Kaleemullah Kasmi dreads the potential re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party.
“There is so much tension,” said Mr Kasmi before Indians headed to the polls on Thursday. “After the BJP came to power it’s not just Muslims, it’s all minorities that are suffering. I fear for the country.”
Buying clothes from a market in Old Delhi, where the red sandstone minarets of the ancient Jama Masjid mosque dominate the horizon, Mr Kasmi worries that there is no future for Muslims in Mr Modi’s India. “Muslims raise the issues, but our voice doesn’t reach the corridors of power,” the 31-year-old teacher at an Islamic school said.
Experts say Mr Kasmi’s view is not unusual among Muslims in India, a group that represents about 14 per cent of the country’s population. Many believe they are being marginalised in the nation’s politics under the BJP, raising concerns that India’s secular framework is being subverted under Mr Modi.
This has extended to the ostensibly secular Congress party, with analysts suggesting it does not want to alienate Hindu voters galvanised by the BJP’s potent cocktail of religious nationalism.
India is home to 170m Muslims, the third-largest population in the world behind Indonesia and Pakistan. But there is rising concern that Mr Modi’s government is cementing a de facto majoritarian regime for Hindus, which represent 80 per cent of India’s 1.3bn people.
The prime minister, a protégé of the nationalist Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has sought to cultivate the image of a pan-Indian leader since becoming prime minister in 2014 in an effort to distance himself from a controversial tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, the state he led from 2001 to 2014. He was accused of complicity in communal violence that left about 2,000 Muslims dead in 2002. Mr Modi has denied any involvement but he was denied a US visa over his alleged role in the violence.
Despite his efforts at rebranding, Muslim political representation has dropped to its lowest level in Indian history since Mr Modi took power. There is not one Muslim BJP MP in India’s Lok Sabha, or lower house, and Muslims now hold only 4 per cent of the seats in parliament, compared with more than 6 per cent a decade ago and a peak of 9.6 per cent in 1980.
This is despite the fact that the overall number of Muslim candidates put forward by independent parties for election has risen in recent years, reflecting the dominance of the two major parties.
As of the latest count, the BJP is fielding just six Muslims out of 375 candidates in the polls, while the main opposition Congress party is putting forward 32 Muslims out of 344 candidates.
This trend is mirrored at the state level. In the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where Muslims represent about one-fifth of the population, the number of elected Muslim members fell from more than 60 out of 403 in 2012 to 24 in 2017. None of the candidates were fielded by the BJP.
“The BJP’s vision of a Hindu nation will make minorities invisible, it means giving no space at all in public institutions,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University. “What is significant is that [some] other parties fearing the Hindu backlash have also started fielding fewer Muslims than they did before.”
Analysts say that even the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty that helped lead the country to independence, has moved in a similar direction.
“Congress is hesitating to give tickets to Muslims; there is Hindu-Muslim polarisation and they fear a Hindu mobilisation behind the BJP,” said Zoya Hasan, a political scientist. “Muslims in any constituency aren’t so large to decide an outcome, but Hindus are everywhere.”
Vinayak Dalmia, a spokesman for Congress, rebuffed the claims. “Congress has a truly secular spirit,” he said, adding that many candidates have yet to be announced. “Compared to every other party, the party has the most inclusive and composite culture.”
A spokesman for the BJP did not respond to a request for comment.
The fear is that the continued marginalisation of Muslims could open the door to radicalism. “At the moment the response of Indian Muslims to what is happening is silence, in the hope that they can use the ballot to vote in a more inclusive government,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a top adviser for the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi party, which has traditionally drawn strong support from Muslims. “However if this doesn’t happen then the alienation of a population of almost 200m people could lead to heightened conservatism and potentially even radicalism, which is non-existent right now.”
The BJP has been criticised for turning a blind eye to rising numbers of Hindu vigilante attacks on Muslim dairy farmers, livestock traders and farmers transporting cows, an animal Hindus revere as semi-divine.
“The rhetoric has always been we’re pro-Hindu, not anti-Muslims, but the practical effect of that is it bleeds into anti-Muslim activities, attacks and lynchings,” said Prof Verniers.
Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor of politics at Sciences Po in Paris, said the government has targeted Muslims in part to deflect criticism away from its economic failures, including promises to create millions of jobs.
India, he adds, is beginning to resemble an ethnic democracy. “India was supposed to be a form of multiculturalism, with minorities represented in different power centres, but gradually now we see those people marginalised,” he said. “India is becoming a democracy that only works for the majority.”
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