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A Secular State? Indian Muslims Face Growing Discrimination Under the Modi Government


Throughout its modern history, India has dealt with the issue of sectarianism. Since partition, when the British colony of India was divided into India and Pakistan as independent nations, Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent have endured a fractious relationship. Recently, the rise of right-wing religious nationalism in Indian politics has created a hierarchical society in which anti-Muslim bias and discrimination is commonplace. Bias against Muslims has been informally built into society through the rise of radical Hindu vigilante mobs, and codified into law by India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The ruling BJP has pursued Hindu nationalist policies and ostracized Indian Muslims in the process. As a result, Muslims in India today face significant discrimination and are often treated as second-class citizens.

India’s Sectarian History

In the latter stages of and following World War II, the Indian independence movement gained substantial momentum. Hindus and Muslims alike sought to end British rule in India, although they had disagreements on precisely how to do so. Hindu leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru began the “Quit India Movement” and engaged in a series of civil obedience demonstrations designed to handicap the British war effort in India. On the other side, the leader of India’s Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, sought to work with the British colonists to secure a homeland for Muslims in South Asia. Due to the overwhelming ratio of Hindus compared to Muslims in India, Jinnah painted himself as a defender of Muslim rights against Hindu dominance and lobbied the British to accept the division of India into two states. Ultimately, Jinnah was successful, although the hasty division of the Indian colony only served to create future problems between Hindus and Muslims in the region.

When a British judge divided the Indian colony into two countries, widespread sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims ensued. Due to the rash division of India on ideological lines, hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly disenfranchised. At the time of partition, Karachi and New Delhi, the respective capitals of the newly independent nations, were home to scores of both Hindus and Muslims. It is estimated that Karachi was roughly 47% Hindu, and Delhi was roughly 33% Muslim. The demographics in each capital were representative of each country as a whole, and illustrates the integration of Hindus and Muslims prior to partition. After partition, religious mobs on both sides targeted members of the opposite group to horrific effect. Communal riots were common, and it is estimated that between 200,000 and 2 million people died in the months following the division of India and Pakistan.

As a consequence of partition, animosity between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent has been detectable since the British ended their colonization. While India and Pakistan remain at odds, the mistrust between Hindus and Muslims in India itself remains equally as strong. This mistrust has been exacerbated recently with the rise of right-wing nationalism in India. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have pursued Hindu nationalist policies and risked ostracizing Muslims since coming to power in 2014.

The Rise of Religious Nationalism in Indian Politics

The Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power partly on the back of the concept of “Hindutva.” Hindutva is an ideology that seeks to tie Indian culture to Hindu values. It is espoused by Hindu nationalists who view Hindus in India as sons of the soil, due to their holy lands being located within India. Conversely, religious minorities such as Muslims are viewed suspiciously as outsiders and descendants of foreign invaders. This ideology is highly critical of the secularism that was a tenet of Indian government until the late 1980s, and believes India should be governed on Hindu values. Since its creation in 1980, the BJP has frequently pursued Hindu nationalist policies in accordance with the principle of Hindutva. In fact, the party was originally formed as the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group that is long suspected of being involved in the plot to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi.

The rise of Hindu nationalism into mainstream Indian politics is a fairly new phenomenon, with the country being governed in accordance with secular values for the large majority of its history as an independent state. Indeed, the founders of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, both advocated for a secular state under which all religious and ethnic minorities had equal rights. Gandhi himself was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who was enraged by his attempts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims in India. Beginning in the 1980s, India’s political leaders began to use politics of religious identity to divide the population. This tradition has carried through to the present day, with the modern BJP being responsible for pushing religious nationalist policies that have ostracized India’s religious minorities.

Since coming to power, the BJP has ruled in a manner befitting of its religious nationalism platform. Prior to winning a majority in India’s lower legislative chamber in 2014, the party published an election manifesto that described its electoral goals. Among these goals was a desire to scale back protections of religious minorities, redraft school textbooks to illustrate Hinduism as a superior religion, and repeal Article 370 of the constitution which grants limited autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s largest states by Muslim population. Additionally, the BJP has sought to codify Hindu beliefs into law at the expense of the well-being of religious minority groups. For example, many Hindus are vegetarian, and cows are viewed as sacred in Hinduism. The BJP has sought to outlaw the slaughter and consumption of cows, despite beef making up a significant part of Muslim and Christian diets in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also sought to destroy Muslim holy sites and replace them with Hindu temples, claiming that the sites had originally held shrines to various Hindu deities and been razed.

Informal Discrimination Against Muslims

In India today, the BJP has created an environment where discrimination against Muslims is common. The principle of Hindutva has pushed the BJP toward discriminatory policies, and informal discrimination and violence against Muslims is equally as frequent. In fact, informal violence against Muslims has become commonplace in India, where vigilante Hindu mobs often incite violence with no punishment. One famous example of this occurred in 2002, during riots in the state of Gujarat. A group of Muslims were accused of setting fire to a train carrying Hindu religious pilgrims, resulting in 59 deaths. Despite the accused denying responsibility, vigilante Hindu mobs set out to exact revenge. Hundreds of Muslims were killed, thousands more displaced, and Muslim homes throughout the state were razed. Afterward, the investigation and prosecution into the perpetrators stalled amid witness intimidation and bias among Gujarat’s judiciary.

Another example of informal discrimination against Muslims in India is the issue of “cow vigilantism.” Cows are sacred in Hinduism, and vigilante mobs, primarily in rural areas, have formed to intimidate and prevent Muslims and other religious minorities from killing and consuming them. Since coming to power in 2014, members of the BJP have used incendiary language to spur on vigilante mobs, which are often emboldened by local police being sympathetic to their cause. Mob violence is illegal under federal law in India, but local law enforcement and the judiciary, particularly in rural areas, often lack the tools and desire to enforce the law. While dozens of people are killed each year by vigilantes protecting cows, there has been a marked increase since the BJP came to power in 2014.

A major contemporary problem for Muslims in India has been the coronavirus pandemic. Several Indian politicians have alleged that Muslims are responsible for the spread of the virus throughout the country. As a result, Muslims have faced additional discrimination, particularly after a BJP lawmaker baselessly accused Muslim street vendors of infecting vegetables with saliva during India’s national lockdown. Certain neighborhoods in cities across India also erected posters and signs forbidding Muslims to enter. Additionally, small groups of Hindus have threatened mosques, including attacking several throughout the country. There were also calls to close mosques entirely at the beginning of the pandemic during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In 2019, an independent report authored by the nongovernmental organization Common Cause found that discrimination against Muslims in India was less likely to be punished due to police and judicial indifference. This report built upon a study ordered by the opposition Congress Party in 2006 that found rampant inequality between Hindus and Muslims in Indian society. The landmark report ordered by the Congress Party, known as the Sachar Committee Report, identified several areas of society where Hindus had advantages over Muslims, but the recommendations made by the report were never implemented. Muslims in India were found to be at a disadvantage in the education system and work force among other sectors, and Muslim communities were found to have the poorest infrastructure among minority communities in India. Additionally, it was determined that Muslims are underrepresented in Indian government, both in elected office and the bureaucracy. Because of all these factors combined, the report argued, Muslims are at a significant disadvantage in India. The Sachar Committee Report also served to underline the extent to which anti-Muslim bias has been informally built into Indian society.

Discrimination Against Muslims Under the BJP

Since winning a majority in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower body of Parliament, the BJP has used its platform to drive a Hindu nationalist agenda that has been discriminatory toward Muslims. Two of the primary ways it has done this is through the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and National Registry of Citizens (NRC). The CAB fast tracks citizenship for undocumented immigrants coming from Muslim-majority nations in Southeast Asia, but only if they are a religious minority. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians are among those who benefit from migrating from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and others, to India. However, Muslims are specifically excluded from the bill. The legislation makes religion a basis for citizenship in India for the first time, and Muslims have been specifically exempted from the benefits of the bill. After passing the legislation, Prime Minister Modi said the CAB would make India a safe haven for people facing persecution in neighboring countries. However, the CAB has only served to exacerbate discrimination against Muslims, partly because of its correlation to the National Registry of Citizens.

The NRC was first implemented in India’s Assam state, near the border with Bangladesh. As a result of Assam’s location, it is home to thousands of refugees from Bangladesh that have migrated over the course of several generations. A large portion of these refugees are both undocumented and Muslim. The NRC was first implemented to identify documented citizens in Assam in order to protect their rights. However, despite many Muslim immigrants having lived in Assam for generations, they did not have the required paperwork to prove their citizenship. As a result, these individuals were left off of the NRC, and therefore deprived of rights they had previously enjoyed, such as the ability to own property or vote. As a result, the NRC has turned into a mechanism of discrimination against Muslims. Currently, it has only been utilized in Assam, but India’s powerful BJP Home Minister, Amit Shah, has plans to implement it across the country before 2024. The NRC, in tandem with the CAB, has significantly undermined Muslims’ rights in India because they impede the ability of Muslims to secure Indian citizenship, while making it easier for other religious groups. As a result, Muslims are underrepresented in the Indian political process, which puts them at a further disadvantage.

Another example of the BJP pursuing incendiary anti-Muslim policies is the government’s drive to build a Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya. In 1992, violent Hindu mobs destroyed a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya, claiming that it had been erected on the ruins of a Hindu temple to the deity Ram. Hindus and Muslims have been arguing over the true history of the area for generations, and India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hindus earlier this year, giving them the license to build a temple on the ruins of the destroyed mosque. The BJP had made a campaign promise to erect a temple on the site, and used the debate surrounding the topic to incite their religious nationalist political base.

Recently, Muslims in India have been accused of “love jihad” by radical Hindus. This is the idea that Muslim men trick Hindu women into marriage in order to convert them to Islam. Allegations of this have been proven to be baseless and rooted in bigotry. Indeed, of several cases brought to court, there has been no legal basis to convict a person based on this concept. However, the local government in Uttar Pradesh state passed a law carrying a jail sentence of up to 10 years for anyone found guilty of the practice. Muslims accused of “love jihad” have been victimized by radical Hindu mobs in several states throughout India and dozens have been killed. Critics have noted that the law is an attack on India’s secularism, and that people’s religion should be out of the government’s purview.

United States’ Response to Discrimination in India

Despite discrimination against Muslims significantly increasing in recent years, the United States has been reluctant to seriously penalize India. In 2005, Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was denied a visa to the United States for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. It was determined that the Modi-led government of Gujarat had sought to impede various investigations into the sectarian clashes, including intimidating whistleblowers and applying improper pressure on legal officials. Modi’s visa application being rejected has been the largest and most formal rebuke offered by the United States on India’s discrimination against Muslims. President Trump himself declined to criticize Modi over the Citizenship Amendment Bill during a state visit earlier this year.

In Congress, aggressive lobbying on behalf of the BJP has prevented significant legislation from advancing that seeks to censure India. A bipartisan bill from Reps. Jayapal and Watkins in the House of Representatives was pulled from the Foreign Affairs Committee after Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel met with representatives from the Indian government. One significant reason why the United States’ government has been reluctant to condemn India’s anti-Muslim bias is the strategic partnership between the countries. India is regarded among many policymakers as an “indispensable partner” in Southeast Asia, partially because of its ability to offset China’s dominance in the region. American lawmakers are willing to overlook violations of Muslim rights in India because of the economic benefits enjoyed by the United States. Bilateral trade between India and the United States has grown exponentially in recent years, with the flow of goods and services between the countries reaching upward of $130 billion annually. Because of this lucrative partnership, American lawmakers who seek to legitimately criticize India’s Islamophobia face significant impediments.


Today, India can be characterized by the discrimination that Muslims face in all aspects of society. Whether it be extrajudicial Hindu mobs seeking revenge for the slaughter of cows, or the Bharatiya Janata Party impeding Muslims’ ability to secure Indian citizenship, the discrimination faced by Muslims is evident. The sectarian divisions drawn by partition have only been exacerbated in recent years, aided in part by the rise of the religious nationalist BJP. Ultimately, Muslims in India have come to be treated as second-class citizens through a mixture of the BJP’s policies and societal bias against them.


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