Cynical Politics: Exploiting the Hindu-Muslim Divide in India

It’s not a secret—a sizeable portion of the American population, 56% according to Gallup Inc.'s most recent public opinion polls, believes that Donald Trump’s administration in conjunction with the Republican Party are taking swift measures to subtly reduce and humiliate religious minorities such as Muslims. Just last November President Trump retweeted egregious videos posted by an ultranationalist British organization, supposedly showing Muslims committing a range of crimes, from beating to children to destroying religious statues. Unfortunately, if one were to spin their globe to the other half of the world, people would observe a strikingly similar practice of marginalization in India. The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have actively promoted a pro-Hindu agenda that result in the marginalization of the Muslim minority. The government has also turned a blind eye to the sometimes violent,extreme goals of radical BJP fringe organizations and other far-right groups. This has deepened the religious rifts between Hindus and Muslims exponentially.

Many find it difficult to pinpoint the beginning of these divisions. However, the most apparent division was witnessed in the 20th century in India right before the partition, a devastating experience that deeply impacted many families, including that of my own. Today, capitalizing on anger from the past and focusing on present-day disputes relating to religious inequality, Islamophobia, and changes in the global political environment, leaders in society have bought this social rift to the forefront of Indian politics and everyday life.

The creation of India and Pakistan in the beginning of the twentieth century was an outcome of political pressure on the British government by the All India Muslim League and exacerbated by the limited resources of the British government following World War II. Although the League was initially formed to advocate for the interests of the Muslim community in 1906, by the 1940s, their leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was advocating for the creation of a separate state. On August 16, 1946, tensions between the majority party (Congress) and the League reached their height: Jinnah advocated for a 'Direct Action Day'— a public call for a separate Pakistan. These events inspired the British government to hastily draft an exit agreement to avoid the blame for the oncoming storm.  By doing so, they initiated the largest mass migration in human history.

As Hindus and Muslims left their homes and headed for their new promised homes in India and Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim riots caused this migration to be an exceedingly violent one. An estimated 17.9 million people abandoned their homes leading to a drastic change in demographics disrupting the smooth functioning of many societies. Out of those, roughly 2 million citizens are estimated to have died as violence ensued within communities.

The atrocities during this period of migration committed instilled a permanent inter-religious distrust, especially between Hindus and Muslims. Ethnic cleansing via religious conversion, forced migration, and death, especially decimated minority groups—over 3 million members of such targeted minorities went missing. Families were abandoned, villages were slaughtered. The partition also resulted in the loss of livelihood for many, as the flux in migrants caused trade dynamics to shift and industries to collapse. ,


Such tragedies of the past persist in the memories of the Indian and Pakistani populations, jolted by reminders such as the continued territorial dispute over the Kashmir province, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai committed by Pakistani terrorists, and the gruesome fatalities committed by soldiers on both sides of the border. Raw anger and hatred toward Pakistan have been projected from their citizens, onto the Indian Muslim community, creating deep social rifts in India.

These rifts trickle down the generations and poison Indian discourse amongst all public spheres. BBC journalist Geeta Pandey recently reported that children as young as five years old are being bullied at school and accused of being “Pakistani terrorists” for their Muslim identity.

Different violent groups rooted in a belief in the case for Hindu supremacy in India  have played a big part in furthering the ugliness of this reality. Such organizations operate with connections to powerful politicians, which allow them to act completely autonomously with minimal consequences for their actions. For instance, Shiv Sena, an extreme right wing political party, founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966, was instrumental in coordinating the 1992-93 Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai where over 1,000 people died. Mr. Thackeray is quoted to have said, “'We must teach these landyas [his derogatory word for minorities] a lesson. They are getting too arrogant by far! They must not be allowed to get away.” Shiv Sena is still active today and continues to advocate its radical views on political platforms and engage in different forms of violence. For example in July of 2016, Times of India reported on the riots in Phagwara incited by Shiv Sena activists next to Kashmiri-owned shops and a Muslim mosque. Members of the party were violent, and threw bricks and stones, and burnt Pakistani flags. The actions of such large groups have thus inspired lone wolves to commit hate crimes motivated by religious differences, such as the assault and murder of two young Muslims returning from Ramadan shopping in June of 2017. 

Islam may be a religious minority in India, yet the treatment of Muslims in India have fueled contentious legislative debates.  A large area of controversy in Indian society fueling this religious divide is the Muslim Personal Law. The Indian constitution guarantees that all citizens will be treated equally under the law. However, when it comes to civil matters such as inheritance, marriage, divorce, etc., Muslims have a separate code to ensure that the state doesn't prevent them from handling civil matters in the way that their custom and religion mandates. This law was passed in 1937, prior to the partition, by the British to ensure that cultural differences were accordingly considered for governance. As a new independent state, India chose to adopt this law, the legitimacy of which has been questioned numerous times. Many ask: "How are we all treated equally if Muslims get a separate set of laws for their personal matters?" This brings about a crucial question that history, regardless of region or time period, brings forth repeatedly: To what extent should cultural relativism be taken into consideration by the constitution and governing body of a secular state?

Judgement of the law under which Muslims are governed in India is however, tainted by perceptions of Islam. While many Indians would argue that Indian Muslims should neither exceptions nor alternative treatment in light of their religion, rather than their status as an Indian citizen, some arguments in favor of banning triple talaq are biased by existing religious divides and the  boost in global Islamophobia, which treats Islam as a violent or oppressive religion.

For example, many believe that the Muslim Personal law infringes on women's rights. This came into the national spotlight most recently with the banning of 'triple talaq' in August 2017. 'Triple talaq' is a system where a man can instantly divorce his wife by saying the word 'talaq' three times. This practice has led to the sudden abandonment and consequent suffering of many women. Even though organizations like the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) praised this move, other institutions with greater influence such as All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) were not in favor of the verdict. Moreover, news groups like India Today praised the ruling as a “major victory in women’s rights” but also reported on how Muslim legal advisors, known as “muftis”, were secretly giving advice to men on how to circumvent the new ruling. This factor that contributes to the controversial perception that Islam fundamentally promotes misogyny.

image (4).png

The BJP tremendously capitalized on these festering negative opinions of Islam and the perceived inequality by non-Muslims during the 2014 elections, culminating inthe election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Although initiatives such as the "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana" (Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child campaign), greater foreign investment in India, and the construction of toilets in over 400,00 schools have created opportunities for more Indians to move into the middle class, many complain that he has turning a blind eye to heinous crimes of radical Hindu groups like Shiv Sena and the RSS. These complaints stem from Modi’s tenure as chief minister for the state of Gujarat, where he has been accused of allowing the murder of over 1,000 Muslims committed by Hindu extremists to take place. However, Modi’s work in passing legislation to impose Hindu ideals throughout the country and denigrate Muslims further, has caused many to accuse him of fueling the divide that exists between Hindus and Muslims in India.

During Modi's term, Muslims are marginalized through new legislation such as the ban on cow slaughter. Although cows are considered holy in Hinduism, beef is a common form of sustenance for Muslims.  Many butchers in India are Muslims, and this infringement upon religious freedom has caused many Muslims to be denied access to their main source of livelihood. In the Aurangabad district alone, 20,000 Muslims were previously employed as cattle butchers before being forced out of work with this new law. In response to the new law, an elderly mother of a Muslim butcher in Allahabad commented, “Men in this community don't have any other skill. We are already poor, and now we are not sure where the next meal is going to come from. They may as well kill us.”

The formal punishment for cow slaughter ranges from 5 years in prison to a life sentence; however, Hindu extremist groups have even taken law into their own hands and  lynched Muslims suspected of owning beef, even if the beef was obtained through legitimate means. Research shows that out of the 63 beef lynchings that have taken place over an eight-year period, 97% have taken place since Modi became Prime Minister.

Aside from the "beef ban", BJP officials have made other outrageous statements deepening divisions. Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy was quoted in March 2015 saying that, “A mosque is not a religious place. It is just a building. It can be demolished any time.” Furthermore, in December 2017 BJP officials supported the protesting of Hindu activists against a consensual marriage between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman by stating that it was a “forced conversion” since official permission for the marriage had not been sought. Also, President Trump's statements on stopping "radical Islamic terrorism" through collaborating with Hindus has greatly empowered the BJP to be increasingly radical on the national and international political stage. For example, when President Trump tweeted on January 1, 2018 on how the United States was going stop aid to Pakistan due to their supposed harboring of terrorists, the national spokesperson for the BJP, GVL Narasimha Rao, tweeted the following, “Congrats to POTUS for calling Terroristan's bluff & signalling resolve to end Pak's deceit. Dear RahulG, here are results of diplomacy of PM @narendramodi ji. …” This tweet not only represents a complete absence of diplomacy and an unwillingness to establish peace with Pakistan but also shows the complete absence of bipartisan collaboration. Rahul Gandhi, referred to as RahulG in the tweet, is a prominent member of the opposing Congress Party, which runs on a secular rather than religious platform.

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 5.38.03 PM.png

The Partition of India and Pakistan had repercussions that rippled through outside of geopolitical concerns between the two newly created states, and continue to affect domestic politics in India today. As violence and the abandonment of homes shaped the foundation of the newly independent India, it is perhaps natural for some religious divides to remain between Hindus and Muslims. However, the Modi administration’s cynical attempt to gain political capital by fueling these divides both through legislation designed hurt the Muslim minority and through turning a blind eye to the violent riots incited by fringe groups is worsening social rifts in India.  If India continues to follow this path of extremism and hate, it will no longer be able to remain a democratic secular nation.