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How 2.5 years of Modi brought out resilience of Indian Muslims

Aditya Menon | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:38 IST

May 16, 2014, the day the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were declared, was a Friday. By noon, it was clear that Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA had won a comprehensive victory.

As people began to gather for the Friday congregational prayers at the small but comfortable mosque inside the President's Estate in Delhi's Mother Teresa Crescent Road, there was an uneasy silence. No one openly discussed the results, before or after the prayers.

While making the Du'a after the prayer, the Imam said "Ya Allah, hamaray mulk-o-millat mey aman aur bhaichara qayam farmaa" (Ya Allah, please maintain peace and brotherhood in our country).

There was a shared sense of anxiety among all those gathered, a sentiment that perhaps resonated among most of India's 17 crore Muslims on that day.

The anxiety didn't stem from a fear that riots would break out the very next day. Yes, the fear that Modi's ascent would lead to targeted violence against minorities did weigh on people's minds and it still does. But on 16 May 2014, what many Muslims felt was something different - that India had changed. That we no longer belonged here, the way we used to.

Many of Modi's core supporters backed him because of the Gujarat riots, not despite it

The unease wasn't just because of Modi's rise to the prime ministership or the thumping majority won by the BJP, it was also the fact that a significant chunk of Modi's voters had supported him because a massacre of over 1000 Muslims took place under his watch and not despite it.

The anxiety was made worse by the complete capitulation of the 'secular' parties. Put crudely, till now Muslims for their security, have counted on "friendly" Hindus to keep "hostile" Hindus at bay.

Politically, this meant supporting the Congress or caste-based parties like the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal. In the 2014 election, all these parties were steamrolled across North India. For the first time in history, Uttar Pradesh, the heart of Muslim politics and culture in the sub-continent, did not elect a single Muslim MP.

The patriotism question

Halfway through Modi's term, Muslim anxieties have only been vindicated. Yes, there haven't been any major riots, though several attempts have been made in that direction. But repeatedly, the BJP and its stormtroopers have being making it clear to Muslims that they don't belong here anymore, or at least that the terms of engagement have changed.

They have made it a point to attack Muslim icons like Vice-President Hamid Ansari, Sania Mirza, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan and question their patriotism. And the attacks haven't just come from right wing trolls, but BJP leaders and in some cases, even ministers. If another icon like former President APJ Abdul Kalam is praised, a BJP minister makes it a point to add the caveat that he was a great nationalist "despite being a Muslim...".

Their message is clear - no matter how much you achieve, if you are a Muslim your patriotism will always be under question. Even if you are the Vice-President or President of India.

Hindutva brigade questioned the patriotism of Muslim icons like Hamid Ansari, Sania Mirza and the Khans

Sanjay Raut, an ideologue of BJP's ally Shiv Sena, even went to the extent of saying that the voting rights of Muslims should be revoked "in order to prevent vote bank politics".

Hindu Mahasabha President Sadhvi Deva Thakur had an even more innovative solution: that Modi should declare a state of Emergency in the country and carry out forced sterilisation of Muslims and Christians so that they do not increase their numbers.

In a similar incident, Yogi Adityanath's supporters openly called for Muslim women to be dug out of their graves and raped.

The hate speeches haven't ended, adding to the alienation among Muslims.

Muslims are fair game

For Muslims, the past 30 months have been a period of heart-breaking contrasts.

On one hand, Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched for allegedly storing beef in the fridge and even after his death a case was filed against him. On the other hand his alleged killer was cremated as a hero, with the tricolour draped around him and BJP leader Mahesh Sharma, of "despite being a Muslim..." fame even came to pay tributes to him. Despite being a Union minister.

Similarly, the celebration of Gau Rakshaks by the RSS contrasts with the ghastly hanging of Majloom Ansari and 12-year-old Imtiyaz Khan in Latehar, Jharkhand in March this year.

Not only is the PM silent on these incidents, his rise to the top despite the riots that happened under his watch, has become a blueprint for anyone who wants to rise up the ranks in the party.

Muslims, therefore, have become fair game in every way.

Silver lining

However, several positives have emerged out of this state of siege that the Muslim community finds itself in.

The most significant element of this is a rise in political awareness within the community. This is particularly the case among young, educated Muslims many of whom are effectively using the social media to put forward their political views.

The dominant narrative is, of course, opposition to the Modi government. But this is articulated in the vocabulary of justice and equality, which contrasts with bile that is unleashed by the pro-Hindutva trolls online.

Muslims' are articulating their grievances in the vocabulary of justice, not communal identity

It is because of this heightened political awareness that the government's attempts at dividing Muslims haven't succeeded. It has tried to create fissures in the Muslim ranks by patronising Sufi Muslims against Deobandi and Salafi Muslims and even pitting Muslim women against men through issues like Triple Talaq, but with very limited success.

The second important trend is the forging of solidarities with other communities. Muslims actively participated in the Dalit march in Gujarat after the Una flogging incident earlier this year. Sections of the community also expressed solidarity with the Maratha reservation movement in Maharashtra and started a similar movement for Muslim reservation.

There is a recognition that making common cause with other communities is essential for countering the attempts at isolating Muslims.

Rise of Owaisi and AAP

The third positive of the last two and a half years is the emergence of new political alternatives. The rise of two forces is particularly significant - Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Owaisi is the closest India has come to producing a Muslim leader in the past 50 years. The articulate, barrister is a refreshing change from caricatures like SP leader Azam Khan and the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid as well as disconnected leaders like Salman Khurshid.

What has made Owaisi particularly appealing to young, educated Muslims is the clear, unambiguous stand he takes on various issues - be it his fierce opposition to ISIS, or his advocacy of a robust Indian nationalism sans the Hindu imagery of Bharat Mata.

Owaisi has captured the imagination of many young Muslims by his clear stand on critical issues

Articulating his views through a vocabulary of justice and constitutionalism, Owaisi seems to be trying to become a Muslim Kanshi Ram, not a Muslim BJP.

The Aam Aadmi Party also seems to have caught the imagination of many Muslims but for different reasons. Arvind Kejriwal's popularity among Muslims stems from the fact that he is PM Modi's most vocal critic. "Only he can counter Modi," is a refrain one often hears from many anti-BJP people, Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

The other tempting aspect about AAP is that its political agenda - of populism, probity and anti-cronyism - has the potential of eventually making the "secular vs communal" issue irrelevant.

Of course, AIMIM and AAP would come into the picture only if the mainstream secular parties like the Congress completely fail. The Mahagathbandhan's victory in Bihar showed that they still have the capacity to decimate the BJP. But that could all change if the BJP wins UP.

The challenge

The next two and a half years may be even tougher for the Muslim community. As the country goes into one election after another, the communal pitch is likely to become shriller. The BJP has already made it clear that it's main strategy in UP is that of dog-whistle communalism.

The main challenge for Indian Muslims will be to try and find voice amidst the barbs, the attacks and the might of the BJP.

First published: 1 December 2016, 8:42 IST
Aditya Menon @AdityaMenon22

An incurable addiction to politics made Aditya try his luck as a political researcher as well as wannabe neta. Having failed at both, he settled for the only realistic option left: journalism. Before joining Catch as associate editor, he wrote and reported on politics and policy for the India Today group for five years. He can travel great distances for a good meal or a good chat, preferably both.