Modi’s India becomes a reflection of Jinnah’s fears
Before gloating, however, Indians should remember exactly why Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was so determined to create a Muslim-majority homeland in former British India: he predicted that Muslim rights would be threatened in a country dominated by Hindus.
Seventy-five years later, India risks proving him right. Under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government since 2014, led by charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has become markedly hostile towards its Muslim population, the world’s third largest. Indian Muslims have been targeted by politicians, media and vigilante groups. Their rights have been eroded and their place in society diminished. The country that fought so hard against partition now seems determined to confirm its central logic.
At the time, of course, fear of discrimination was not the only factor motivating Pakistan’s supporters. Muslim landowners saw an opportunity to usurp rich agricultural land. The preachers envisioned a society run according to Islamic principles. The peasants were told that they would finally be freed from the yoke of the Hindu loan sharks. Even the jurist Jinnah was not above the occasional demagoguery, darkly intoning that Hindus and Muslims were too different to live together in peace.
Yet Jinnah’s main fear was how little power Muslims would wield in a united India. This led to the initial rift with his former allies in the Indian National Congress party – including Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister – a decade before independence. And that is why Jinnah withdrew his support for a last-minute British-brokered compromise in 1946, after Nehru hinted that Congress would not honor the deal once the British left.
The score almost proved Jinnah’s case. Somewhere between 200,000 and two million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killed within weeks of independence; 14 million have been uprooted from their homes. Perhaps the biggest massacres began with attacks on Muslim villages on the Indian side of the new border.
India’s founding fathers, however, risked their lives to undermine Jinnah’s argument. When riots spread to India’s capital Delhi and police and low-level government officials joined in pogroms targeting Muslims, Nehru took to the streets, demonstrating with crowds and delivering public speeches promoting Islam. community harmony while being lightly guarded. He insisted that the government apparatus strive to protect Muslims as well as Hindus.
With even members of his cabinet convinced that India would be better off without tens of millions of citizens suspected of divided loyalties, Nehru barely prevailed. The pressure to expel Muslims only really eased months later after a Hindu fanatic assassinated the revered Gandhi, sparking cabinet unity and causing public revulsion against Hindu bigotry.
This consensus and the rights enshrined in India’s secular constitution have largely preserved religious harmony in India for more than seven decades. Al-Qaeda and other transnational terror groups made few inroads among Indian Muslims, even as jihadists flourished in neighboring countries. While sectarian riots have erupted on several occasions, notably after provocations such as the 1992 demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya to make way for a Hindu temple, tensions have mostly remained local and limited. And even though Indian Muslims were discriminated against and were on average poorer and less educated than Hindus, few doubted that they were full citizens, especially when their votes were needed at election time.
What makes the changes that have proliferated under Modi so daunting and dangerous is their corrosive impact on these feelings of belonging. The problem isn’t even the most horrific cases of bigotry, including dozens of lynchings of Muslims across the country. Those at least are still attracting outrage in some quarters, as well as international attention.
Worse is the continued and widely accepted marginalization of India’s estimated 200 million Muslims. Overheated and chauvinistic media present them as potential fifth columnists, who should “go back” to a Pakistan most have never visited if they don’t like the new India. (Pakistani sponsorship of extremist groups that have carried out brutal attacks in India has heightened fears of an internal threat.) Hate speech is widely accepted, including open calls for the extermination of Muslims. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party has pursued laws that threaten to disenfranchise millions of them.
Indeed, an Indian state once convinced of its duty to protect minorities now seems relentlessly hostile. Bias has seeped into the courts and the police, as well as into all levels of government. Laws accepted at face value ridiculous conspiracy theories such as “love jihad” – the idea that Muslim men woo Hindu women in order to convert them. Modi’s decision to strip Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of its constitutionally guaranteed autonomy has made it clear that even the enshrined protections are vulnerable.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, the share of political power held by Muslims is shrinking. Although they represent more than 14% of the population, they represent less than 4% of the members of the lower house of parliament. Among the 395 BJP MPs, there is not a single Muslim.
Certainly, India remains a democracy and not an authoritarian state, with powerful regional politicians and a few courageous and independent activists and journalists. In states where Muslims make up a larger share of the voting population, they have been better able to defend their rights. India is also not the only country where politicians and media personalities are stoking ethno-nationalism for partisan ends.
Still, the trend lines are worrisome. India’s political opposition is weak and divided. The mainstream media has caricatured Muslims to a degree that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The northern Hindi belt is teeming with millions of under-educated, under-employed and angry young men. Politicians there and elsewhere know it is much easier to channel these frustrations onto helpless scapegoats than to fix schools and create jobs.
Modi likes to call India the “mother of democracy”. But the central test of a democracy is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens – whether their rights are protected and their opinions heard. Nehru and India’s other founding fathers saw it as their most basic duty to prove Jinnah wrong, forging a pluralistic India that would thrive on its diversity, not in spite of it. Three quarters of a century later, the Indians should ask themselves if it is they, and not their former brethren across the border, who are now making a mistake.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Indian leaders should not keep playing with fire: Mihir Sharma
• Pakistan’s political crisis is an energy crisis: David Fickling
• In Kashmir, India is making a serious mistake: editorial
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Nisid Hajari is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board covering foreign affairs. A former editor of Newsweek and editor and foreign correspondent for Time, he is the author of “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition”.
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