India is currently facing an international backlash over Islamophobic comments against the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha, made by two prominent members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both members – the party’s Delhi media head Naveen Jindal and national spokesperson Nupur Sharma – were expelled by the BJP leadership. However, the diplomatic row over their comments has continued as several Arab countries, including Qatar, have condemned their comments, and have demanded a public apology from the Indian government. There have also been calls on social media to boycott Indian goods.
In response to this diplomatic row, the Indian embassy in Doha released a statement insisting that the comments were made by “fringe elements” and “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India”. The BJP also released a statement “strongly denounc[ing] insult of any religious personalities of any religion”.
But Islamophobia in Modi’s India is the norm, and not a fringe occurrence.
Islamophobia has always been a central feature of the ideology of Hindu nationalist factions in India. Established in 1925, the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has led the charge of making India a Hindu land. The founder and first chief of the RSS Keshav Baliram Hedgewar proclaimed that “Hindu culture” is the “life-breath” of the country. Therefore, he added, that if India “is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture”. Here, the opposition to this vision especially among India’s Muslims was considered by RSS leaders to reflect “Muslim arrogance and insolence”. And, in 1929, Hegdeward’s successor Madhavrao Sadashivrao Golwalkar – who was also sympathetic to Nazi Germany – wrote that Muslim culture was incompatible with Indian culture because “Islam originated in a dry and sandy region”.
This Islamophobia was readily espoused and propagated in electoral politics by the RSS’s political wing the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1951-1977) and the Janata Party (1977-1980) – both predecessors of the BJP. As the historian the late Mushirul Hasan wrote, their campaigns were “fuelled by the stereotype of an aggressive Islam on the rampage” and the cause of building a “Hindu nation”. Equally, they condemned the idea of secularism and considered it to be no more than a way of appeasing the country’s religious minority – especially, Muslim – population. In fact, an RSS and Jana Sangh functionary also proposed the “Indianisation” of the Muslim population as a way of “purg[ing] them of disloyal tendencies”.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the World Hindu Council has also been a prominent force in propagating Hindu nationalism at home and abroad. Established in 1964, the organisation’s objective is to “organise-consolidate the Hindu society”. According to their official website, the VHP’s efforts are primarily focused on issues such as Gau Raksha (cattle protection), “religious conversion of Hindus by the Christian church, Islamic terrorism, Bangladeshi Muslim infiltration” and temple construction. Notably, in 1992, a mob of VHP activists – along with members of the RSS and the BJP – broke the barricade surrounding the Babri Masjid and demolished the 16th-century mosque. Hindu nationalists believe that the mosque was built by destroying a temple that marked the spot where the Hindu god Lord Rama was born. In the nationwide communal riots that followed, thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
Of course, long before assuming the role as prime minister, Narendra Modi had well-established Hindu nationalist credentials. Early in his political career he was an active member of RSS, becoming a regional organiser in the late 1970s. The RSS appointed Modi to the BJP in 1985. Since then, he rose through the party ranks, before becoming chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. Though, his credentials were most on display in 2002 during the ethnic cleansing of Muslims that occurred in Gujarat after a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire. Modi was quick to blame the Pakistani Secret Service and paraded the bodies of the deceased through the city of Ahmedabad. This resulted in what has been described as an “orgy of killing and rape” targeting Muslims. It is estimated close to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Additionally, 2,000 Muslim homes were destroyed and 150,000 people were displaced.
Of course, since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Islamophobia has become a matter of state policy. This was evident in 2019, when the Modi-led government pursued the Hindu nationalist “dream” of returning exiled Hindus to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir by revoking Article 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution that granted it special status. Speaking to a gathering of prominent Kashmiri Hindus in the United States, the Indian consul-general in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty described this measure to be an attempt to “protect Hindu culture in Kashmir”. He added, “The Kashmiri culture, is the Indian culture, it is the Hindu culture.”
Also in 2019, the Modi government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that grants a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In conjunction with a proposed National Register of Citizens, this was seen as an attempt to introduce a “religious test for Indian citizenship” that would effectively exclude Muslims. The introduction of the CAA resulted in large-scale protests that would be brutally suppressed by the government.
Equally, every day, Indian Muslims find themselves under attack and living in fear, as lynchings and hate speech are all but commonplace in the country. For instance, in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, now led by hardline Hindu monk-turned-BJP politician Yogi Adityanath, a Muslim man was killed by a Hindu mob in March 2019 when he tried to prevent them from destroying an Islamic religious structure. In 2015 a 52-year-old Muslim man was also lynched by a Hindu mob because it was suspected that he was storing beef in his home. This lynching was part of the so-called “cow vigilante” mission – a violent campaign led by BJP cadres against the consumption of beef and cattle trade. According to Human Rights Watch, 36 Muslims (and 44 people in all) were killed in such attacks between May 2015 and December 2018.
This culture of intimidation continues today as Hindu supremacist groups routinely force Muslim meat vendors to close shop during Hindu festivals. In 2021, in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, a Muslim bangle seller was badly beaten up for trading in a Hindu locality. In Ujjain city – also in Madhya Pradesh – a Muslim scrap dealer was reportedly forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram), a Hindu nationalist war cry.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world may have come to a standstill. But Islamophobic attacks and misinformation campaigns continued in India, as there were widespread efforts to blame Muslims for the outbreak of the coronavirus. These efforts began when a group of Muslim missionaries who were infected with COVID-19 unknowingly attended a large gathering in Delhi in March, 2020, which subsequently led to a spread of the virus to communities across the country. Later images from Pakistan were being shared on social media as evidence of Muslims violating the lockdown. This led to hospitals refusing to admit Muslim patients unless they produced a negative COVID-19 test.
With this past and present of Islamophobia in view, the comments of the two BJP members would hardly seem out of the ordinary. India has thus far been successful in skilfully isolating the wave of Islamophobia in its domestic realm from its wider strategic and economic ties with Muslim countries. But this continuing controversy has muddied the waters and threatens, for instance, its $90bn trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Diplomatic efforts are continuing to reassure India’s strategic partners in the Muslim world that India is a place of inclusivity. At home, BJP members have been instructed to be “extremely cautious” when discussing religion in a public forum. But these efforts are only meant to contain the diplomatic fallout. This is unlikely to change the everyday trials of Indian Muslims living in Modi’s India.