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How are Muslims coping in India?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
April 14, 2023

India's government is rejecting claims that Muslims face discrimination and violence in the country. However, many members of the community disagree.

Muslim students take part in a rally in Kolkata
Recent bans on hijab in schools prompted protests in IndiaImage: Indranil Aditya/imago images/NurPhoto

While touring the US, India's Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman used the rise in India's Muslim population as an indicator of their well-being.

"India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world," Sitharaman said, pointing to the community of almost 200 million people in the country of 1.4 billion.

"If there is a perception, or if there's in reality — their lives are difficult or made difficult with the support of the state […] I would ask, will this happen in India in the sense, will the Muslim population be growing?" she asked.

The finance minister made the comments to a Washington DC audience during a fireside chat at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

She also pointed to India's rival Pakistan, and the violence against Shiites and other minority groups, comparing it unfavorably to India where she says every Muslim community is doing business and educating their children.

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Years of escalation

However, many government critics would argue that violence and hate speech targeting Muslims have been making headlines regularly since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power.

Prominent community members say tensions have escalated as the political environment is becoming increasingly dominated by Hindu nationalism. They also criticize what they see as backsliding on the country's secular character.

"For the finance minister, the benchmark is Pakistan," Muslim politician Asaduddin Owaisi told DW.

"If a section of Hindus demand better living standards, will you tell them to shut up because majority of people in Somalia are doing worse? The ruling party does not have a single Muslim MP in [the federal parliament]. This is damning but BJP carries it as a badge of honour," added Owaisi, who serves as the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party.

Muslim leaders decry violence and hate speech

Hindus make up nearly 80% of India's population. In recent years, religious right-wing groups have been increasingly loud in their calls to declare India a Hindu nation and enshrine Hindu supremacy in law.

Moreover, some Indian states have passed laws which gradually restrict Muslims' religious freedoms, including anti-conversion laws and bans on wearing headscarves in school.

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Social and political activist Saira Shah Halim told DW that focusing on the population growth among Muslims was "a skewed projection."

"It is unfortunate but expected that the BJP would like the yardstick to be Pakistan, and the values that the Pakistan project represents. The entire population of India is increasing, its incorrect to say that the population of Muslims is increasing," she said.

Academic Fahad Zuberi also believes it is a fallacy to judge the well-being and harmony of Muslims using population numbers.

"Recently, we have seen several instances of violence against Muslims in India such as riots, lynchings, vigilante violence, demolition of Muslim homes and police brutality. More indirect and structural forms of violence have also increased," Zuberi told DW.

"Moreover, our political narratives — created and promoted by elected representatives — feature hate speech against Muslims on an everyday basis."

"How can we forget the renaming of Muslim cities, towns, villages, streets and even buildings, the removal of chapters on Muslim history from official textbooks and fabrication of a new history of India in which Muslims have no positive role?" Zafarul Islam Khan, former chairman of Delhi Minorities Commission, told DW.

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Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO, said the country's Hindu festivals are increasingly being used by the ruling BJP to rally voters, leading to an increase in violence across six states during the Hindu festival of Ram Navami late last month.

"The BJP governments at every level have adopted discriminatory laws and policies targeting religious minorities, and its leaders and affiliates make frequent anti-minority remarks, including inciting violence," Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's south Asia director, said in a statement.

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Several foreign governments and international bodies have condemned the BJP's discrimination against Muslims, citing the Kashmir conflict and anti-Muslim rhetoric as particular concerns, as well as the controversy around the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019.

The controversial law, which has yet to be implemented, allows for the fast-tracking of citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Muslim immigrants are not included.

BJP's outreach to Muslims

The BJP counters the allegations, and points out that Modi has often called upon party leaders to reach out to the minorities, including Muslims.

"It is not just my experience as a Muslim woman, but the data and statistics of the Muslim beneficiaries of the PM's social welfare schemes including housing, water, student scholarships, and micro credit reveals that it is only this government which has done anything substantial to uplift the lives of its Muslim populace," Shazia Ilmi, a member of the ruling BJP, told DW.

Ilmi also emphasized that Modi had often asked leaders to refrain from making unsolicited remarks against any community.

"The PM has emphasized the need for social and economic justice for Pasmanda Muslims (those who have fallen behind) which constitutes 80% of the total Muslim population. Over 27.3 million scholarships have been given out, exceeding former prime minister Manmohan Singh's government record of 23.3 million scholarships," added Ilmi.

Vinod Bansal, national spokesperson for the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu organization, agreed with the finance minister that the population of Muslims had increased and it was wrong to suggest they struggle to secure justice after suffering discrimination.

"If at all, it is the majority population that is suffering by the brunt of violence inflicted by members of the minority community in many pockets of the country," Bansal told DW.

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Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11