Modi, BJP Demonizing Indian Muslims

18:15 - May 26, 2024
News ID: 3488501
IQNA – In the ongoing elections in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP have once again gone down the route of demonizing hapless Indian Muslims.

Muslims in India


This is according to an article by Nomaan Majid published in The Dawn. 

“The Indian Muslim in the BJP-RSS narrative is an outsider. The attributes of this “intruder” Muslim are not only asserted by the BJP-RSS leadership in speeches, but have been realized through purposive acts of violence frequently perpetrated against them,” he adds.

The writer is an independent researcher, who worked for the International Labor Organization from 1995 to 2022 as a Senior Employment Specialist. Following is his article:

The Muslim question has become central to the Indian elections again. The 2019 Indian election campaign focused on the enemy of India from without. In 2024, it is the enemy of India from within.

In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS) was proudly stating, “Hum ghus ke maarein gey [We will infiltrate and kill].” In 2024, they are characterizing the Indian Muslim as a “ghus paitheeya [infiltrator].” The irony is lost in the hubris.

Narendra Modi claims that his main rival party, the Indian National Congress, has a Muslim bias — that it has given in the past, and intends to give in the future, if it wins, resources to Muslims from the reservations that Dr Ambedkar — the architect of the Indian constitution — “gave to dalits, backward classes and adivasis” in the Indian constitution. In doing so, the Congress, according to this claim, has gone against the constitution, in which these reservations were not given to Muslims.

By this act of redistribution, the Congress would illegally empower Muslims and, in so doing, disenfranchise Hindus. Mr Modi has also tried to link his allegation against the Congress, in a muddled way, to its commitment for a caste census. While almost everything contained in this claim is inaccurate, some of its ingredients are, in fact, the critical ones to call out.

Dr Ambedkar did not think that a dalit could be a Hindu — he refused to be Hindu himself. His (drafted) constitution gave reservation to dalits and adivasis only. The decision on the treatment of other economically “backward” groups, the majority of whom were low-caste Hindus, was relegated to committees by Jawaharlal Nehru, ostensibly for secular nationalist reasons.

In the ongoing elections in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP have once again gone down the route of demonizing hapless Indian Muslims. Is this simply a cynical and racist ploy to cultivate the Hindutva electoral vote? Or are there also more deep-rooted and systemic issues in India that its ruling elite are keen to cover up?

Decades later, this led to the Mandal Commission recommendations on Other Backward Classes (OBC). This happened under a Janata Dal government in 1990. The ‘C’ of OBC stands for classes and not castes. OBC eligibility for education and employment benefits is based on the economic and social status of the recipient and religion is not a criterion for inclusion or exclusion. But in the case of Hindus, it was indeed poor low-caste Hindus, whose lists were taken from pre-Partition censuses and used for identification.

So Muslims are not only a part of OBCs, but 60 percent of the Muslim population in 2022 were OBC. Muslims are of course 14 percent of India. The question of reservation for dalits and adivasis and other “backward classes” being “redirected” towards Muslims is technically impossible. Behind this fantastically misleading narrative of claims against the Congress’ intent, there are deeper currents that need to be understood.

It is these undercurrents that I shall examine in this essay. The first is about the process by which the Indian Muslim has been demonized. The second concerns the larger Indian economic growth and inequality context, in which this demonization plays a role.

For this, we need to see Muslims as one group, amongst a few, that face discrimination, and how the BJP-RSS focus on alleged resource diversion to Muslims helps the election conversation stay clear of the subject of a distribution failure.

The third concerns empirically situating the Indian Muslims relative to other social groups so that the demonization is contextualized.


Demonizing The Muslim

The Indian Muslim in the BJP-RSS narrative is an outsider. The attributes of this “intruder” Muslim are not only asserted by the BJP-RSS leadership in speeches, but have been realized through purposive acts of violence frequently perpetrated against them.

The desecration of Muslim places of worship is common. The Citizens Amendment Act of 2019 was drafted to instil fear into Muslims who have lived in India from time immemorial. Cow protection vigilantism and lynchings of Muslims take place regularly. Physical violence against those engaged in Hindu-Muslim relationships, as in the so-called ‘love-jihad’ movement, is a popular spectacle. And all this without even mentioning the Gujarat massacre and the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

The vision of the BJP-RSS is a “purification” of India. This cleansing requires, to paraphrase the eminent Indian historian Ram Guha, restricting the social and political space for the Indian Muslim. The demon in this narrative is the Muslim man, who is presented as a lascivious creature, an iconoclast, a slayer of holy cows, a devourer of Hindu women, and who is also compulsively copulating with his multiple Muslim wives to increase the numbers of his race.

The importance of this characterization of the Indian Muslim does not lie in its content — which is racist — but in the fact that it is an axiomatically held view. The hatred for Muslims by the BJP and its supporters is a thing of great value in itself.

For the Indian population that prided itself on India’s constitution and its secular institutions, this is a tragic rupture with the past. Eyebrows are raised at “hate speech” and tolerant members of civil society are deeply disturbed, but the show goes on. Much of the mainstream Indian media, which is censored and self-censors, seems to have no trouble with it.

India has a well-respected tradition in applied social science research that critically comments on government policy, and India’s intellectual community has historically spoken out bravely for social justice. But state meddling in universities has put restrictions here as well.

While information exists for us to say something concrete about the status of Indian Muslims, few seem to be able to discuss where the Indian Muslims are really placed in society. It is the social media platforms that carry clearer voices of dissent in India today.

We hear from progressive voices in India that the BJP is wrong and that its rhetoric is bad for secular India. But we seldom get to know details of this error, except perhaps an acknowledgment that the Muslims are poor.

Even if the systematic violence against Muslims and their “othering” was somehow not a threat to Indian secularism, surely the subject still needs to be examined in more detail on its own. Otherwise, it is like saying that violence against the Palestinians is to be condemned primarily because it is bad for "Israeli democracy".

From the time of Independence, the Muslim in India has been excluded, sometimes passively, at other times, actively. Maybe, after Partition, this was to be expected. In a caste-based society, discrimination is not a major issue, but that is hardly a consolation for the Muslim community. This means that one serious casualty of what passes as a “debate” on the Muslim question in India, is the Indian Muslim. Everyone has a view about Muslims, but no one knows or tries to know too much about them.

Modi, BJP Demonizing Indian Muslims

There are two questions that emerge. The first is how is this narrative sustained? The answer is that a part of it is propaganda, the other part is silence. The propaganda part is the repetition of these views so that the public takes them for granted. The silence part has something to do with the absence of facts on the Indian Muslim that are in public view.

The second question is whether this hate narrative is just what it is, or whether it additionally serves another political function? This is a critical question, but it requires one to take a larger view of India.


Growing Inequality

According to World Bank data, India’s per capita growth since 2000, despite the negative growth year of 2020-21, has averaged 4.7 percent. The distribution of gains from this significant growth has been very unequal, and improvements on employment and livelihoods very slow.

India is one of the most unequal countries in the world today. The World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics estimates that, for the top 10 percent population, the share of net personal wealth in India rose from 57 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2021.

So the wealthiest 10 percent of India own 65 percent of her wealth. In fact, the wealthiest one percent own 33 percent of India’s wealth. The top 10 percent population’s income share also rose from 40.9 percent in 2000 to 57.1 percent in 2021. The best jobs, formal jobs, have hardly increased in incidence in 22 years. I estimate that such jobs, as a percentage of all employment, were 7.5 percent in 2000 and 9.5 percent in 2022.

In short, there is a failure of distribution at the heart of India’s growth success. This is why employment and livelihoods are core voter concerns in this election. This matter is linked to the issue of the caste census and it is important to understand how that is so.

A caste census, if it takes place, will identify several hundreds of zaats (jatis in India) and will be of academic value. However, if one’s concern is to examine identity-based discrimination in India today, meaningful aggregations — as opposed to open-ended disaggregations of castes — are required. One not only needs to identify the discriminated but also the discriminators.

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Discrimination between thousands of jatis is secondary. The empirical analysis of caste discrimination can, therefore, only look at some version of the broad four-caste system. To suggest otherwise, is missing the woods for the trees.

The dominant discrimination in India is likely to be found between the top three Hindu castes on the one hand, and low castes and excluded religious and social groups on the other. To be clear, inequality does not always imply discrimination but, in a situation like India, caste-led discrimination is very likely to support and sustain a good part of economic inequality.

While promises of redistribution are at the core of this election, it should be clear that it is not redistribution between poor groups that Modi talks about, nor is it about delineating hundreds of low-caste poor Hindu groups, as the Congress promises. Modi’s allegation against the Congress is an attempt to transfer the anger about India’s distributional collapse — emanating from groups that he identifies as Hindu — into an increased hatred for Muslims.

For a non-Indian audience, the understanding of the division of caste, religious and social groups has also been made more difficult by official enumeration.


Caste: The Family Secret

Data collection on Hindu castes in India stopped at the time of Partition. The 1951 population census is devoid of any mention of real Hindu castes. After Partition, the people of India were officially divided between religions. Two groups who were assigned a religious status by a Presidential Constitutional Order in 1950 were given reservation benefits. The dalits or untouchables were named “Scheduled Castes”, and the adivasis or tribal people were named “Scheduled Tribes.”

Three quarters of the Indian population today are already supported under some kind of reservation-based system. My estimates for 2022 suggest that the tribals in India are 9.8 percent of India’s total population. The dalits are 19.8 percent of India’s population. Tribals and dalits are not Hindu castes as such. They are excluded groups. And there is a history. As early as the 1920s, these groups became the target of conversions by political groups to increase headcounts. These groups are, at best, new converts to religions.

The OBC or Other Backward Classes were around 45.8 percent of India in 2022 and, as noted, got their right to state support only in 1990. Low-caste Hindus, who are the majority of OBCs, are poor people who waited for 43 years to get support. Hindu OBCs are the largest group among Hindus and constitute 45 percent of Hindus as well. They have moderately but steadily improved their position. This is a success of affirmative action policies.

The population that is left is a general group who are not covered by any state support system. These were 24.4 percent of the entire Indian population in 2022. Of Hindus, they comprise 22 percent, and are called Forward Castes (FC). They include most members of the top three caste groups (Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya) as well as some persons from the fourth or lower caste group (Shudra), who are not poor enough to be counted in Hindu OBCs.

While it is not possible to break the FC group down from most Indian nationally representative surveys, it is critical to recognize that not all persons from the top three castes are well to do, while a majority from the lower fourth caste are unlikely to be very rich.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) is a representative national survey and, oddly, it has asked a question on caste within the Forward Caste group. The 2005 NFHS has been analyzed by N K Bharti at the Paris School of Economics in 2018.

The NFHS data for the FCs can be divided between the upper castes (Brahmins and Kaysts, Rajputs who are Kshatriya, and Banyas who are Vaishya) who are well to do and are 56 percent of FCs. Then we have the rest of the FCs, which include other castes that are not part of OBCs or dalits or tribals. This group is 44 percent of the FCs. With this split we can rewrite the distribution of the Hindu population in India in 2022.

We have important numbers, which are 12.2 percent of all Hindus and 10.4 percent of all India. This is the share of upper caste persons who are at the top of the FCs. Not all members of the upper castes are at the top of FCs, but those who are at the top of FCs are mostly from the upper castes.

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It is odd that, while the issue of high and rising inequality in India is globally recognized, few are interested in the upper castes of India. Anyone who has lived in contemporary India or is conversant enough with it to recognize the distinction between the dalits, tribals and low-caste Hindus, will know that the upper caste question is avoided like a family secret.

This is the main caste source of discrimination, and it contributes to an ecosystem that sustains a good part of Indian inequality.

Caste was officially written out of enumeration after the Partition of India, but that does not mean that discrimination associated with caste also evaporated. If a caste census takes place today, a caste identifier will become part of employment and income expenditure surveys. Once this happens, policy benefits assessments, and the analysis of governance structures in both public and private sectors, will get associated with extreme upper caste dominance.

It is the failure of distribution which is at the heart of India’s growth success story. The Muslim intruder narrative is not only an expression of the ruling party’s view of the Muslim, but it is also an attempt to displace the anger of the Indian voter away from the miraculous collapse of distribution embedded in India’s growth miracle.


The Muslim in Indian Society

Let us return to the matter of propaganda and silence against the Muslim. The silence part has to do with the absence of publicly visible information on the Indian Muslim. It is important to cursorily see where the Muslims are placed in Indian society today.

Unlike the Jewish population in pre-war Nazi Germany, who were in good numbers both middle class and educated, the Muslims of India are significantly a depressed minority of over 200 million. India is a society in which identity-based discrimination is not exclusive to Muslims but is practiced against other groups as well. These are not just religious groups but, as we saw, importantly, dalits and the tribal people of India as well. The broad aim here is to show where the Muslims are placed.

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The poverty rate amongst Muslims is almost the same as dalits today. It is highest amongst tribal people, who mostly belong to communities that live in relative isolation. Muslims are also the poorest amongst the OBCs. Consumption poverty amongst the Muslim OBCs is 33.5 percent, while it is 26.6 percent amongst Hindu OBCs, the fourth low caste group.

Two decades ago, Muslims were in a similar position to this group. The Hindu Forward Castes, around 57 percent of whom are well-to-do upper-caste Hindus, have the lowest incidence of poverty, at 12.6 percent. As far as education is concerned, Muslims have high shares of illiterates and low shares of graduates in their working age populations. Muslims are comparable to dalits and are far behind the Hindu OBCs, the fourth caste group.

If we look at the best jobs that are formal regular jobs, the situation is even more dire, and Muslims are comparable only to tribals. They have been left behind in good jobs by both the dalits and the fourth caste group of Hindu OBCs.

India’s Muslim “intruder” is actually very poor, lagging in education and has been left behind in decent jobs. This is the person whose places of worship are subject to casual demolition, whose very citizenship is subject to surreal procedures of validation, and who is terrorized by thugs on a regular basis.

This basic profile contextualizes the unfortunate narrative presented by the Indian prime minister, in which he tries to pit dalits against Muslims. The fact of the matter is, dalits and Muslims have never been closer in terms of their plight and ought to be political allies.

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The BJP-RSS dream of Bharat’s purification entails the caging of Muslims. For this purpose, it has tried to appeal to a vision of a high-growth Hindu India, which shifts the responsibility of limited progress for the depressed sections of society on to the imagined benefits that will accrue to Muslims, through a Congress conspiracy.

Few would believe this. Their hope, of course, is that, like the external enemy of 2019, the vitriol against the “intruder” citizen will do the campaign trick and the hatred for Muslims will raise public temperatures sufficiently to triumph over reason.

The BJP-RSS is probably the richest political party in the world today and, given its alliance with big capital, which is the basis of extremely high Indian inequality, to call it ‘Billionaire Raj’ is correct. The wealth and income gap between the top one percent, or even 10 percent of India, and the rest is very large and rising. The distribution issue is thus real, and there is a link between economic inequality and the culture of caste-led discrimination that sustains it.

The reality, sadly, may also be that a large part of India’s Hindu population, which is suffering the consequences of distribution failure itself, may be ambivalent about Muslims. It may be willing to go along with Modi’s fantastic stories that vilify the largest and possibly the most depressed religious minority in the world.

If this happens, darker times will descend, not only in India, but in many countries of the region. If it does not, a glint at the end of the tunnel will appear that will be a godsend, not only for Indians but for all South Asians.