Indian bowler Mohammed Shami found himself exposed to vicious trolling on social media following India’s recent loss to Pakistan in the T20 Cricket World Cup tournament. It was the most recent demonstration of the anti-Islamic bigotry consumed by Indian society under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Shami had done poorly in the match. But 10 other Indian players were also defeated by Pakistan. Shami was chosen because he is a Muslim. His failure was seen not only as a sporting problem, but as a failure to do his best against an opposing team made up of his fellow believers.
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As uncomfortable as it was, the Shami episode pales in comparison to other recent incidents of Islamophobia in India. In the district of Darrang in the northeastern state of Assam, the state BJP government launched an eviction campaign against Muslims who it believed were “illegal settlers” on public land. During a protest against the evictions, police shot and beat a villager, and a photographer who officially documented the demolition brutally kicked him in front of the cameras, even after his body appeared lifeless.
Video footage of the murderous attack went viral on social media and sparked a lot of hands among sections of the public unaccustomed to stories of violent hate crimes against their Muslim minority that have spread under the rule of the BJP . In recent years there has sometimes been a spate of inflammatory anti-Muslim demonstrations of violence. In February 2020, unrest devastated parts of the capital New Delhi, killing more than 53 people. Most of the victims were Muslim.
There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of Muslims lynchings, particularly because of the “offense” of transporting or consuming beef (the cow is considered sacred in Hinduism). Most states have laws outlawing the slaughter of cows, and both the police and self-appointed mobs enforce them with more zeal than judgment. Cow vigilers are known to beat Muslims and force them to chant Hindu religious slogans. Such hate crimes are committed with impunity.
Meanwhile, police have charged Muslim students under draconian terrorism and sedition laws for the frivolous “crime” of cheering on Pakistani cricketers. Four Muslims were arrested in the city of Indore for attending a popular annual college dance celebration that was abruptly classified as “Hindus only”. A Muslim journalist named Siddique Kappan has been imprisoned for hate speech, terrorism and incitement for more than a year despite just doing his job.
Troubling as these trends are, they should come as no surprise as senior politicians openly express their bigotry. Modi once stated that anti-government demonstrators could be recognized by their clothing, i.e. traditional Muslim clothing. And ahead of the 2019 general election, BJP President Amit Shah called Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh â€œtermitesâ€ and promised that a BJP government would â€œpick up intruders one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengalâ€. The anti-Islam sentiment is further fueled via social media, often in WhatsApp groups curated by the BJP, in which the sins – both real and imagined – of past Muslim invaders and rulers of the entire community are blamed.
While previous governments sought to mitigate communal passions, promote harmony, and provide official support (including tax incentives) for efforts to promote pluralism and diversity in India, the BJP advocates an intolerant majority Hindutva ideology without excuse. Those close to the ruling establishment routinely condemn the Muslim minority – and the alleged appeasement by previous governments – as a threat to India’s Hindu identity.
Under the BJP rule, campaigns against interfaith romance (accusing Muslim men of “love jihad” to seduce Hindu women), religious conversion (although the Indian Constitution allows it), and Muslim practices of marriage , Divorce, and alimony (which are considered incompatible with woman’s rights). A popular clothing company was intimidated into withdrawing an advertising campaign that was viewed by zealots as adding Muslim elements to the Hindu festival of Diwali. A Muslim religious gathering was viewed as a Covid-19 super-spreader event, despite allowing – even encouraging – the much larger Hindu Kumbh Mela festival.
The BJP government has also passed a law that allows refugees from neighboring countries with a Muslim majority an expedited citizenship – provided they were not Muslims. And family planning campaigns have been portrayed as efforts to maintain India’s “demographic balance” – India is 80 percent Hindu – in the face of higher Muslim fertility.
What distresses liberals like me is how thin the facade of India’s constitutional secularism has been. In just seven years of BJP rule, the cultural pluralism and Hindu-Muslim friendship for which India had been extolled for decades were destroyed.
There was a time when government officials proudly pointed to Muslims in prominent positions as evidence of India’s ability to overcome the bitter legacy of partition with Pakistan. Today Muslims are dramatically under-represented in the police force and elite central administrative services and over-represented in prisons. Feelings that were considered impolite to be expressed a generation ago are being declaimed by political platforms. The police often enable instead of stopping the torment of Muslims.
Islamophobia now appears to have colonized a significant part of north Indian society, although the south has not yet succumbed. India’s much-touted free press has participated – and even actively participated – in the eradication of its longstanding syncretistic cultural traditions.
Under the BJP rule, Muslim segregation and disempowerment – the division of Indian society into “we” and “them” – is gradually normalized and Indians become desensitized to the routine expression and practice of anti-Muslim bigotry. A Muslim who points this out is asked to “go to Pakistan”. Hindus like me are ridiculed as “anti-national”.
I was called that myself. In 2015 I repeated the observation of a friend in my speech in Parliament: In India, ruled by the BJP, it is safer to be a cow than a Muslim. Unfortunately, that sounds even truer today.
Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary-General and former Indian Foreign Minister and Minister of State for Personnel Development, is a member of the Indian National Congress.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021
(Exclusively for The daily star)