India, Modi and the Muslim minority

"Not yet a Hindu Pakistan"

Many regard Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist policies as an attack on India's pluralism. But does that mean they must be completely discounted? Marian Brehmer reports from Ajmer

In the night train operated by Indian Railways, the traveller can already tell he's on the way to the Muslim pilgrimage town of Ajmer. The sleeping car is a colourful potpourri of people and sounds. Boisterous children, plump women in saris, businessmen and a group of itinerant Hindus.

In the midst of it all, on one of the blue upholstered bunks, sit two elderly gentlemen whose long white beards mark them unmistakably as Muslims. Suddenly, the two retrieve white prayer caps from their pockets and, without budging from the spot, assume a concentrated demeanour. They close their eyes, murmur a sura, bend forward and place their hands on their thighs.

The Muslim ritual prayer is carried out as they sit in a rocking train, somewhere between the Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. For a moment, the two men facing Mecca seem to have escaped into their own world, far from the bustle all around them. None of the other passengers look up; no one finds anything remarkable about the improvised evening prayer.

The two pilgrims are on a ziyarat to visit the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti, India's most popular Sufi saint, who lived in the 13th century. Year after year, Ajmer attracts millions of pilgrims from all over the subcontinent, in particular Muslims from every region. Among the visitors are also Hindus, Sikhs and Christians who recognise and worship Chishti as a great holy figure of their common homeland.

Muslim population the highest anywhere in less than two generations

With 195 million Muslims, India has the world's second-highest Muslim population after Indonesia. And according to a report published this year by the Pew Research Center, by 2060, i.e., in less than two generations, India will be home to over 300 million Muslims, more than any other country on earth.

Indiaʹs prime minister, Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
When India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP took office in 2014, many of India's Muslims – who traditionally vote for the Congress Party – had an uneasy feeling. On the one hand, there was Modi's inglorious involvement in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 and on the other, his membership in a party that has for decades promoted Hindu nationalist policies

While the Muslims on the Indian subcontinent are by far the fastest-growing population group, they currently also seem to be the most vulnerable of India's minorities. When India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP (Indian People's Party) took office in 2014, many of India's Muslims – who traditionally vote for the Congress Party – had an uneasy feeling. On the one hand, there was Modi's inglorious involvement in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 and on the other, his membership in a party that has for decades promoted Hindu nationalist policies.

Modi tried to dispel the Muslims' concerns by promising them, after winning an absolute majority in the elections, to be a prime minister for all Indians. But what do things look like five years later, now that Modi has begun a second term in office?

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