Why does Narendra Modi have an enduring Muslim problem?

No warm ties.
No warm ties.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Lucille Eichengreen was a school girl in Hamburg. Like most children she had many friends and a carefree childhood. Her world changed overnight. “Hitler came to power in January 1933. The children that lived in the same building…no longer spoke to us. They threw stones at us, they called us names, and that was maybe three months after Hitler came to power, and we could not understand what we had done to deserve this…And when we asked at home the answer pretty much was, ‘Oh it’s a passing phase, it won’t matter, it will normalise.’ What that actually meant we did not know. But we could not understand the change.”

She was not alone.  Eugene Levine used to study in a mixed religion school where, one day, he was taunted by a non-Jewish boy, who was his friend, “Well, Levine, have you got your ticket to Palestine?” Eugene was shocked. “But, you see, anti-Semitism’s always there beneath the surface.” These incidents are a part of a history that even the Germans don’t want to remember any longer. Both the statements, together, hint at a fact that is distasteful, dangerous and apocalyptical.

At that point nobody had visualised what lay in store for Jews in the coming days, months, and years later—the Holocaust, in which humanity saw the most brutal face ever of any political regime. Lucille’s incomprehension at her friends turning into enemies overnight is explained by Eugene who suggested that anti-Semitism had always existed in Germany but it was dormant; it waited for a Hitler-like figure to come to power before becoming the monstrosity it did.

It is a lesserknown fact of history that Hindenburg who appointed Hitler as chancellor, had refused twice before to appoint him to the post. He had said in November 1932, that a presidential cabinet headed by Hitler would inevitably develop into a party dictatorship with all its consequences, resulting in a worsening of the antagonisms within the German people.

Unlike Hindenburg, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee did not have any choice but to obey the will of the people; and at that time if he had any reservations about the turn of events, he did not share it with anyone. But it is to be noted that a section of the intelligentsia had always viewed Modi as a polarising figure who unabashedly pursued Hindutva and did not hide his views vis-a-vis minorities. His image as a Hindutva icon was one of the major reasons for his success and he did not flinch in exploiting it to the hilt, though he did marry it with the utopia of development and the idea of making India great again.

He could succeed only because like in Germany prejudice against Muslims had been lying dormant in a section of Hindus for long. To be fair to Modi and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), this prejudice against Muslims existed even before the RSS was formed in 1925.

The problem with the RSS is that it has failed to understand, that in independent India, two incidents—the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the 2002 Gujarat riots—have majorly impacted the Muslims’ collective psyche, scarred them emotionally, and shaken their belief in the Indian legal system.

Modi’s identification with Gujarat riots is too overwhelming in the Muslim community. And his rule since 2014 has not helped lessen the burden of history; rather it has created new fissures in their minds, inflicted much deeper emotional wounds and constructed a regime of alienation, helplessness and betrayal.

The killing of Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid and others by cow vigilantes; the subsequent collaboration of state machinery to save the perpetrators; no urgent and unequivocal condemnation of these incidents from Modi and Bhagwat; felicitation of mob lynching accused and convicted Hindutvavadis by central ministers; provocative statements by BJP/RSS leaders targeting Muslims; sudden closure of abattoirs in UP and other states without any opportunities for alternate ways of livelihood; forced ban on beef in northern and western states by BJP governments at a time when India is the leading beef exporter in the world; the arrest and brutal beatings of Muslim youth in the name of love jihad; insulting and intimidating Muslims who tried to offer namaaz in an open space; regular violations of the symbols of Muslim identity; a nonstop attempt to portray and lampoon them as terrorist and anti-national by the Hindutva Brigade on TV Channels and social media; the Modi government’s effort to abrogate instant triple Talaq and through that to build a narrative that the community is regressive, and so on, has built a perception in the community that the Indian state has become anti-Muslim in its ethos and practice.

Since 2014, a section of Hindus have rediscovered their Hindutva which if scratched a bit, reveals an anti-Muslim point of view. Flaunting an anti-Muslim attitude is definitely massively on the rise. The stereotyping of Muslims has increased manifold. The present status of Muslims in India, reminds me of Silvia Vesela, a Slovakian Jew, who was held in a temporary camp in 1942, where death was staring her in the face. She said, “It hurt, it really hurt when I, for example, saw many schoolmates shouting with fists raised, ‘It serves you right!’ Since that time I do not expect anything of people.”

Since Modi took over the reins of the government a paradigm shift has taken place. Muslims have started feeling that the state had now started interfering in matters of their religion and culture. Anwar Alam writes, “It is the religio-cultural alienation which might strengthen the process of radicalistion among Indian Muslims. The demolition of Babri masjid was a jolt to the faith of the Muslim community. Since 2014 when the present NDA government came into power at the Centre, it has initiated a series of policy measures including the issue of criminalising instant triple talaq and keeping a distance from sharing Muslim/Islamic symbolism in the public domain that deeply concerns the Muslim community: whether they are any longer free to practice their religion freely in this nation.”

During research for this book I met many Muslim intellectuals and leaders. I could sense that there was a definite unease in the Muslim community vis-a-vis the Modi government, guarded by a rather deceptive silence. The present crisis is being perceived as an existential crisis. Therefore a lot of internal churning is going on. It has been acknowledged by the community that the traditional leadership of the Muslim community has let them down. Now, young and educated leaders are taking the lead and trying to organise the community. Older leaders are extremely cautious in articulating their views on issues related to politics, and it has been communicated to all, especially the youth to not get provoked, whatever be the nature of the provocation. Anand Vivek Taneja, assistant professor of anthropology and religious studies at the University of Vanderbilt, USA, had been touring areas such as Aligarh, Lucknow, Kolkata, Patna, Hyderabad and so on, across the country for his research on Muslims. During an interview with me, he said, “[The] Muslim community is definitely in a self -reflective mood and there is an extraordinary amount of restraint but (the) community also makes a clear distinction that the present problems it is facing is because of the current politics. There is no ill feeling against Hindus per se. Hindus are not seen as religious enemies. The problem is the RSS and Hindutva.”

Excerpted with from Ashutosh’s Hindu Rashtra with permission from Context. We welcome your comments at