Majoritarian violence is slowly tearing India apart

Faheem Haider

In India, the New Year started with a perverse attack on the country’s Muslims. On January 1, photographs of more than 100 Muslim women appeared on an app called Bulli Bai, with the claim that they were “for sale as maids”. Prominent journalists, actresses and activists were among those who were targeted.

The apparent attempt to sexualise, humiliate and force into silence politically active and socially prominent Muslim women understandably enraged India’s 200-million strong Muslim community. After significant backlash, the app was taken down, and several arrests were made in relation to the incident.

But this was only the latest in a string of Islamophobic incidents in India.

On the last day of 2021, for example, a leading national daily ran an overtly Islamophobic ad which was funded by the government of Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state. Just a few weeks earlier, several far-right Hindu leaders openly called for genocide against Muslims at a three-day religious summit held in northern India’s Haridwar city.

Also in December, India’s far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi made connections between Muslim figures from India’s distant history and current-day “terrorism and religious extremism” in two of his public speeches, implying that India’s Muslims should be held responsible and punished for the alleged crimes committed by their “ancestors”.

Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who belongs to the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that the state’s upcoming assembly election can be described as “80 versus 20 percent”, not so subtly hinting that he perceives the state elections as a battle between the Hindus, who make up 80 percent of the state’s population, and the 20 percent Muslim minority.

The anti-Muslim propaganda perpetrated by India’s elected and unelected leaders in 2021 has also been supported by the country’s brazenly Islamophobic media, as well as anti-Muslim laws and policies passed or proposed in many states.

Muslims in India have been feeling under threat since the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014. But in the past year, hostility towards this community became even more overt. Today, far-right Hindu nationalists, with the support and at times encouragement of the government and local authorities, are making it clear to Muslims that they are no longer seen as equal citizens in their own country. Their dietary habits and religious rituals are being attacked and even criminalised. Muslim women are being humiliated and harassed just because they are Muslim. Muslim livelihoods are under threat. Calls are being made for genocide of Muslims. It is no longer safe to be Muslim in BJP’s India.

Muslims, however, are not the only religious minority being targeted by the increasingly emboldened far right in the country. Christians across India are also facing similar hate and violence. Laws banning conversion are being enacted in state after state, and Christians are being blamed for forcibly converting poor Hindus and tribals. This is turning public opinion against Christian communities. Christian Sunday prayers are being disrupted repeatedly, churches are being attacked, priests are being beaten up.

As veteran journalist John Dayal recently reported, last month “violent Hindu mobs attacked churches, Christian congregations in prayer and groups celebrating Christmas in at least 16 cities and towns”. Such incidents were seen in states all across the country, from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi in the north. To Karnataka in the South. According to United Christian Forum, at least 460 attacks against Christians have been recorded in the past year in India.

But the fight for India’s identity and soul is not yet over. A resistance against violent majoritarian politics is slowly growing in the country, and many who believe in democracy and human rights are fighting tirelessly to save India’s national unity and secular identity.

India’s Muslims are no longer taking the attacks against them laying down. When they discovered that they have been “put on sale” on a so called ” auction app”, for example, Muslim women refused to be intimidated and filed a series of First Information Reports (FIR) to pressure the authorities to find and punish those responsible. When it became clear that Muslims will not let the issue go, security forces who had all but ignored similar anti-Muslim crimes in the past took swift action, and arrested four people believed to be behind the app.

Meanwhile, a new crop of Muslim journalists and activists are tirelessly recording and documenting Islamophobic incidents and attacks across the country, and demanding accountability from state institutions. Due to their efforts, state authorities are increasingly struggling to ignore or downplay the abuse faced by Muslims. These journalists and activists, with the support of the wider Muslim community and many other democratic minded Indians, are working to ensure that the genocidal calls recently made against Muslims in Haridwar do not remain unpunished. Thanks to increasing public pressure, police already announced an investigation into the incident.

But this grim scenario is not inevitable. Different religious communities peacefully co-existed in India for long periods in the past, and they can do so again. Muslims and Christians are resisting the majoritarian violence, which is supported by India’s government, and with the help of those around the world who want India to remain a secular democracy where all its citizens feel safe, they can still win this battle for the soul of their country.