Parth M.N. and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2022
Nasir Ali was selling tennis shoes in this small town east of New Delhi when a dozen men surrounded his street stall.
He instantly recognized them as the local goons: members of the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist group with a long history of violence and a rising profile.
They accused the 28-year-old Ali of insulting their faith, because one of the brands he carried was Thakur, which is also the name of a prominent Hindu caste. A rival shoe seller had tipped them off.
“How can you sell shoes with Thakur written on them when you are a Muslim?” one of the men shouted.
Then the men called the police, who booked Ali for provoking unrest. He spent the next two days in jail, where he said he was beaten by officers in the presence of Bajrang Dal members.
“I was targeted because of my religion,” he said. “I live in fear that anyone can beat me up and there’s nothing I can do. It makes you feel helpless.”
Fueled by Hindu nationalism, encouraged by authorities and carried out with impunity, oppression of Muslims has become so pervasive in India that experts said it is undermining the country’s standing as the world’s largest democracy and raising doubts about its future as a secular state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, have long fanned anti-Muslim sentiment as part of a winning strategy to galvanize support from Hindus, who make up 80% of India’s 1.4 billion people.
But the violence and harassment have intensified in the run-up to assembly elections in five states this month and next. A decisive victory in the party’s stronghold of Uttar Pradesh could signal the continued political viability of Hindu nationalism and bolster Modi’s chances of winning a third term in 2024.
“The BJP has sent a message that it’s OK to go after Muslims,” said Aakar Patel, chair of Amnesty International India. “This is what makes them popular. This is why we’re seeing attacks and persecution on a wholesale level.”
As nationalists have amplified their calls for India to rewrite its constitution and forge a Hindu nation-state, mob rule has taken hold.
This month in the southwestern state of Karnataka, after Hindu nationalists hounded Muslim schoolgirls for wearing Islamic head scarves, authorities deemed the threat of violence serious enough to warrant shutting down schools and colleges for several days.
More disturbingly, radical Hindu leaders have reportedly called for the slaughter of millions of Muslims, with one extremist invoking ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
“Either you prepare to die now, or get ready to kill, there’s no other way,” Swami Prabodhanand Giri, president of the far-right organization Hindu Raksha Sena, told supporters at a religious gathering in December. “This is why, like in Myanmar, the police here, the politicians here, the army and every Hindu must pick up weapons because we have to conduct this cleanse.”
The roots of India’s modern religious strife can be traced to 1947 when Britain — under pressure from Muslim political leaders who wanted a Muslim-majority state — redrew the borders of its colony.
Out of that partition of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan was born. But because the new boundaries were drawn so hastily, it left many Muslims and Hindus on the wrong side of the border, unleashing a wave of violence and terror that killed 1 million people and displaced 14 million more.
Still, millions of Muslims stayed for India’s formation as an independent state, whose first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, suppressed Hindu nationalism in favor of a more egalitarian vision for the country.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that secularism began to erode. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her successor — her son Rajiv — began pandering to various conservative religious groups, setting the stage for the BJP to exploit religious tensions.
“If you ask most people today about secularism in India, many of them will tell you it’s a thing of the past,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University just north of New Delhi.
“It’s an idea that has been rejected and become synonymous with the idea of an appeasement of minorities, which of course is not what the term was meant to mean in the first place,” he said. “The meaning has been transformed into a weapon that can be used against minorities in order to prevent them from expressing publicly their religious belonging.”
Religious persecution has not been limited to Muslims. Mobs have burned effigies of Santa Claus and crashed Christian services, and nationalists have called for the massacre of Sikhs because of their prevalence in farm protests last year that forced Modi to scrap one of his signature policy initiatives, agricultural reform.
In a new strategy to hurt Muslims, nationalist groups and Hindu religious leaders have advocated boycotting their businesses.
A video that was shot last month in the central state of Chhattisgarh and shared widely showed villagers pledging to never buy goods from Muslims or rent or sell land to them.