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Why India’s Muslims face domestic colonialism in Modi’s third term

‘Modi has already shown what he and his BJP are capable of.’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi raises his arms, his hands showing peace signs, as he greet supporters after his recent election win. Confetti is all around. Behind him is BJP National President JP Nadda. Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times/Sipa USA
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP party chief JP Nadda greet supporters at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi as they celebrate vote count leads on 4 June 2024.

Only two days into India’s six-week-long general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unleashed yet another tirade against the country’s largest religious minority: Addressing a rally in the western state of Rajasthan, Modi called India’s 200 million Muslims “infiltrators”.

The remarks drew widespread ire. Thousands of enraged civil society members wrote to the Election Commission, seeking action against the PM for his “dangerous speech”, calling it a “direct attack” on Indian Muslims. 

But none of this is new, or unexpected, in India anymore. As a member of the minority community myself, I face such attacks daily even if they are at a symbolic level.

Since Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, all aspects of civil society have come under increasingly brazen attack.

But with Modi poised to assume the premiership for a third consecutive term, his open use of terms like “vote jihad” on the campaign trail is now a matter of grave concern for India’s Muslims, and for minorities more broadly.

Over his 10 years at the helm, Modi has already shown what he and his BJP are capable of: A brazen populist push for greater disenfranchisement of non-Hindus, and attempts at tightening their grip on power through just about whatever means necessary.

Two men are pictured among a crowd of BJP's party supporters celebrate Modi's victory in Lok Sabha elections 2024 in Varanasi. The man on the left has his arms raised and is pictured shouting. On the right, a man raises his right arm.
Nicola Zolin/TNH
BJP party supporters celebrate victory in parliamentary elections in Varanasi, on 4 June 2024.

As he rose to power a decade ago, Modi was still dogged by accusations that he didn’t do enough to stop a bloody pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, but his victory was praised as a story of triumph – the humble chaiwala’s son who went on to become Prime Minister.

David Cameron said India was “fortunate” to have a leader who “has deeply thought about long-term problems” in the country. Barack Obama called him a “man of action”, and Donald Trump went so far as to say Modi was “the Father of India”, after crediting him with bringing Indians together.

What received less international attention is the fact that the BJP is an extension of Sangh Parivar, a collective of militant Hindutva organisations spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS — who want to see India as a Hindu rashtra, or nation.

The emergence of an explicitly Hindu country would transform the India state into the antithesis of what was envisaged in its constitution.

As someone who has followed the ascent of Modi and his BJP closely, I know that it would endanger tens of millions of Indians as it would mean the suspension of core institutions, principles, and instruments that characterise secularism and democracy.

This Hindu nationalist mentality, which has seemingly gained in popularity over the last 10 years, is even more dangerous now that Modi has managed to secure a third term that puts him on an equal standing with the nation’s first post-independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Humanitarian implications

This danger extends well beyond anti-minority and Islamophobic rhetoric. For example, Modi and the BJP’s desire to consolidate power has also taken a massive toll on India’s humanitarian and aid sector.

Since its rise to power, the BJP government has clipped the wings of thousands of aid agencies and NGOs that were often the only ones reaching out to marginalised and downtrodden communities. 

Early in Modi’s premiership, back in 2016, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licences of more than 20,000 local NGOs across India, greatly impacting the ability of aid to reach the nation’s most needy.

This bureaucratic crackdown has only intensified since and, more worryingly for NGO leaders, when the government declines to renew their five-year licences, it typically includes an unsubstantiated claim of “misuse or diversion of foreign funds”.

There are no details or potential remedies given. Even when the media does try to inquire, we are met with silence or ambivalence from the BJP.

Through such measures, the government has halted the work of organisations like Greenpeace, Amnesty International, ActionAid and, most recently, the Centre for Policy Research, a well-respected New Delhi-based think tank that was founded in 1973. 

In a nation where 60% of the population still lives on less than $3.10 a day, suspensions and restrictions of aid organisations can have a major impact on tens of millions of lives. As such, civil society organisations have come to see the weaponisation of the FCRA as a calculated tool of suppression. 

In February, the offices of the Centre for Equity Studies, an advocacy organisation run by notable human rights activist Harsh Mander, were raided. The Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Mander for FCRA violations. The CBI alleges that the organisation transferred hundreds of thousands of rupees to personal accounts or in a manner that seems to go against regulations.

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The case against Mander, which has no legal merit, is part of a wider witch hunt against activists for their humanitarian efforts. A month before raiding Mander’s organisation, the government cracked down on World Vision India, one of the largest Christian voluntary organisations in India. Its FCRA licence was cancelled, disrupting humanitarian services for more than three million children.

The Modi government’s punitive actions against aid agencies and humanitarian services lay bare how such organisations are perceived within the larger imagination of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP. 

According to a report by India’s domestic intelligence services at the start of Modi’s tenure, local NGOs are fronts for foreign interests trying to undermine India’s development. Greenpeace was seen as an organisation that “creates obstacles in India’s energy plans”. while Amnesty International and Action Aid were sponsors of “anti-national” protests.

It’s no coincidence that a major part of the work of aid agencies intersects directly with the interests of India’s Indigenous and minority communities. Indigenous communities have long faced eviction from the land of their ancestors, while minorities have been subjected to increasing attacks and violence over the last decade of Modi’s leadership.

Polarising the people

There was more to Modi’s “infiltrator” remark than a simple vilification of a religious community. It was a classic case of misinformation peddling and hate speech by a high-ranking politician during an election cycle – a clear modus operandi his BJP has been deploying for over a decade.

In simple terms, Modi was looking to polarise the world’s largest electorate – 968 million people eligible to vote in a seven-phase election across 543 constituencies, 28 states, and eight Union Territories between 19 April and 1 June.

For India’s Muslims, who constitute 14.2% of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens, facing such hatred is not new.

During Modi’s rule, attacks against Muslims have risen sharply. Just before he launched his campaign, Modi inaugurated the Ram Mandir temple in Uttar Pradesh, which is to be built over a historic mosque. His presence and the building of the temple emboldened BJP supporters, who took to the streets to profess their appreciation. This led to violent clashes in several states across the country, and a Muslim graveyard in Bihar was reportedly set on fire – just one of many incidents that show how the actions of Modi and his supporters are denting India’s much-vaunted global image as a secular country.

The situation is far worse for minorities in India’s more remote areas. And it’s not just Muslims who are being targeted.

The reality is that across political and intellectual spectrums, Muslims are already too often assumed to be an undesirable and foreign entity, while, for the majority, the identity of India is perceived as inherently and purely Hindu.

Critics fear that new attacks on democratic rights during a third Modi term could be unleashed on minorities of all kinds – on anyone who can be framed as a visible threat to the majority community.

Legal provisions and extra-legal measures could further reduce minorities to the margins. For Muslims, this reality is already unfolding. In Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state popular for its Hindu pilgrimage sites, Muslims are living on the edge: Hindu extremist groups have told them to leave or face consequences.

An otherwise gorgeous valley, Uttarakhand is becoming a test site for extreme right-wing policies that could be replicated in other states, targeting other minority groups. 

Even living in the capital city, I encounter situations where my minority identity becomes a subject for mockery or abuse. The situation is far worse for minorities in India’s more remote areas. And it’s not just Muslims who are being targeted.

Christians, for instance, have come under attack from far-right Hindu groups across India, while many states have enacted laws that criminalise religious conversion. According to one estimate, there were 525 attacks against Christians across India in the first eight months of 2023. The main fountainhead of Christian persecution in India is none other than the Sangh Parivar, the militant collective from where the BJP draws its large-scale constituencies. 

In far-northeastern Manipur, some 250 churches have been burnt down in violence that has been engulfing the state for more than a year between the Hindu-majority Meitei and Christian-minority Kuki-Zo communities. This was ignited by a government affirmative action policy. More than 200 people have died, with tens of thousands displaced, while vigilante groups continue to prowl the region.

Modi’s government was accused of looking the other way when the state was burning, just as he was in Gujarat, where he was serving as chief minister in 2002. Residents also hold chief minister Biren Singh, a BJP politician, responsible for the violence and crackdowns they have faced. 

More regional ethnic fault lines are likely to be exploited by the far-right in the years ahead. A third Modi term will surely deepen these cleavages and put minorities under graver threat.

Weakening federal structure

During Modi’s tenure, power has also become more centralised, with the federal government having a larger say in the political matters of India’s 28 states. Critics have called this intervention an “assault” on the country’s founding federal principles. It also means aid agencies and NGOs working across states have to undergo stricter layers of control. 

A third term for Modi, with the BJP still largely pulling the strings, is likely to see an even more strained relationship between the central government and the states, many of which have accused the prime minister and the ruling party of intimidation and indifference.

If there is a silver lining in the emerging election results, it is that the fantasies of the BJP to get a two-thirds majority – and a potential mandate for Modi to amend the constitution and move India closer to their ideal of a Hindu rashtra – have been shattered. 

But efforts to pave the way for the full blooming of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Population Register, and the National Register of Citizens – all of which would give rise to a new category of “doubtful citizens” – will continue, if not intensify.

These “doubtful citizens” – those who can’t provide the right documentation – may become fodder for new anti-minority narratives and policies, the scale and scope of which would be unimaginable.

It is just a matter of a few months before we’ll see whether these seemingly disparate developments coalesce and move India further towards a “creeping authoritarianism”. I fear they will.

 Edited by Ali M. Latifi.

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