Saad Hafiz l

Is Modi’s India Secular? The friction between Hindus and Muslims is a permanent feature of India life, and periodic bouts of bloody rioting are common. But since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP party, violence against Muslims has increased. Most recently, it surfaced during President Donald Trump’s visit to India, when Hindus beat and shot Muslims in Delhi, and Muslims fought back in defense.

In what appears to be a pattern of targeting Muslims, the government has imposed siege-like conditions on the Muslim residents of Indian Kashmir. It has also passed a new citizenship law that could open the door to legal discrimination against Muslims. At the same time, law enforcement agencies have looked the other way on bloody violence directed against Muslims.

There’s little doubt that Modi’s rule has emboldened the proponents of Hindutva, who believe that India should be a Hindu nation. It is a big challenge for Indian Muslims to deal with powerful sections of the Hindu majority, bent on mixing religion with politics and entrenching communalism.

Today, many Hindu nationalists seem to see it as their life’s mission to deprive Indian Muslims of equal rights or even expel them. They would also like to introduce Hindu religious writing into Indian law.

Muslims in India

It’s important to remember that Muslims are India’s largest minority, making up over 14 percent of the population. There was a time that Hindus and Muslims together, including my family, fought for freedom against British colonial rule. They firmly rejected the theory, propagated by power-hungry politicians, that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together in one country. Today, to suggest that Indian Muslims are anti-national and aliens, as some do, is preposterous.

Despite the threats of political and social exclusion, Muslims haven’t retreated into a shell or adopted violent means of resistance. Indian Muslims have the advantage that unlike other authoritarian Asian states, India is a democracy. It has a secular constitution, an impartial electoral process, an independent judiciary, a vibrant democracy, a relatively free press, and an army that stays away from politics. It is time for Muslims to test India’s institutions for legal redress and constitutional protection.

The fact is that Indian Muslims, like all Indians, are concerned about poverty, employment, and education. A slowing economy and increased joblessness hurt everyone. The Indian economy is expected to grow at its lowest rate in over a decade.

Social disharmony, economic slowdown, and rising poverty threaten India’s progress. They hurt Modi’s image as a strong, business-oriented leader. If the economy continues its downward slide, Modi may need to use all his charm to control a mob of disaffected followers. He must be hoping that the protests and violence die out, and it will be business as usual.

Secularism in Modi’s India

There are also encouraging signs that Indian secularism, which had been in retreat for some time, is finding momentum. The extraordinary India-wide campaign of civil disobedience against the new citizenship law is laudable. It brought together all Indians regardless of religion, including women and university students, as part of an anti-Hindutva counter mobilization. The serious threat posed to a secular and pluralist India, by the Hindu nationalist juggernaut, is being confronted.

When Modi won re-election in 2019, it seemed he could do no wrong. Few questioned the mode through which Modi acquired and retained power. It is an age-old tested script. In India, it meant appealing to the Hindu majority, blaming the Muslim minority and Pakistan for all ills, and using a pliant media to trumpet the BJP version of the truth. The formula worked until serious social and economic issues surfaced. And the opposition mounted a challenge, forcing Modi to defend his record.

Now, the situation has gone beyond just dismissing the opposition as “anti-national” and “termites” determined to derail India’s rise to the world stage. In fact, the government is paying a price for focusing less on urgent economic issues and more on its narrow social and political agenda. As a result, the hitherto disunited opposition has taken heart. It is exploiting the opening created by some contentious BJP policies. It’s heartwarming to see Indian Muslims playing an active role in the united democratic opposition.

Despite the recent setbacks, the BJP has a strong majority, enough to weather electoral challenges to its rule. But it may be time for some introspection and course correction. Modi and the BJP must reassure the country that they have no intention to drown dissent and subvert national institutions to gain political mileage.

At the same time, they should assure minorities, particularly Indian Muslims, that they are an integral part of Indian society, and that the government firmly opposes violence and discrimination aimed at vulnerable groups. Like never before, social harmony is important in India’s successful march to its rightful place in the world.

The writer is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues. He can be reached at [email protected] This article was first published in Daily Times and has been republished with author’s permission.