Anti-Muslim Hatred Is Shaping India’s Elections

Economic transformation won't happen when Indians are trapped in a cycle of sectarianism and poverty, writes Ruth Pollard.

Anti-Muslim Hatred Is Shaping India’s Elections
Voters walk to a polling station. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

India’s state of Uttar Pradesh is known for two things: Its size — with 230 million citizens, the population is larger than Brazil’s — and its poverty, as the second-poorest state; annual income is around half the national average.

But since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, it has also made global headlines for a darker superlative: crimes targeted against Muslims. Those only worsened when, three years later, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party stormed to power in UP, and with it, Yogi Adityanath — a saffron-robed Hindu monk-turned-chief minister with his own private militia. UP is now the incubator for some of Modi’s most pointed policies targeting India’s Muslim minority, who make up 14% of India’s 1.4 billion citizens.

Modi has achieved a cult-like status as prime minister and remains a popular leader. His supporters say he’s helped India get a seat at the global high table, while critics contend he has exploited existing divisions in society and deep-rooted religious hatred to cement his position.

But now his party finds itself on the backfoot in its heartland of UP, which is in the grip of a heated month-long election. Contentious agriculture laws that led to a year of protests by farmers (and a rare backdown by Modi), along with a devastating Covid wave that worsened an already dire unemployment rate, has the BJP looking at a significantly reduced majority when the result is declared on March 10.

From laws targeting “love jihad” — a reference to an alleged conspiracy of Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage for conversion — that criminalize inter-religious marriages, to raids on the homes of Muslims who protested against the federal government’s controversial religion-based citizenship law, sectarianism is the new normal in UP. So-called cow vigilantes punish and sometimes kill people suspected of eating beef or killing cattle. (Hindus consider cows sacred.) 

It crosses borders, too. At a three-day gathering in December in the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, multiple speakers — including a BJP member — called for Muslims and Christians in India to be killed. And in the southern state of Karnataka, the BJP-led government is allowing schools to ban girls from attending if they wear a headscarf worn by some Muslim women known as a hijab. (The case is now before the Karnataka High Court.) The campaign is just as vicious online. In January, the names and photographs of more than 100 Muslim women were displayed on a fake auction site and put up for sale. It is no coincidence that these women — many of them journalists, lawyers, academics and politicians — have spoken out against Islamophobia in India.

Then in February came a tweet from an official ruling party account featuring a potent symbol of hate recognized across the world, featuring a caricature of a group of Muslim men being hung by a noose. Twitter removed the post from the verified handle of the Gujarat BJP, but its meaning had already been broadcast loud and clear.

The tweet was linked to a Feb. 18 court judgment that sentenced 38 people to death for their roles in a series of bomb blasts in 2008 in the city of Ahmedabad, which killed 56 people and injured over 200. An unknown Islamic militant group, the Indian Mujahideen, had claimed responsibility for the attacks. Gujarat — Modi’s home state — has a history of tensions between Hindus and Muslims, who are a minority in India. The Indian Mujahideen said bomb attacks were carried out in revenge for the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. Modi was chief minister of the state at the time and was denied a visa to the U.S. in 2005 over his role in the unrest. (A court absolved him of any involvement.)

This rising tide of religious polarization in the world’s largest democracy — and with it the tacit, if not open, support of Modi’s party — has not gone unnoticed. From statements in the U.K.’s House of Lords about the human rights situation to a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last year recommending that India should be designated a “country of particular concern” for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations,” the world is waking up to the reality of today’s India.

Throughout all this, Modi and his colleagues have mostly been silent, as the hate speech and incitement ran its course. That silence matters.

With economic discontent growing, “the only card the BJP has is communalism and Hindu-Muslim polarization,” said Zoya Hasan, professor emerita at the Center for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “This singular obsession with a religious minority is dangerous,” Hasan said. And the silence? “It shows the impunity enjoyed by right-wing extremists who are emboldened as their provocative speeches and actions are never unequivocally condemned by the top leadership.”

India has fallen down on many democratic indicators. It is now an “electoral autocracy” according to the Sweden-based think tank V-Dem Institute, while U.S.-based Freedom House downgraded India’s status to “partly free.” Modi’s government, V-Dem noted, “has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to silence critics.” More than 7,000 people have been charged with sedition since the BJP assumed power, and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party.

In response to the Freedom House report, India's Ministry of Broadcasting and Information refuted the findings and said the nation “treats all its citizens with equality.” Last month, it also rejected the World Press Freedom Index ranking, saying the methodology was "questionable" and lacked clarity.

On media freedom, India is now ranked 142 out of 180 countries, slipping down from 133 in 2016, in the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders Ranking. It ranks third globally on internet shutdowns, down from first place, according to a report released in January by U.K.-based privacy and security research firm Top10VPN. Since 2019, when Modi’s government brought the country’s only Muslim-majority state of Kashmir under federal control, at least 35 journalists there have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting, Human Rights Watch reported last month. New Delhi accepts none of these rankings and denies targeting any minority group.

Something’s got to give. While India is sensitive to international criticism of its treatment of Muslims, it does little to address the problem. It is already a stretch for strategic partners like the U.S. to use the term “shared values” when it comes to New Delhi, while the big economic transformation Modi talks of is never going to happen when so many Indians are trapped in a politically driven cycle of sectarianism, poverty and joblessness. It’s time to turn down the temperature.  

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia Government team leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focuses on foreign policy, defense and security.

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