Invisible in own country: Being Muslim in Modi's India

Invisible in own country: Being Muslim in Modi's India
Invisible in own country: Being Muslim in Modi's India

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - NEW DELHI — Six years ago, a Muslim boy returned red-faced from a well-known school in the northern Indian city of Agra.

"My classmates called me a Pakistani terrorist," the nine-year-old told his mother.

Reema Ahmad, an author and counselor, remembers the day vividly.

"Here was a feisty, little boy with his fists clenched so tightly that there were nail marks in his palm. He was so angry."

As her son told the story, his classmates were having a mock fight when the teacher had stepped out.

"That's when one group of boys pointed at him and said, 'This is a Pakistani terrorist. Kill him!'"

He revealed some classmates had also called him nali ka kida (insect of the gutter). Ms Ahmad complained, and was told they "were imagining things... such things didn't happen".

Ms Ahmad eventually pulled her son out of school. Today, the 16-year-old is home-schooled.

"I sensed the community's tremors through my son's experiences, a feeling I never recall having in my own youth growing up here," she says.

"Our class privilege may have protected us from feeling Muslim all the time. Now, it seems class and privilege make you a more visible target."

Ever since Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014, India's 200 million-odd Muslims have had a turbulent journey.

Hindu vigilante mobs have lynched suspected cow traders and targeted small Muslim-owned businesses. Petitions have been filed against mosques. Internet trolls have orchestrated online "auctions" of Muslim women. Right-wing groups and sections of mainstream media have fuelled Islamophobia with accusations of "jihad" — "love jihad", for example, falsely accuses Muslim men of converting Hindu women by marriage.

And anti-Muslim hate speech has surged — three-quarters of incidents were reported from states ruled by the BJP.

"Muslims have become second-class citizens, an invisible minority in their own country," says Ziya Us Salam, author of a new book, Being Muslim in Hindu India.

But the BJP — and Modi — deny that minorities are being mistreated in India.

"These are usual tropes of some people who don't bother to meet people outside their bubbles. Even India's minorities don't buy this narrative anymore," the prime minister told Newsweek magazine.

Yet Ms Ahmad — whose family has lived in Agra for decades, counting many Hindu friends amid the city's serpentine lanes and crowded homes — feels a change.

In 2019, Ms Ahmad left a school WhatsApp group where she was one of only two Muslims. This followed the posting of a message after India launched air strikes against militants in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

"If they hit us with missiles, we will enter their homes and kill them," the message on the group said, echoing something Modi had said about killing terrorists and enemies of India inside their homes.

"I lost my cool. I told my friends what's wrong with you? Do you condone killing of civilians and children?" Ms Ahmad recalled. She believed in advocating for peace.

The reaction was swift.

"Someone asked, are you pro-Pakistani just because you are Muslim? They accused me of being anti-national," she said.

"Suddenly appealing for non-violence was equated with being anti-national. I told them I don't have to be violent to support my country. I quit the group."

The changing atmosphere is felt in other ways too. For a long time, Ms Ahmad's spacious home has been a hangout for her son's classmates, regardless of gender or religion. But now the bogey of "love jihad" means she asks Hindu girls to leave by a certain hour and not linger in his room.

"My father and I sat my son down and told him that the atmosphere was not good — you have to limit your friendships, be careful, not stay out too late. You never know. Things can turn into 'love jihad' at any time."

Environmental activist Erum, a fifth-generation resident of Agra, has also noticed a shift in conversations among the city's children as she worked in local schools.

"Don't talk to me, my mother has told me not to," she heard one child tell a Muslim classmate.

"I am thinking, really?! This reflects the deeply ingrained phobia [of Muslims]. This will grow into something which will not heal easily," Ms Erum said.

But for herself, she had lots of Hindu friends, and did not feel insecure as a Muslim woman.

It's just not about the children. In his small office along a bustling Agra street, Siraj Qureshi, a local journalist and interfaith organizer, laments the fraying of the old bonhomie between Hindus and Muslims.

He recounts a recent incident where a man delivering mutton in the city was stopped by Hindu right-wing group members, handed over to the police and thrown into jail. "He had the proper licence, but the police still arrested him. He was later released," Qureshi says.

Many in the community note a shift in behavior among Muslims traveling by train, prompted by incidents in which Muslim passengers were reportedly attacked for allegedly carrying beef. "Now, we're all cautious, avoiding non-vegetarian food in public transport or opting out [of public transport] altogether if we can afford to," says Ms Ahmad.

Kaleem Ahmed Qureshi, a software engineer-turned jewellery designer and musician, is a seventh-generation Agra resident, who also leads heritage walks in the city.

Carrying his rubab, a lute-like musical instrument commonly played in Afghanistan, he took a shared taxi with a Hindu co-passenger from Delhi to Agra recently. "When he saw the case, he asked me to open it, fearing it was a gun. I sensed his reaction was influenced by my name," Qureshi says.

"There is this anxiety [which we live with]. When I travel now, I have to be very aware of where I am, what I say, what I do. I feel unease even at disclosing my name to the ticket checker in the train."

Qureshi can see a clear root cause: "Politics has mixed poison in the relationship between the communities."

Kaleem Ahmed Qureshi, a software engineer-turned jewellery designer and musician, is a seventh-generation Agra resident, who also leads heritage walks in the city.

Carrying his rubab, a lute-like musical instrument commonly played in Afghanistan, he took a shared taxi with a Hindu co-passenger from Delhi to Agra recently. "When he saw the case, he asked me to open it, fearing it was a gun. I sensed his reaction was influenced by my name," Qureshi says.

"There is this anxiety [which we live with]. When I travel now, I have to be very aware of where I am, what I say, what I do. I feel unease even at disclosing my name to the ticket checker in the train."

Qureshi can see a clear root cause: "Politics has mixed poison in the relationship between the communities."

"There is no reason for Muslims to be anxious," Syed Zafar Islam, a national spokesperson of the BJP, told me on a recent warm afternoon in Delhi, attributing rising Islamophobia to "irresponsible media houses".

"A small incident takes place somewhere, and the media amplifies it like it has never happened before. In a country of 1.4 billion people, several such incidents can take place between communities or within communities," he adds.

"You cannot generalise one or two incidents [and say the ruling party is anti-Muslim]. If someone portrays it as something targeted against Muslims, they are wrong."

I asked him how he'd react if his child came home from school, saying classmates had labeled him a "Pakistani terrorist" because of the family's religion. The ex-banker, who joined the party in 2014, has two children, one currently in school.

"Like any other parent, I would feel bad. It is the responsibility of the school to make sure such things don't happen. Parents should make sure they don't say such things," he said.

What about the talk of BJP establishing a Hindu rashtra (state) in a country where 79% of the people are Hindu?

"People know this is rhetoric. Has our government or party said such things? Why does media give so much space to people who say such things? We feel upset when media gives space to such people," Islam said.

But then, what about the lack of Muslim representation? The BJP has no Muslim ministers, MPs in either house of the parliament, and only one member of a local assembly (MLA) among the more than 1,000 nationwide.

Islam, a former BJP MP himself, said this was not intentional.

"Muslims are being used by the Congress and other opposition parties to serve their agenda to defeat the BJP. If a Muslim candidate is fielded by a party and Muslims don't vote for him, which party is going to give him a ticket?"

It is true only 8% of India's Muslims voted for the BJP in 2019, and are increasingly voting as a bloc against Modi's party. In the 2020 Bihar state elections, 77% supported an anti-BJP alliance; in 2021, 75% backed the regional Trinamool Congress in West Bengal; and in 2022, 79% supported the opposition Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

But Islam argues the Congress-led opposition parties instilled "fear and anxiety" in the community to ensure they remained loyal. The Modi government, on the other hand, "doesn't differentiate [between communities]".

"The welfare schemes are reaching all the people. Muslims are the biggest beneficiaries of some of the schemes. No big riots have taken place in the past 10 years." In fact rioting in Delhi over a controversial citizenship law in 2020 left more than 50 people dead, most of them Muslims — but India has seen far worse over the years since independence.

Islam blamed the community for insulating itself from the mainstream.

"Muslims must introspect. They should reject being treated as a [mere] vote bank, and not be influenced by religious leaders.

"Modi is trying hard to bring society together so that people coexist happily and they are not misled."

I asked him about how he looked at the future of Muslims in India under Modi's leadership?

"It is very good.... Minds are changing slowly. More Muslims will be joining the BJP. Things are looking up."

It is difficult to say whether things are looking up or not.

It is true that, amidst these turbulent times, many Muslims say their community is undergoing a process of reform.

"Muslims are looking within and getting educated. There is a concerted effort by Muslim educationists and intellectuals to help deserving, needy community students to get educated. The effort to improve on your own is laudable but it also betrays lack of faith in the government," says Salam.

Arzoo Parveen is one of those who can see a way out of poverty with her family in Bihar — India's poorest state — with education.

Unlike Ms Ahmad's son, the road block was not religious tensions, but her own father, scared of what others would think.

"He said we have money problems at home, you are a grown-up girl, villagers will talk about it. I told him we can't continue to live like this. Women are moving ahead. We can't put our futures on hold."

Arzoo's dream is to become a doctor, inspired after hearing how her mother died at the local hospital. But it was village teachers' stories of women becoming engineers and doctors that made her believe it was possible.

"Why not me?" she asked, and within a year she had become the first woman in her family to pursue higher education.

Her road out of the village was not through a state-run school, but Rahmani30, a free coaching school for underprivileged Muslim students set up by Maulana Wali Rahmani, a Muslim former politician and academician, in 2008.

Rahmani30 now mentors 850 students — girls and boys — in three cities, including Patna, Bihar's capital. Chosen students live in the school's rented buildings and cram for national entrance exams in engineering, medicine, and chartered accountancy. Many of them are first-generation learners, children of fruit vendors, farm workers, laborers and construction workers.

Some 600 alumni are already working as software engineers, chartered accountants and in other professions. Six are doctors.

Next year, Arzoo will join more than two million competitors — if not more — to compete for one of the 100,000-odd seats that India's 707 medical colleges offer every year.

"I am ready for the challenge. I want to become a gynecologist," she says.

Mohammed Shakir sees education at Rahmani30 as his ticket to a better life — one which will allow him to take care of his struggling family.

Last April, the 15-year-old, and his friend embarked on a six-hour bus journey to Patna, traveling through a district hit by religious riots sparked by a Hindu festival procession. They made the journey with a bottle of water and a few dates, stayed overnight in a mosque, sat for the Rahmani30 entrance exam and cracked it.

"My parents were so scared, they said don't go. I told them, "The time is now. If I don't go now, I don't know what my future will be," Shakir said.

For this teenager, who dreams of becoming a computer scientist, the fears over religious tension appeared to be the least of his worries.

"I had told my mum that I will return after acing the exam. Nothing will happen to me on the way. After all, why should anything go wrong? In my village, Hindus and Muslims live together in perfect harmony."

So what about the future of India's Muslims — also divided on class, sect, caste and regional lines — in the world's most populous country?

Salam talks about a sense of "lingering fear".

"People talk about lack of jobs and inflation for Muslim community. But it's just not about inflation and employment. It is about right to life."

Recent memoirs by young Muslims speak of similar fears.

"Almost everyone has picked a country where they would run to when the inevitable happens. Some have got in touch with uncles settled in Canada, the US, Turkey or the UK, if they ever need asylum. Even someone like me, who felt safe even in times of communal violence, now worries about my family's future in my homeland," writes Zeyad Masroor Khan in his recent book City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh.

In Agra, Ms Ahmad also feels the weight of uncertainty about the future.

"In the beginning, I thought it [Muslim-baiting] was fringe and it would pass. That was 10 years ago. Now I feel a lot has been permanently lost and damaged." — BBC


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