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Modi’s electoral setback leaves India’s Muslims feeling more secure

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, June 9, 2024.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, June 9, 2024.

Muslims in India are feeling more secure about their future after last month’s national election in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP failed to win an outright majority in parliament, forcing it to form a coalition with other parties.

Before the election, national media had reported deep concerns among Muslims that the Hindu nationalist ruling party would meet expectations for a landslide victory, leaving it free to pursue policies that would further marginalize the Muslim minority.

But with the BJP constrained by its election setback and the influence of its coalition partners, most believe those concerns are unlikely to be realized.

“Right from the start of Modi's first term [in 2014], Muslims were targeted for an unprecedented degree of humiliation, disenfranchisement, and naked brutalization, by both state and non-state actors. BJP leaders openly described Muslims as traitors, infiltrators, threats to Hindus, and the like,” Rohit Chopra, a professor at Santa Clara University in the U.S. state of California, told VOA.

“However, after the BJP failed to win a majority in the just-concluded general election, many observers of Indian politics believe that the Hindu nationalist party will not be able to target Muslims through its policies and rhetoric as aggressively and openly as before. The expectation among Muslims is that the worst is hopefully over.”

Since his rise to power in 2014, Modi has promoted a Hindu nationalist vision that has left the nation’s more than 204 million Muslims complaining of persecution and discrimination by the society and the state.

Over the past decade, in many BJP-ruled states, thousands of Muslim houses and shops were demolished by bulldozers after their owners allegedly committed minor crimes.

Bulldozer justice

Muslim community leaders and social activists pointed out that the authorities targeted only Muslim-owned structures, overlooking illegal buildings owned by non-Muslims. Several legal experts, including former judges, called the so-called “bulldozer justice” outright unlawful.

Hundreds of Muslims were lynched by right-wing Hindu vigilante groups over the past decade for allegedly transporting cows and carrying beef. Muslims complained that the members of the groups were viewed as foot soldiers of the BJP and rarely faced punishment, especially in BJP-ruled states.

Although rights groups complain that Muslims in India sometimes face discrimination and hate attacks because of their faith, Modi denies they exist under his government.

“Our constitution and our government and we have proved democracy can deliver. When I say deliver, regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender – there is absolutely no space for any discrimination [under my government],” Modi told reporters last year during a state visit to the White House.

In March, the Modi government enacted a divisive citizenship law that allowed followers of various religions – but not Islam -- to enter India from neighboring countries on a fast track to Indian citizenship. Critics and Muslims said the law discriminates against Muslims.

Until recently, senior BJP leaders also said the Modi government was in the process of implementing a National Register of Citizens or, NRC — a list of Indians who can prove their citizenship by providing documentation. Muslim leaders fear the NRC project is designed to designate many Indian Muslims as illegal foreigners.

For years, the Modi government said it would introduce a uniform civil code, a single law, replacing many customs and laws now followed by different religious groups. Muslim community leaders have long insisted that this would be used to marginalize and persecute Muslims.

During the recent election campaign, Modi and his party colleagues were accused of hate speech and peddling anti-Muslim tropes. Modi called Muslims “infiltrators.” He also identified the community as one “having more children.”

However, many of those Muslim fears have receded in the wake of the election.

BJP left reliant on coalition partners

Several of the BJP’s new coalition partners are known as secular and enjoy good support from Muslims, who look to the parties to oppose any hardline policies perceived as anti-Muslim. Leaders of the Telugu Desam Party, one of the coalition partners, said that on controversial policies, the BJP will not take any decision unilaterally.

Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, who uses only a first name, told VOA that the election result has “certainly brought some relief” to Muslims.

“The BJP had sought an anti-Muslim mandate. The speeches and comments of Modi and other BJP leaders were nothing but attempts to instigate Hindus against Muslims. Thankfully the election results showed that Modi’s election platform was rejected by a significant number of Hindus,” he said.

“Muslims hope that the bulldozer punishment that had become routine for them will become a thing of the past now. And, anti-Muslim laws would be more difficult to pass now. Judiciary will muster some courage and do justice to Muslims who have been attacked by the state organs with impunity.”

Somdeep Sen, a professor of international development studies at Roskilde University in Denmark, said India’s Muslims have reasons “to heave a sigh of relief.”

“We have seen an increasing mainstreaming of Islamophobia over the last decade. Even the usually stoic prime minister took on the mantle of publicly demonizing India’s Muslim population on its campaign trail. A bigger Modi victory would have given the ruling party an even greater political mandate to pursue Islamophobic policies,” he told VOA.

However, Sen said that he does not believe that India is "entering an era of inclusive politics.”

“Along with their electoral successes, a key achievement of Hindutva forces has been a cultural shift that has normalized the mainstream demonization of India’s Muslims,” he said.

“With Modi at the helm, we can’t expect a complete reversal of this cultural shift, even as the prime minister now has to contend with the needs and wants of coalition partners.”