On May 26, 2014, Narendra Modi became the 14th Prime Minister of India—the only candidate to win a full majority after nearly 30 years in one of the most polarising elections that the country saw. These were also the elections in which the representation of Muslims in the Indian Parliament dropped to the lowest in almost six decades.
The spate of beef lynchings and hate killings which caught the public attention after the murder of of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015—amplified by the outrage on social media—have led Muslims in many parts of the country to fear the upcoming elections, or at least wait for the events to unravel, with bated breath. The reasons are many: the arms training by militant Hindu groups in many parts of the country, the endless cycle of religiously-charged statements by political leaders, and in some cases, fake news on social media fuelling violence, and public felicitation by union ministers of those involved in hate killings. According to an online database on hate crimes in India, out of 6,455 victims of such crimes since 2014, 4,049 belonged to the country’s largest minority group: Muslims.
As Modi’s right-wing Hindu party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seeks another term in the ongoing elections, many political observers term the elections as one of the most important in the country's history. Also at stake will be the future of millions of young Muslims, the ones who will most likely be affected by the political outcome.
“If the BJP gets majority, nothing can stop them from rewriting the Constitution to make India a Hindu Rashtra”
Unsurprisingly, most of the opinions of the young Muslims we spoke to centred around Modi, BJP and their brand of religion-oriented politics. “If Modi comes back to power, it will be for nothing else but his silent endorsement of militant Hindutva,” says Aymen Javed Akhtar Alvi, 23, a student from Lucknow. “All of the developmental tropes that were sold to the public have fallen flat, and a lot of people who thus far tirelessly defended Modi under the veneer of his economic policies should now just quit the act.”
Alvi is not alone in her bleak view of the future of India’s Muslim community, if the BJP assumes reign again. A vast majority of opinions of young Muslims seem to linger around insecurity about their future, and in cases, bordering on panic. Almost everyone seemed to have a backup plan, ‘in case things go awry’. “I keep fearing something like the holocaust can happen here,” says Nida Ansari, 27, a dental surgeon from New Delhi. “How can I be hopeful when after the rape of a child named Asifa, there were protest marches in support of the rape accused? I am planning to migrate to Canada as soon as I can.”
Khoya Amjath, 25, hails from Kerala’s Wayanad, the constituency from where Modi’s main contender Rahul Gandhi is fighting from to regain a foothold for the opposition Congress party. Amjath believes another term for the BJP means a change in India’s Constitution to dilute its secular nature. “In the next four years, they will have two-thirds of the Rajya Sabha seats. If the BJP gets majority in Lok Sabha in 2019, nothing can stop them from rewriting the Constitution to make India a Hindu Rashtra,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter who wins, but how far we can progress”
Some others, though equally disturbed, still find hope in the world’s largest exercise of voting rights. “If we want to change this world, we should fight for what is right,'' says Suhail Abid, 23, from Bengaluru. “Politics is only about change. It doesn’t matter whether the BJP wins or Congress, but how far we can progress as compared to previous times.”
Hana Masood, 22, who volunteers for a social organisation in Mumbai, hasn't decided whom to vote for as she thinks all parties in the fray play cheap politics, the kinds that focus on names, not policies. “It would be great to have more Muslim representation but I don't think it'll make much of a difference as there will still be louder voices to drown them out,” she says, adding that the same happens on the internet, where liberal voices are drowned out by trolls.
“I will vote for anyone who will work towards making sure people have jobs”
A group of young men in Old Delhi agree with Amjath. After offering evening prayers in the nearby Jama Masjid, they stand near Karim’s, a restaurant that claims to have a history of serving food to the Mughal rulers who have been vilified by members of the BJP as foreign invaders and religious expansionists, but celebrated by most Indian historians as secular rulers who fostered ideas of Hindu-Muslim unity.
In these lanes in the heart of India’s national capital, most youngsters go to schools, but few are able to find a job, often turning to odd jobs. As many young Indians cutting across communities face the highest unemployment rates in 45 years, the failure of the government to create jobs has emerged as a major issue. “My family thinks I am lazy, but I can’t create a job out of thin air. I think I will vote for anyone who will work towards making sure people have jobs,” says Mohd Shahid, one of the boys in the group.
“I expect to have a government which allots funds for sex change operation and healthcare facilities for trans men and women”
For many living on the fringes, it’s all about the benefits they can get from whoever attains power at the centre. Seher Ali, a Muslim transgender woman from Noida, says she’d vote on issues related to the development of the transgender community. “I expect to have a government which allots funds for sex change operation, arranges for clean syringes and healthcare facilities for trans men and women,” says Ali.
Rafiol Alom Rahman, research scholar and founder of the Queer Muslim Project, is happy that Congress and CPI(M) have included LGBTQ issues on their manifestos. “It’s time we vote for peace and harmony over communal frenzy and exclusion.”
“Things usually get worse before they can become better”
According to a paper published by the University of California, the rise of beef-related violence in India can be taken as an expression of rising Islamophobia in the country. “The historically constructed clash between Muslims and Hindus has been used by members of the far-right—such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal—to present the Muslim community as outsiders and evil others,” it says. There are other studies that link this with the rise of uncensored Islamophobic content on the internet and social media.
Anam Tariq, 29, a resident of Lucknow, thinks the rise in Islamophobia at least means she knows who stands for what and who gets aligned with extremist right-wing ideology. “Even if the BJP comes to power again, it gives Indians another opportunity to show the world how much they are willing to tolerate injustice and violence,” says Tariq. She thinks all this will ultimately lead to the people rising against such politics. “Things usually get worse before they can become better.”
“They should follow communities like the Shia and Bohra ones, that have negotiated with the mainstream political parties”
However, there are others within the community who feel that young Muslims need to work on promoting integration and fostering tolerance towards other communities. “They need to liberate themselves from the instruments of oppression and negotiate a political space for themselves as equal citizens of India,” says Fahad Zuberi, 27, an architecture student in Ahmedabad, who believes that the 172 million Muslim population has been a pawn in the hands of the political class, Muslim leaders and fatwa-issuing theocrats in seminaries such as Darul Uloom Deoband. “They should follow communities like the Shia and Bohra ones, that have negotiated with the mainstream political parties and have been able to carve out a strong political space for themselves.”
“This growing alienation cannot be stopped now, whatever the outcome of the election is”
The most vulnerable victims of the polarisation in the last five years have been children. The rising number of incidents of Muslim school students being increasingly being bullied for their religious identity have been captured in news reports and books. Umar Hussain, 15, a class 10 student in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh, is sure that mob lynchings are going to increase, even if BJP loses. “It’s not rare to see people distancing themselves from you if you wear distinctly Muslim clothes; they get offended at small things once they know your religious identity. This growing alienation cannot be stopped now, whatever the outcome of the election is.”
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