is that of Pragya Thakur, a Member of Parliament for Bhopal in central India. She has been accused of terrorism for her role in bomb explosions that rocked multiple cities in Maharashtra and Gujarat in 2008, killing 10 and injuring 82 in what policed confirmed as a Hindutva terrorist attack. She escaped the serious charges by being granted bail for a controversial medical condition which some doubt is authentic.

Despite her possible links to terrorism, she defeated a senior Congress stalwart in the 2019 general election by a massive 364,822 votes.

If this wasn't enough, the government and its right-wing affiliates are attempting to rewrite India's history by discounting or erasing the vast progress and cultural contributions of Muslim empires that the subcontinent was part of. Different parts of India have been ruled by Muslim rulers for centuries, who, like any other political dynasty, lie anywhere on the spectrum from beloved monarchs to repressive tyrants.

Right-wing nationalists are constantly attempting to disprove that the important architectural, cultural and scientific progress that was made under these rulers – even challenging the veracity of the Taj Mahal.

School textbooks are being changed across the country, challenging the multicultural narrative that has dominated the country since the time of British colonial rule – that India is a melting pot of cultures born out of migrations, conquests, invasions and conversions throughout history.

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is notorious for his hate speech against Muslims [Getty]

Furthermore, the BJP and their allies have attempted, sometimes successfully, to change the names of places with "Muslim" names. Allahabad and Mughalserai Station have since become Pragyaraj and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, the latter of which is named after one of the BJP's biggest icons who did not regard Muslims as 'proper Indians'.

In 2018 a Reuters special investigation reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a committee of scholars to prove that Hindus are descended from India's first inhabitants to prove that they are the original claimants to the subcontinent.

In response, Assaduddin Owaisi, the head of Muslim political party the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, said that his people had "never felt so marginalised in the independent history of India."

And most recently, New Delhi has taken two unprecedented measures that will have major ramifications on the country's secular institutions, Muslims and other minorities across the country.

In August 2019, Modi's government revoked the semi-autonomous status of India's only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir. Breaking the promise India made with the region's people, the government on August 5 this year revoked Kashmir’s constitutionally mandated autonomy, placed the region in a lockdown, blacked out communications and jailed local politicians.

It has now been more than 100 days since the liberty of Kashmiris was taken away from them and most of the region remains without essential infrastructure including internet and public transport.

The culture of fear that has been created has left Muslims anxious, uncertain, and pondering their future in their own homeland

Just a few weeks later, New Delhi further antagonised Muslims when they published a list of Indians in the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in the eastern state of Assam, overnight stripping almost two million people of their citizenship, and began building camps for their detention.

Many Assamese nationalists found the number of 'illegal immigrants' underwhelming, and in a cruel twist of events, might use the NRC to grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants.

Taken individually, each listed event can have an explanation – revoking Kashmir's semi-autonomous status was an attempt by the government to solve a longstanding problem that has plagued India, and the lynchings could have been committed by crazed individuals who do not represent the majority. When aggregated, however, the bigger picture however is a lot more sinister.

It seems like New Delhi and the BJP is making every effort to reduce the political, economic and cultural power of Muslims and cementing the narrative that India is not the land bordered by the Indian Ocean in the south and the Himalayas in the north, but a people – the Hindus.

Everyone else is an "invader", a "termite", an "illegal immigrant" – an outsider. The culture of fear that has been created has left Muslims anxious, uncertain, and pondering their future in their own homeland.

It is this context that made the Supreme Court's decision on Babri Masjid all the more important. India's highest judicial body had the opportunity to hand out punishment for the illegal razing of a place of worship, to deliver justice to those thousands who were killed in the ensuing riots. Instead, they seem to have been coerced by majoritarian views to overlook the legal claims of the Muslims who worshipped there for centuries.

This is indeed another watershed moment – violence against Muslims and their way of life might just have become normalised. 

And yet, there is a glimmer of hope.

In recent elections in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana, the country was surprised when the BJP did not sweep to victory, faring much worse than most people had expected.

Secular parties and the BJP's rivals such as the Indian National Congress fared much better, giving Modi’s party the first real cause for concern.

It appears that secular India will not go down without a fight, although it will be a long and bloody one when challenging an entity as powerful as the BJP and their pernicious ideology.

Perhaps Indians are slowly recognising Modi and his allies' blatant attempt to change the makeup of the country. But they need to wake up before it is too late.

The author's name has not been used to protect their identity.

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