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Will the inter-religious conflict escalate in India?

In February and March 2017 state elections were held in India. The greatest concern was shown towards those in Uttar Pradesh, which is the most populated region and, what’s also important, inhabited by a large Muslim minority. The elections were won by the Indian People’s Party (the BJP) under the leadership of present prime minister Narendra Modi. Because of his affiliation with religious and nationalist paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) many raise the question whether there’s a risk of increase in Hindu extremist activities and the eruption of unrest similar to those in Gujarat in 2002, which resulted in death of several hundreds of Muslims.

The victory of the BJP is considered by inattentive analysts as an indication of a rise in nationalist attitudes in Hindu society. At the same time many researchers point out that the support for political right makes up 30%-40%. It is usually enough to win in a given constituency. Some assume correctly that the BJP won in those districts where Muslims didn’t exceed 45% of total population and lost to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP Majority People’s Party) in 7 constituencies in which Muslims are the majority1)There Is No Evidence That A Single Muslim Voted For The BJP In UP, The Huffington Post India 2017-03-14.. The studies indicate that both this year’s and 2014 state assembly elections’ triumphs are an effect of the opposition’s weakness and its internal divisions, which result in the dispersion of votes. It’s important as one should remember that in India the “first past the post voting”, the candidate who receives most votes wins, is in force. It means that the winner in a certain constituency doesn’t have to be supported by at least 50% of voters. Such political forces as the BSP, which won multiple times in Uttar Pradesh, got 22% of the popular vote and barely 19 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The Indian National Congress’, secular social-liberal (Mahatma Gandhi), support totaled up to 6% and resulted in 7 seats2)Assembly Elections Results 2017: Political parties with lesser seats get more vote share, Financial Express 2017-03-12..

The high support for the BJP in constituencies dominated by the Muslim population became the source of accusations brought by the defeated parties, which were related to potential rigging, i.e. manipulation with electronic voting machines. Up till now those speculations have been investigated by the Election Commission3)UP election results: the BJP shining in Muslim stronghold a big setback for Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, The Indian Express 2017-03-11.. There were also rumors that the “fake fingers” were used, which enabled the citizens to cast multiple votes. This objection has been raised in connection to the fact that the voters’ index fingers were marked with ink4)Uttar Pradesh elections: Busted – fake fingers, real votes, India Today 2017-02-23..

What the opposition doesn’t take into account is the possibility that a section of Muslim community might have actually voted for the nationalists. The estimates indicate that in 2014 even 8% of Muslims supported the Hindu right-wing party in state elections5)Who did India’s Muslims vote for in general election?, BBCNews 2014-05-30.. The activist for the rights of Muslim women Shaista Amber stressed the potential abandonment of “strategic voting” against the BJP in favor of backing specific issues. Modi’s party underlines in its program the importance of economic growth, limiting the unemployment and raising the living standards of the poorest and also mentioned the possibility of abolishing the “triple talaq” law, which is grounded in sharia and allows husband to get divorced in an easy way6)Saffron Sweep in UP Hints at Muslims Voting for the BJP in Large Numbers, News18 2017-03-11..

Except for that, the opposition, just like the BJP, seems to treat Muslim community as a monolith. While the nationalists view it in such a way because of their ideology, other parties tend not to understand the internal difference of political attitudes. Muslims who are a part of community’s elite and are well off support the Indian National Congress and the Samajwadi Party (democratic socialist party). What’s even more important, those elites usually hold Dalits, lower-castes and co-religionists from the other backward classes in contempt. They’re also not interested in supporting those formations which focus on empowering the poor. Muslims positioned lower in the social hierarchy for the most part don’t have their political representation. Their voting decisions are based on the opinions of religious leaders and local authorities, i.e. the groups which are wealthier and are in fact feudal lords. As a result the Islamic community in India is considered to be a vote-bank for secular or leftist parties. However, Samajwadi Party didn’t stand for the rights of Muslim minority as its politicians while being in power were inactive during the Muzaffarnagar pogrom in 2013.7)Analysis of the Victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, People’s Review 2017-03-17. The clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities in Muzaffarnagar district in 2013, resulted in at least 62 deaths including 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus and left more than 50,000 displaced.
This party and other regional formations gained the community’s support because of the sense of betrayal that emerged due to the inability of the Indian National Congress. It became clear for the Muslims that since the 80’s little has been done by the Indian National Congress to improve their living standards. Already in 2009 some stated that the community may prefer the enemy than to blindly support politicians disinterested in its fate8)Indian Muslims put their faith in Congress, The Guardian 2009-05-27.. In other words, the Muslims are generally politically excluded and can’t count on help from any of the parties.

The thesis that the Hindus are becoming more radicalized can be challenged. The BJP is simply able to conduct an effective political strategy, which results in the adequate mobilization and consolidation of the electorate. This strategy isn’t formed to attract only those citizens who are hard-line nationalists. Though the BJP’s rhetoric may be considered as xenophobic, the castes focus on actual policies, which improve their living standard. Therefore, the politicians of the party understood that the key to election victory lies is gaining support from the Other Backward Classes, i.e. those which are dependent on those positioned higher in social strata and are at the same time above the untouchables (the Dalits). Those castes make up about half of the country’s population and may provide enormous political backing. That’s why the aforementioned RSS is focusing on social work, charity and promoting education. It’s actions are directed to the poor, those in need and the youth. It enables the society to spread the idea of Hindutva (“Hinduness”)9)Modi’s India: Caste, Inequality and the Rise of Hindu Nationalism, Newsweek 2015-07-26.. The movement’s activities are similar to those conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1930s, which was building its political capital and promoting resistance against the British rule via mosques. In the places of worship the basic needs of population were satisfied.

Muslims are often attacked because they don’t consider the cow a sacred animal. In June, the media informed that cow-protection vigilantes had killed ten Muslims since April 2017. Such assaults didn’t began during the BJP’s rule. However, it doesn’t go unnoticed that throughout the last three years, when the nationalists won the elections, the number of attacks has increased. It doesn’t mean that the government promotes violent behavior, but it also doesn’t engage on the side of the victims. It was not until June 2017 when Narendra Modi stated that such violence is unacceptabl 10)Will Modi’s disapproval, not condemnation, end lynching of Muslims in India?, BDNews24 2017-06-29.. The statement was probably a result of massive demonstrations against religious-based killings, which erupted after the 15-year-old Junaid Khan had been lynched11)#NotInMyName protests: Thousands hit the streets against mob lynchings, The Indian Express 2017-06-28.. In 2015 there were 700 religious-based incidents, 86 victims and 2321 injured. Of course, not only were Muslims attacked but also Christians and Sikhs. Yet, the Islamic community was the main target of violence, which was the most frequent in Uttar Pradesh12)Modi’s Party Stokes Anti-Muslim Violence in India, Report Says, South China Morning Post 2017-06-29..

Muslims are also accused of conducting “love jihad”, which is understood by the creators of the term as marrying Hindu girls in order to convert them to Islam13)India’s Fake ‘Love Jihad’, Foreign Policy 2014-09-04..

The BJP seems to be responsible for a climate resulting not only in inter-religious violence but also inter-caste fighting. Except for riots between Dalits and Muslims, there are also clashes between the untouchables and the Thakurs, which are located at a higher social stratum. Nationalist politicians stress that violence results from the opposition to the BSP’s policy aiming at maintaining support from the lowest castes14)Saharanpur clashes decoded: A cocktail of caste and politics, Hindustan Times 2017-06-13.. On the other hand the BJP sought for Thakur support. As they are feudal lords, they can possibly influence the voting pattern of the lowest castes15)Analysis of the Victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, People’s Review 2017-03-17.. It’s important to ask if the BJP is interested in defending the Dalits. It’s even more important because of the fact that the anti-nationalists ideas promoted by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (activist against social discrimination of the lower-castes) are still present and the critical attitude toward Hindutva remains strong as this ideology is perceived as accomplishing the goals of higher castes16)Dalits and the remaking of Hindutva, The Hindu 2016-01-25.. In other words, time will tell if the victors are interested in pursuing inclusive policies or rather in promoting a radical version of the ideology and implementing its tenets in social life.

Indian society isn’t on the verge of a deep social crisis and it isn’t facing radicalization. The Hindus cast their votes because of social issues challenging India. It is quite probable that the BJP will win the 2019 state election as it’s focusing on the economic development and improving living standard of all castes. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is present and it favors the increase in religion-driven violence. But what matters the most is its scale. Surely there are individuals and groups who are becoming more active as they’re not fearing the consequences of their actions as much as before. For instance, after the 2014 state election, one of the leaders of the group known as the Dharm Jagran Samiti stated that by 2021 India will have been freed from Christians and Muslims. According to his statement, the members of those minorities should be converted to Hinduism or forced to leave the country. He also stressed that his organization doesn’t consult its actions with the government, but merely asks for opinion or at least implied acceptance17)‘We will free India of Muslims and Christians by 2021’: DJS leader vows to continue ‘ghar wapsi’ plans and restore ‘Hindu glory’, Mail Online India 2014-12-19..

The data can not show the facts about inter-religious violence since Modi has been in power. Different state institutions provide different data, which makes it impossible to assess how the situation will unfold.18)278 communal clashes in India in first five months of 2016, Home Ministry tells Lok Sabha, Scroll.in 2016-07-22.The more rapid events make the picture even more blurred. At the moment we may state that the riots will surely take place as no political entity is interested in the fate of the Muslim community. We can’t also rule out the possibility of other pogroms. Yet, one should be careful in blaming the ruling party for the present situation. What’s more the BJP tries to limit its ties to the paramilitary RSS19)The BJP wants to shift the focus to the RSS work in social service. Here’s why it may not work, Scroll.in 2016-09-05..The only thing the ruling party can be accused of is its passiveness towards violence. Yet such inactivity isn’t characteristic only of the nationalists but is the feature of all mainstream Indian movements and it doesn’t matter what their political declarations are.

References   [ + ]

1. There Is No Evidence That A Single Muslim Voted For The BJP In UP, The Huffington Post India 2017-03-14.
2. Assembly Elections Results 2017: Political parties with lesser seats get more vote share, Financial Express 2017-03-12.
3. UP election results: the BJP shining in Muslim stronghold a big setback for Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, The Indian Express 2017-03-11.
4. Uttar Pradesh elections: Busted – fake fingers, real votes, India Today 2017-02-23.
5. Who did India’s Muslims vote for in general election?, BBCNews 2014-05-30.
6. Saffron Sweep in UP Hints at Muslims Voting for the BJP in Large Numbers, News18 2017-03-11.
7, 15. Analysis of the Victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, People’s Review 2017-03-17.
8. Indian Muslims put their faith in Congress, The Guardian 2009-05-27.
9. Modi’s India: Caste, Inequality and the Rise of Hindu Nationalism, Newsweek 2015-07-26.
10. Will Modi’s disapproval, not condemnation, end lynching of Muslims in India?, BDNews24 2017-06-29.
11. #NotInMyName protests: Thousands hit the streets against mob lynchings, The Indian Express 2017-06-28.
12. Modi’s Party Stokes Anti-Muslim Violence in India, Report Says, South China Morning Post 2017-06-29.
13. India’s Fake ‘Love Jihad’, Foreign Policy 2014-09-04.
14. Saharanpur clashes decoded: A cocktail of caste and politics, Hindustan Times 2017-06-13.
16. Dalits and the remaking of Hindutva, The Hindu 2016-01-25.
17. ‘We will free India of Muslims and Christians by 2021’: DJS leader vows to continue ‘ghar wapsi’ plans and restore ‘Hindu glory’, Mail Online India 2014-12-19.
18. 278 communal clashes in India in first five months of 2016, Home Ministry tells Lok Sabha, Scroll.in 2016-07-22.
19. The BJP wants to shift the focus to the RSS work in social service. Here’s why it may not work, Scroll.in 2016-09-05.

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