In Bhopal’s Darul Uloom – or House of Knowledge – madrassa, a school offering secular and religious education in an elegant, 127-year-old mosque, the teachers are increasingly apprehensive about the outcome of India’s forthcoming parliamentary election.
Indian voters are widely expected to catapult Narendra Modi , the prime ministerial hopeful of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, to power in polls that start in April and end in mid-May. But among India’s Muslim minority, Gujurat’s chief minister is indelibly tainted by the 2002 Gujarat riots in which some 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and tens of thousands more driven from their homes.
Although Mr Modi was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing over the massacre that occurred on his watch, most Muslims – and some secular or liberal Hindus – believe he allowed, or even covertly supported, the carnage.
Muslims are fretting about what Mr Modi’s ascent to the country’s top political job could mean.
“Modi’s image among Muslims is of a ruler who, when riots took place, discriminated against the Muslim community,” says Sharafat Ali Nadvi, the madrassa’s headteacher. “But it’s not as if the Muslim community hates Modi or holds a grudge. If he is ready to apologise for his mistake, many sins are forgiven.
“If he pledges that as prime minister he will not discriminate against Muslims, and abides by the constitution, then Muslims will have no problem.”
Campaigning nationally, Mr Modi has assiduously avoided any conciliatory outreach, or inflammatory rhetoric, towards the Muslim community, keeping his focus firmly on economic development. A rare public comment on the 2002 bloodletting – in an interview with Reuters last July – deeply offended many, reopening old wounds.
“[If] someone else is driving a car and we're sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not?” Mr Modi said when asked if he regretted the violence. “If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being.”
Hilal Ahmed, a researcher at New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, believes Mr Modi and the BJP are remaining intentionally ambiguous on attitudes and policies towards Muslims to avoid either alienating the party’s hardline Hindu base or mobilising Muslim voters.
“They are not interested in getting Muslim votes but they would like to neutralise Muslim votes,” Mr Ahmed said of the BJP campaign.
In reality, Muslims can do little to stop Mr Modi’s ascent. They made up just 13 per cent of India’s 1.2bn people as of 2001 – the most recent year for which official data are publicly available. The percentage is thought to be about 18 per cent now, although authorities have yet to release the religious breakdown of the 2011 census in the face of deep sensitivities: powerful rightwing Hindu groups have accused Muslims of having too many children and threatening to overwhelm India’s Hindu majority.
Muslims make up more than 30 per cent of voters in just 46 of India’s of 545 parliamentary constituencies, although the minority group can potentially influence the outcome in about 110 seats. The Muslim vote is also highly fragmented, with support coalescing around different parties and leaders in different states.
Indian Muslims have not had their own dedicated political party since the colonial-era struggle for independence, when the Muslim League successfully promoted partition and the creation of Pakistan, a trauma that still haunts Muslims who opted to remain in India.
Even among Muslims, there is little unanimity about what a Modi premiership would mean.
Syed Amir Anwar, a young chemistry graduate who teaches English at the madrassa, fears Mr Modi will give greater influence in the bureaucracy and judiciary to rightwing Hindu groups that see Muslims as a threat and want to promote a more explicitly Hindu society.
However, Umar Farooq, another English teacher, believes Muslims will be safer with Mr Modi as prime minister, as he will want to demonstrate his administrative prowess. “Riots and atrocities will be reduced because he will want to show a sober and polite picture to the world,” he says.
Syed Javed Ali, a 38-year-old Bhopal taxi driver with two young children, says he plans to vote for Mr Modi after observing the BJP’s strong performance in Madhya Pradesh, where power and roads improved dramatically, after the previously ruling Congress was ousted, and replaced by an administration led by the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chauhan.
“Modi is a knowledgeable and intelligent man – his speeches are very true,” the taxi driver said.
Across town, at the Muslim Education and Career Promotion Society, which promotes academic excellence among Muslim students, Sagheer Baidar, one of the founders, makes little secret of his visceral dislike for Gujarat’s chief minister.
Yet like many Muslims in Bhopal, Mr Baidar is also eager to dispel the impression of being cowed by the likelihood of Mr Modi running the national government. “We are not frightened of the prospect of Modi coming to power,” he said. “He will keep the Muslims terrorised to retaliate for past history. But we are confident that the Indian constitution gives us sufficient powers to fight what Modi represents.”
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