Fears for India’s Muslims as Modi’s Hindu nationalists win third term

Published June 4, 2024
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures, at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi, India, June 4. — Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures, at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi, India, June 4. — Reuters

For India’s 200-million-plus Muslim minority, a third term for the Hindu-nationalist ruling party brings renewed fears for their future in the constitutionally secular country.

Many Indian Muslims worry Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will relegate them to “second-class citizens” in a Hindu nation.

“During the last 10 years, Muslims were publicly targeted, abused, and humiliated,” said housewife Shabnam Haque, 43, in Jharkhand’s state capital Ranchi.

“Hate against the community is increasing day by day and Muslims are being dehumanised. We fear this trend will increase.”

Demonstrators gather along a road scattered with stones following clashes between supporters and opponents of a new citizenship law at Bhajanpura area of New Delhi on February 24. — AFP/File
Demonstrators gather along a road scattered with stones following clashes between supporters and opponents of a new citizenship law at Bhajanpura area of New Delhi on February 24. — AFP/File

But while Modi celebrated victory, the opposition was stronger than pundits had predicted, and the BJP is dependent on allies without an overall majority of its own for the first time in a decade.

‘Very scared’

For some, the reduction of BJP seats offered a glimmer of hope.

“Diverse political representation is crucial for a healthy democracy, and a strong opposition is vital,” said Salman Ahmad Siddiqui.

The 42-year-old banker comes from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh — India’s most populous state and the heartland of the Hindu faith — where the BJP lost its majority.

“The election results are unsurprising, reflecting a growing sense of unease among young people and the middle class,” Siddiqui added.

People react during a clash with police at a protest that turned violent in Mumbai. — Reuters
People react during a clash with police at a protest that turned violent in Mumbai. — Reuters

But Rahman Saifi, 27, a social activist from Uttar Pradesh, said the BJP still had a fresh mandate to drive forward its right-wing policies for its faithful Hindu followers.

“Even with a reduced majority, they may continue to push their agenda of establishing a Hindu Rashtra (country) in India,” Saifi said.

“It’s concerning.”

Hindu activists will likely be emboldened to call for more religious sites to be taken from Muslims.

Those demands have grown louder since Modi inaugurated a grand temple to the deity Ram in January, built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque in Ayodhya razed by Hindu zealots in 1992.

“Muslims are very scared that […] they will implement anti-Muslim laws and policies in a dictatorial manner and promote hatred in society,” shopkeeper Anwar Siddiqui said in the northern state of Uttarakhand — a BJP heartland.

Far to the south, Muhammad Samshuddeen, 25, a shopkeeper in the tech hub of Bengaluru said that “India is a secular country for all religions,” adding, “We are here to live peacefully too.”

In Indian-occupied Kashmir, the Modi government’s 2019 decision to bring the region under New Delhi’s direct rule — and the subsequent clampdown — has been deeply resented.

The BJP’s third term will mean “further hardship”, 53-year-old Riyaz Ahmed from Srinagar said.

“We have been suffocated,” he said.

“If anyone tries to speak the truth you are uncertain you will remain free.”

‘Divisive agenda’

Modi was accused during campaigning of ramping up rhetoric targeting India’s key religious divide in a bid to rally the Hindu majority to vote.

At his rallies, he referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and claimed the main opposition Congress party would redistribute the nation’s wealth to Muslims if it won.

“The BJP contested this election on a communal and divisive agenda,” said Anwar Siddiqui, the shopkeeper.

The BJP has promised to introduce in its third term a new common civil code for the country, which minorities fear could encroach on their religious laws.

India’s 1.4 billion people are subject to a common criminal law, but rules on personal matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance vary based on the customary traditions of different communities and faiths.

A policeman walks past a burning vehicle during a protest in Mumbai. — Reuters
A policeman walks past a burning vehicle during a protest in Mumbai. — Reuters

Sayeed Alam, 32, a construction worker in Gaya in eastern Bihar state, feared that “Muslims will be treated as second-class citizens”.

“We are already facing a lot of problems,” Alam said.

“Who knows what will happen next?”

While Modi had hoped to win more seats to push through policies without relying on coalition allies, the BJP still wields enormous power.

“What the community really fears is whether the new government will adopt a more hardline approach towards Muslims,” said Soroor Ahmad, 63, a newspaper columnist based in Bihar’s capital Patna.

But for 27-year-old Mohammad Rehan in Delhi, the BJP’s dented parliamentary strength represented hope for change in the future.

“The BJP cannot stay in power forever,” he said.

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