NEW DELHI - Despite the scorching summer heat, the streets outside Delhi’s iconic mosque, the Jama Masjid, are bustling as shopkeepers hawk dates and other traditional foods with which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
But amid the festivities in this maze of alleys, stalls and noisy traffic, many admit there is a sense of apprehension as Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his second term.
“There is tension among us Muslims because whenever the BJP government is in power, they try to spoil the atmosphere and manage to disrupt the harmony,” says 24-year-old Mohammad Rehan who runs his father’s shop in this Muslim-dominated neighborhood.
The nervousness is inevitable: there was a spate of attacks on members of the community by cow vigilantes during Modi’s first term. At least 35 were killed and many were targeted on suspicion of transporting cows for slaughter or carrying and eating beef.
Although communal harmony prevails in this area, the worry is whether fringe right wing Hindu groups blamed for the violence will get more emboldened as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rides to power with an even more emphatic victory than during its first term. India’s 190 million Muslims make up about 14 per cent of the population in the predominantly Hindu nation and critics fear that the BJP’s massive mandate could weaken the country’s secular traditions.
Prime Minister Modi gave reassuring signals within days of his spectacular victory. In an outreach to minority communities, he called on newly elected BJP lawmakers to win their trust. Blaming opposition parties for using them only to win votes instead of focusing on their education and health, he said his government’s new slogan would be “with all, for everybody's development and having everyone's trust.”
“We must all work shoulder to shoulder. We must take everyone along and end the deception and imaginary fears that minorities have lived under. This is our responsibility,” Modi said.
The statement has been welcomed in this neighborhood. “The government must ensure that the Muslim community does not suffer harassment or violence,” says Mohammad Sualiheen, owner of a shop selling Islamic religious books as he admits that there is nervousness and fear.
At the same time many question whether Modi can control the hardline and extremist elements among the support base of his party.
A sharply polarized election campaign, which saw a subtle play on religious polarization and Hindu nationalism, has not helped. In what was widely seen as a reference to Muslims, Amit Shah, who is now the country’s powerful Home Minister called illegal immigrants “termites” and “infiltrators” at an election rally and said all except Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists would be expelled. The BJP former party leader, who crafted its win, will oversee internal security.
“There have been several members of the BJP and some responsible members including members of parliament and senior party leaders sometimes making statements which seem to suggest that the Muslim community cannot be trusted,” according to Ajoy Bose, resident political commentator at CNN News 18.
Controversy also surrounds Pragya Singh Thakur, a newly elected member of the BJP, who was handed a party ticket although she faces terrorism charges in connection with a 2008 bomb attack that killed six Muslims.
She denies the accusation and the BJP calls the case a “conspiracy” against her. A furor erupted when Thakur called the hardline Hindu who murdered independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi a patriot — she apologized after Modi and the party denounced the remark.
In the days after the BJP victory, there have been two reports of Muslims being targeted — of a Muslim’s skullcap being snatched in a neighboring area of Delhi and of three men being beaten for allegedly carrying beef in Madhya Pradesh state.
That has unnerved Mohammad Sikander, who sets up a temporary stall to earn some extra money during Ramadan. “When I read that someone was asked their name and then asked to chant pro Hindu slogans, I feel bad. Why should we do it? My religion does not ask me to say that,” he says carefully scanning the day’s newspaper.
The BJP denies accusations of creating a religious divide pointing out that there has been no flare-up in communal violence during its five-year rule.
Critics however fear that the party’s political dominance could prompt a Hindu-first agenda, and a sense of alienation among the Muslims.
And even as the Prime Minister urges his lawmakers to build trust with minorities, political analysts point out that it is an acknowledgement that a trust deficit exists.
Down this road the echo is that their trust can only be earned if the Prime Minister walks the talk and if the government takes prompt action against those blamed for the attacks on Muslims. “His words were welcome. But he must stand by what he has said. He has to carry everyone along for the nation to progress. He must prove it,” says Mohammad Irshad Khan whose fragrant pot of meat and rice has beckoned customers for a long time.
The direction in which the Modi government takes the country will only unfold in the coming months and years, say analysts. “We maybe seeing a new India,” ruminates Bose. “Whether the glue to this new India is some Hindu nationalism, we will have to see. It is too early to come to any conclusions about what is happening.”
As they shop, eat, or answer the call to prayer, residents say they only want life to continue as it has for generations — without fear or favor.