Indians are about to re-elect a dangerous Islamophobe

An illustration of a screen panel with a crescent moon at the top, torn apart by flames.
Credit…Somnath Bhatt

By Mohammad Ali

Mr. Ali, a journalist and writer who focuses on right-wing efforts to transform India into a Hindu nation, wrote from Delhi.

I used to answer the phone with “Salam.” Not anymore. I don’t want people to know I’m a Muslim.

There is little that would identify me as Muslim to begin with, aside from my name. I don’t wear a skullcap, and in public I avoid wearing the loosefitting Pathani kurta and peppering my speech with Urdu words, all of which are identity markers for Indian Muslims. But in the India of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you can’t take any chances.

For 10 years, Mr. Modi’s Hindu-chauvinist government has vilified the nation’s 200 million Muslims as dangerous undesirables. Recently, he took that rhetoric to a new low during the six weeks of voting in India’s national elections — which are widely expected to win him a third consecutive five-year term — directly referring to Muslims as “infiltrators” in a country that he and his followers seek to turn into a pure Hindu state.

As offensive as that was, it is sadly familiar to Indian Muslims like me who — after a decade of denigration, violence and murder — live in daily fear of being identified and attacked, forcing us into self-denial to protect ourselves.

India is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Islam came here around 1,300 years ago, and Indian Muslims descend from natives of this land who converted to Islam centuries ago. Many Indian Muslims fought against British colonization, and millions rejected the 1947 partition of the country into a predominantly Hindu India and a mostly Muslim Pakistan. India is our home, and people like me are proud patriots.

But Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalism has made us the targets in what might be the largest radicalization of people on the planet. Its seeds were planted with the founding in 1925 of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization that sought the establishment of a fully Hindu state in India and was inspired by the European fascism of that era. When Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — a political offshoot of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — won elections in 2014 and he became prime minister, he and his followers saw it as the civilizational moment that Hindus had been waiting for. Mr. Modi was the god-king who would free Hindu civilization from centuries of domination, first by a series of Muslim rulers culminating with the Mughal empire that ruled India for around three centuries and then by the British colonizers who followed.

Islamophobia isn’t new to India, and Muslims also faced prejudice and recurring violence during the generations in which the liberal upper-caste Hindu elite dominated the nation’s secular democratic politics. But under Mr. Modi’s right-wing leadership, hatred of Muslims has effectively become state policy. India is now a country where police have been accused of standing by as Hindus attack Muslims, where the killers of religious minorities go unpunished and where Hindu extremists openly call for the genocide of Muslims.

Protest, and you run the risk of having a Hindu mob unleashed on you. That’s what happened after Mr. Modi’s government in 2019 pushed through a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims and his party promised to expel “infiltrators” from the country. When Indian Muslims protested, one of Mr. Modi’s supporters responded with a provocative speech that is blamed for sparking deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Delhi in February 2020. Police were accused of looking the other way as Muslims had their shops destroyed, were assaulted and were even killed.

Bulldozers have become a symbol of this state terrorism — rolled out at right-wing rallies, tattooed on the arms of Modi supporters and featured in Hindu nationalist songs — because of their use in areas governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party to illegally knock down the homes and businesses of Muslims who dare to speak up. Some states have essentially made Muslim-Hindu relationships illegal, based on an absurd Hindu conspiracy theory that Muslim men are seducing Hindu women as part of a long-term plan to turn India into a Muslim nation.

The liberal Hindu elite, instead of acknowledging its role in enabling the sentiments on which Mr. Modi has capitalized, has done little to help, other than to ineffectually express nostalgia for a lost Hindu tolerance. And there is little that Indian Muslims can do within the political system: Although the Muslim share of India’s population has slowly grown to 14 percent, the percentage of Parliament members who are Muslim has declined to less than 5 percent today, compared with 9 percent in the early 1980s.

The Indian Muslim response to our subjugation has largely been a deafening silence. Many of us are simply unwilling to speak out against the Modi’s government bitter bargain: that for us to exist as Indian citizens, we must meekly accept historical revisionism, dehumanization and demonization.

This debasement, and the knowledge that you are essentially outside the protection of the law, kills something inside you. You take precautions to protect yourself. My mother no longer packs mutton for me to take back to Delhi after I visit her, as she used to. She’s afraid it will be mistaken for beef: Dozens of Muslims have reportedly been killed or assaulted by Hindu mobs on suspicion of killing cows — which are sacred to Hindus — or for eating or possessing beef . Muslim parents now routinely repeat a litany of don’ts to their children: Don’t appear Muslim in public, don’t reveal your name, don’t enter Hindu areas or travel alone and don’t get pulled into any potential confrontation.

While we caution one another to blend in, it’s difficult to reconcile with the whole thing. Each of us has something embedded in our sense of self and expression that is particularly painful to erase. And the sort of physical markers we are trying to hide are not even wholly specific to Muslims in India. My cousin likes to wear his Pathani kurta, but so do many Hindus. My youngest sister prefers to keep her head covered, but so do many Hindu women, although not with a hijab. I’m attached to using certain Urdu words that have long been a feature of India’s syncretic culture and have been used widely by Hindus, too.

Self-denial leads to deep frustration. Now during gatherings with friends and family, we avoid politics; discussing the elephant in the room only reminds us of our helplessness. The cumulative weight of all this has created a mental health crisis of fear and depression among Muslims. Yet because of a desperate shortage of mental health professionals in India and a limited understanding of our new reality by many non-Muslim therapists, many Muslims are left to cope on their own.

I was hesitant to write this essay. I am not supposed to protest, to speak up. When I sometimes do, posting online about it, the typical response is, “Go to Pakistan.” But why would I leave? I am an Indian. I was born here, as were my ancestors who opposed the religious basis of the partition with Pakistan and believed in the Indian ideals of secular democracy.

But many Muslims have fled over the years, emigrating to Australia, Canada, Britain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia or elsewhere because of the worsening political climate. Many who can’t afford to emigrate are moving out of the predominantly Hindu or mixed neighborhoods where they lived for decades, to poorer Muslim areas for safety. Two of my Muslim friends and I used to own apartments in a suburban area near New Delhi where many upper-caste Hindus lived. But in 2020, after the discriminatory citizenship law was passed, a Hindu mob charged through the neighborhood baying for Muslim blood. My two friends soon moved out. I kept my apartment, but in the elevator one evening in 2022, I overheard two men discussing how many katua (a derogatory term for Muslims that refers to circumcision) lived in the area. I moved out the next day. Sadly, Hindu friends and colleagues of mine also have become colder and more distant and are dropping out of contact.

On June 1, India’s voting period comes to a close. It looms as a day of dread for Muslims like me. According to most projections, it will be another victory for Mr. Modi — and further validation of mob rule and the debasement of 200 million Muslims by a hubristic Hindu majority.

Excerpts: New York Times

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