Mixed feelings: The Modi government’s Muslim policy

Has the Modi government managed to improve or worsen the status of Muslims in India?

ByFaizan Mustafa
Mixed feelings: The Modi government’s Muslim policy
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In the high-voltage 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was deified with chants of “Har Har Modi”, leading to a strong reaction even from the Dwarka Shankaracharya. The then Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had told the State Assembly: “For Hindus, NAMO is God’s name”.  Late Vishnu Prasad Dalmia, then-Vishwa Hindu Parishad President, equated Modi’s coming to power with the return of a Hindu coming to power after 800 years i.e. after Prithviraj Chauhan. Overnight, the extreme Right converted India into a Hindurashtra despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly asserting that the only holy book for him and his government is the Constitution of India.

Modi himself did not make any divisive statement either on taking over or in the last three years. In fact, in his very first speech in Parliament, he specifically declared that for the nation to grow, all sections of the population need to develop and if there is pain in one limb of the body, the entire body will feel the pain and the body can no longer be called a healthy body.  He went on to promise that “we have to do focused activity to change the lives of Muslims; they cannot be left behind in development.” How far have these promises been kept? Have the lives of all sections of the population actually improved in the last three years?

As soon as the Modi government took over, its Minority Affairs minister Najma Heptullah refused to accept Muslims as a minority because according to her it was a large community with no threat of extinction. This position was against the law as the Supreme Court has consistently maintained that any community which is numerically inferior i.e. less than 50 per cent of the state’s population is to be recognised as a minority. Within the first six months of this government, there was excessive talk of ghar vaapsi (reconversion to Hinduism) and love jihad. It started with the mass conversion of at least 57 Muslim families with more than 200 members to Hinduism in Agra. Several provocative statements were made by the members of the ruling party and Amit Shah himself spoke of the need for a central law on conversion. No one realised that a ban on conversion will automatically apply to reconversion in equal measure and this would end the entire process of ghar vaapsi.

Conversion is a purely private decision which public officials should ideally not be involved in at all. Half a dozen states already have such laws, but the conviction rate is extremely low.  No attempt however was made by the Modi government to introduce such a Bill as better sense prevailed over the government after then-President of the United States of America, Barack Obama’s strong statement at the end of his three-day visit to India in which he said, “India will succeed as long as it is not splintered along religious lines.”

This statement had a calming impact on the otherwise highly surcharged atmosphere. Few days later at the White House national prayer breakfast, Obama again took note of recent incidents of intolerance when he said, “Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity —but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked [Gandhi], the person who helped to liberate that nation.”  Soon after, Modi reiterated his government’s commitment to freedom of religion at the Catholic Saints conference in New Delhi when he said, “My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.” He also went on to assure minorities that “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.”

In the second year of the government, there was a second series of intolerance and hate speech which eventually culminated in the death of Akhlaq Ahmad at Dadri, barely 50 kilometres from the national capital. He was killed on the mere allegation of possessing beef in his fridge.The body of one of the accused was wrapped in the national flag which was criticised by all well-meaning people.

In the Delhi Assembly elections, Union Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti had put the choice as between Ram zade versus haram zade. She subsequently apologised. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma allegedly made several controversial statements such as “Quran and Bible are not central to soul of India”. Yogi Adityanath and Hindu Yuva Vahini men too made statements such as “will install Gauri and Ganesh in every mosque”, “dig out dead bodies of Muslim women and rape them”, “Hindus should marry 100 Muslim women for every Muslim marrying a Hindu woman”. Shiv Sena which is part of the National Democratic Alliance government spoke through Sanjay Rawat, who allegedly said voting rights of Muslims should be scrapped.

India’s greatness as a country committed to pluralism and liberty was soon visible in the national outcry against this inhuman act of lynching. Hate speech and provocative statements against Muslims by the fringe elements of Hindu Right and members of government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party damaged the image of the government.Leading writers, artists and public intellectuals protested the growing intolerance and some of them even returned their Sahahitya Akademi Awards.

Even though cow slaughter is already prohibited in almost all Indian states, BJP had made it an election issue in 2014 when the “pink revolution” was repeatedly referred to in the election campaigns. The new BJP government of Maharashtra brought a number of amendments to the law to make it more stringent. Some of the provisions of the amendment were subsequently struck down by the Bombay High Court.Haryana law was similarly amended to enhance punishments and recently Gujarat law proposed to equate cow slaughter with homicide and made it punishable with life imprisonment. Recently another shameful lynching incident took place in Rajasthan in which Pehlu Khan was brutally killed by a mob of cow vigilantes, despite having all his papers for possessing cattle in place.

Incidents of taking over of law and order and state’s functions by anti-social elements have become a routine affair and are a blot on the image of the otherwise highly efficient government. Mob justice is the worst form of justice. It is the first responsibility of any government to ensure the physical security of all its citizens. Accordingly, Modi himself came down heavily on cow vigilantes when he boldly said, “It makes me angry that people are running shops in the name of cow protection. Some people indulge in anti-social activities at night, and in the day masquerade as cow protectors.” Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Chief Mohan Bhagwat too disowned the illegal activities of cow vigilantes.

After coming to power, Yogi Adityanath’s government in Uttar Pradesh shut down a number of slaughter houses. Most of these slaughter houses were government-run. For the first few days, here was panic as a number of small meat-vendors lost their livelihood because of the over-enthusiasm of the local administration. But lately, it has been reported that the Muslims of UP are extremely happy with the government’s crusade against the illegal slaughter houses and insistence on compliance with norms laid down by the Supreme Court. It is important to note that as far as the “pink revolution” is concerned, meat export did not see any decrease and India has now overtaken Brazil to become the world’s leading beef exporter.

The Modi government’s stand on the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University was on expected lines as BJP believes in the slogan of “justice for all, appeasement of none”. But then, minority rights are available to both religious minorities as well as linguistic minorities. Thus, it is not a communal issue. Several Hindu educational institutions do enjoy the minority status. Moreover, constitutionally speaking there is no bar on the secular government to set up a minority university to promote fundamental rights under Article 30. What the Constitution prohibits is the violation of fundamental rights by the government or Parliament. It does not prohibit the promotion of such rights. In any case, in parliamentary democracy, it is the duty of the government to defend Parliament in court. AMU’s minority character case is basically about the powers of Parliament in enacting the 1981 amendment to AMU Act of 1920. By supporting AMU’s minority character, the Modi government would have easily won the hearts of Muslims and convinced them of their sincerity to the slogan of sabka saath sabka vikas. Minority institutions do promote the cause of the nation in addition to education of the minority communities, generally as many as 50 per cent students of the majority community receive education in such institutions.

It is not clear why the Modi government, which has raised the status of Backward Class Commission, is not filling the positions of the National Minority Commission which today has neither a Chairman nor Vice-Chairman or any other member. Similarly, the National Commission for Minority educational Institutions is headless for the last three years. Both the commissions are therefore defunct. In fact, the government should take steps to establish an Equal Opportunity Commission.

In the third year, Modi government repeatedly raised the issue of triple divorce and has now powerfully advocated striking down all types of Muslim divorces in the Supreme Court. Modi has himself said in election rallies that he would leave no stone unturned in bringing to an end the instant tyranny of triple divorce. Muslim liberals were in support of Modi. It seems many Muslim women indeed voted for the BJP because of this promise. But then triple divorce is not the major problem faced by Muslim women. A miniscule portion of Muslim women –  0.49 per cent – are divorced, of which those who have undergone triple divorce would hardly be 0.25 per cent or so. The real problem is of their education and employment. There was no significant initiative which has been taken in this regard to empower Muslim women in education and financially. Moreover, the Attorney General’s request to strike down all types of Muslim divorces will create havoc in the community. Judicial dissolution of marriage is costly and time-consuming. Even the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 recognises customary divorces outside the formal judicial system. The limited demand of most Muslim petitioners in the court was to ban instant triple divorce and permit divorce only after failure of arbitration by the family members. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court in an attempt to prevent the banning of triple talaq saying that they would fight it on a social level by ostracising those who do it.

It is strange that out of approximately 3,84,83,967 Muslims in UP, BJP could not find a single suitable candidate in the recently concluded assembly elections. A similar reality is playing out in other states as well. In Gujarat, with 9.67 per cent Muslims, we do not have a single Muslim legislator, in Uttarakhand and Jharkhand it is the same story despite 13.95 per cent and 14.53 per cent Muslims respectively. In Assam, where BJP formed the government for the first time last year, there are just two Muslim MLAs although Muslims constitute 34.22 per cent of the population.

One can understand that unlike other secular parties, BJP does not believe in tokenism and treats all citizens equally. But then why is caste arithmetic kept in mind in the distribution of tickets? In spite of BJP’s near exclusion of Muslims, the Modi government does have two Muslim ministers. Many Muslims also voted for BJP in UP and were appreciative of the demonetisation drive as well. Muslim women who received the gas connection under the Prime Minister’s Ujjawala scheme also voted for Modi.

Modi’s grassroot policies which reach out to Muslims have also started showing positive results. A tectonic shift is taking place, which secular parties are not yet able to understand. It seems gradually Muslims have come to terms and have made peace with BJP or at least want to make peace by giving BJP a chance. In fact, it may be good for both them and the country as a whole. The BJP must also take a more proactive role in controlling violent mobs motivated by a twisted sense of Hindutva and seem to believe that this government will turn a blind eye to their frenzy driven actions. Alienating and divisive statements given by self serving leaders must be dealt with swiftly and sternly by the BJP.

Last month, BJP’s national executive at Bhubaneshwar took a conscious decision to reach out to pasmanda or backward class Muslims. Since most Indian Muslims are basically pasmanda, if the Modi-Shah dream team gets backward Muslims on board, BJP will continue to rule for many more years. But to win over the hearts of a majority of Muslims, the PM has to proactively take steps in removing the trust deficit of Muslims. BJP should also start trusting Muslims and should not doubt their patriotism. As a statesman, Modi has to convince them that he wants not only their inclusion but rather their full participation in the governance of the country.

The author can be contacted at mustafa.faizan@gmail.com


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