India's Muslims under Narendra Modi

Swan song for Gandhi

150 years after the birth of the Indian freedom fighter, the Hindu nationalist government in Delhi has distanced itself from Gandhi's legacy of peace more than any other preceding administration. This is highlighted by the continuing systematic marginalisation of Muslims in India. By Dominik Muller

Gandhi was born on 2 October 150 years ago. He is regarded worldwide as a symbol of reconciliation and non-violent resistance; for decades many Indians viewed him as a leading light in the independence struggle against British colonial rule. To this day, all banknotes bear his image and his bust still adorns many official buildings on the sub-continent. The anniversary was marked by ceremonies and events across the country. But members of the governing party and other Hindu nationalists are intent on contradicting his legacy and in their view, setting the record straight.

"I was totally convinced that the teachings of absolute non-violence espoused by Gandhi would eventually lead to the emasculation of the Hindu community," wrote Nathuram Godse, "which would no longer be in a position to resist the aggression of other communities, in particular that of the Muslims."

Godse went down in history as Gandhi's murderer. Today, all Indian bookstores stock his 200-page confession "Why I Killed Gandhi".

Deeply divided

There can be few places in India where Gandhi's legacy been so trampled underfoot as in Gujarat, where he grew up and founded his first spiritual centre, an ashram, in Ahmedabad in 1915. Today, Ahmedabad is traversed by a wall, three kilometres long and three metres high, crowned with barbed wire and shards of glass embedded in the concrete. It separates the districts of Vejelpur and Juhapura.

Muslims in Citizennagar, Ahmedabad (photo: Dominik Muller)
India's Muslims – second class citizens: Citizennagar, "community settlement", is the name of this slum on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The slum is located between the municipal garbage dump and a chemical factory. It is inhabited by Muslims who had to flee from other parts of Ahmedabad during the pogroms of 2002

Driving rhythms and temple bells can be heard on one side, in Vejelpur, a well-kept middle-class neighbourhood in the south of the metropolis of six million. Saffron-yellow flags fly on house fronts and on the sides of streets. Signs affixed to the facades of many residential buildings bear the words "For Hindus Only".

On the other side of the wall, asphalt roads are the exception – since the pogroms of 2002, more than 400,000 people now live in Juhapura. Many Muslims fled there after being driven from their homes in other parts of Ahmedabad. The current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the state at the time. 

The neighbourhood feels cramped, dusty and dilapidated. The muezzin issues the call to prayer five times a day in one of mosques, of which there are just under 100. Green flags dominate the townscape. Juhapura is the largest Muslim ghetto in India. In an allusion to the arch enemy across the border, Juhapura is also known as "Little Pakistan".

Those with an address in Juhapura or a Muslim name needn't bother applying for a job in public service, says Menon Trivedi, a Muslim from Ahmedabad. There are many ways in which Muslims are humiliated and treated as second-class citizens, he continues.

"Once they gathered up all the dogs in the city and set them free in Muslim neighbourhoods, primarily here in Juhapura," says Trivedi, a man in his mid-40s. "Everyone in the ghetto feels vulnerable." The sewage pipes aren't serviced, sometimes the stench is unbearable. There are few banks and cash machines, power and water supplies are totally insufficient, he continues.

Gandhi's murderer – hero of the people

"Nathuram Godse was a patriot, is a patriot and will remain a patriot," announced the BJP candidate for Bhopal Pragya Singh Thakur during the election campaign in May. "People who call him a terrorist should instead look within. They'll be given a befitting reply in this election." This quote made the headlines in Indian media, because to this day, such open praise for Gandhi's assassin is seen as overstepping the mark.

Muslims in Assam wait to register (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Declared stateless: almost two million people in the Indian state of Assam are threatened with deportation to Bangladesh. According to Indian media reports, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has declared 1.9 million Muslims living in the region to be illegal migrants. Many of those affected fled to the neighbouring Indian region of Assam in 1971, during the war of independence in what was then East Pakistan – now Bangladesh

The 48-year-old candidate publicly boasted about her involvement in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in nearby Ayodhya. She is also accused of participating in a 2008 bomb attack that left several Indian Muslims dead. She has therefore already spent nine years in prison and has been free on bail since 2017 – with the final judgement still pending. In spite of this, the BJP put her up as a candidate.

Several party allies and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi merely dismissed her praise for Gandhi's killer without calling for sanctions or her exclusion from the party. The Hindu hardliner, who apologised for her statement with clear reluctance, secured a seat in the lower house with an absolute majority of 60 per cent in her constituency in this year's election.

It may well be that there has not been a repeat of the large-scale pogroms of 2002, which caused international indignation. But since the BJP assumed power there has been an increase in killings carried out by lynch mobs, often over suspicions that beef has been consumed. These actions usually go unpunished and are even justified by some BJP politicians. The murders have created a climate of fear among many of the nation's 200 million Muslims.

Growing violence and capricious treatment by officialdom

There are no signs of an imminent end to the spiral of violence: in fact, what can genuinely be described as a wave of ethnic cleansing is currently in preparation in the north eastern state of Assam. All 35 million inhabitants must prove that they, or they parents, were already living in Assam before 1971. Otherwise they will be stripped of their citizenship. Early September saw the publication of the 1.9 million names of people who had lost their citizenship – most of them Muslims. The authorities have already begun the process of eviction and detention.

As stateless people they will not be able to go anywhere. Neighbouring Bangladesh – a country twice the size of Bavaria with 160 million residents – has already signalled its unwillingness to accept the stateless persons.

Assam is a testing lab and an attack on the Muslim minority in India, just like the withdrawal of Kashmir's special status. Interior Minister Amit Shah has announced his wish to roll out the Assam citizenship checks to the entire country. Amit Shah, who also describes the presumed immigrants as "vermin", has been the closest confidante of Prime Minister Modi's closest confidante for two decades. The Modi government in Delhi has distanced itself from the Gandhi legacy more than any prior administration.

Dominik Muller

© Qantara 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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