Modi’s Muslim Problem—And Ours

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After he was banned from the U.S. for his connection to Gujarat’s notorious anti-Muslim riots, Narendra Modi reached out to a Republican super PAC for help. (Photo: Al Jazeera English / Flickr)

Narendra Modi was inaugurated as the 15th prime minister of independent India on May 26th, riding into office on an unprecedented wave of support for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept parliamentary elections earlier in May.

Although Modi and the BJP’s primary campaign message was that of economic growth, many Indians are concerned about what the future holds for the nation—in particular the minority Muslim population. India has the third largest population of Muslims in the world, behind Indonesia and Pakistan. At 177 million, it is the world’s largest Muslim-minority population.

It would be easy to write off the tensions among religious and ethnic groups and political persecution of Muslims as a problem specific to India. But that view overlooks the larger global narrative about Muslims that has been pervasive since the 9/11 attacks. That narrative has been crafted in large part by the United States, stemming from the U.S.-led “war on terror.”

The culture of Islamophobia in the United States has helped fuel and provide global cover for political and economic policies that discriminate against Muslims and paint the entire community with an extremist brush. Although the reasons behind the ascendance of Modi may be unique to Indian politics, the Islamophobia it is rooted in is not. Because of his own past and the previous policies of his party, Modi will have to go the extra mile to persuade his electorate and the leaders of other countries that he intends to challenge that Islamophobia rather than perpetuate it.

Islamophobia and “War on Terror” Echoes in India

The United States responded to the 9/11 attacks with a global “war on terror” that restricted civil liberties, entailed domestic spying on American Muslims, and sparked protracted wars and military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. These political moves ushered in a more hostile climate toward American Muslims, resulting in hate crimes, increased law enforcement activity such as the monitoring of places of worship, and widespread racial and religious profiling.

In India, then-Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee—from the same political party as Modi—enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in 2002, modeled in large part on the U.S. PATRIOT Act that went into law shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The PATRIOT Act curtailed American Muslim civil liberties and expanded domestic spying on the community. POTA held many parallels to the PATRIOT Act, including a provision for the detention of terror suspects without charge. India’s next prime minister, Manmohan Singh, would repeal POTA as his first act in office in 2004.

In 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared India’s wish to join the United States in an anti-terror axis anchored by India, the United States, and Israel with a focus on combating Islamic extremism in all three countries. But at home the BJP showed questionable judgment in its treatment of Indian Muslims and in how it applied the extremist label.

BJP, Modi, and 2002 Gujarat Violence

In 2002, as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Modi presided over violence that resulted in the death of more than 2,000 Muslims and the displacement of tens of thousands. The violence was committed by Hindus affiliated with the BJP and Hindu militant groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Several cabinet ministers were found to be involved in the Gujarat violence, though Modi was technically cleared by the Indian judicial system of any wrongdoing. Many questions were raised about the process that cleared him, with the United Nations describing the investigations as “flawed from the outset.” Human rights advocates charged Modi with encouraging the violence as well as failing to stop it.

For his part, Modi expressed satisfaction with the state government’s handling of the 2002 violence and only regretted that he did not handle the media better.

Modi has long ties to Hindu nationalism. He joined the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or “National Volunteer Society,” when he was young, and denounced Muslims early in his career. RSS political support for Modi continued over the years, and it backed him in this year’s election as well.

Modi’s Complicated Relationship with the U.S.

Three years after the Gujarat violence, the U.S. State Department denied Modi a visa on the grounds that he supported religious persecution in India. Modi’s response was to engage Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar to generate support among U.S. Republicans. Kumar—himself a U.S. Republican who runs Indian Americans for Freedom, a Republican super PAC—even enlisted Modi in a welcome message for the PAC, which later ran a campaign to support Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh in his failed 2012 reelection bid.

The campaign ran ads implying that the Democratic candidate (Rep. Tammy Duckworth, whose district had recently been conjoined to Walsh’s) had ties to Islamic terrorism because of her relationship with a Muslim civil rights group. Even though Walsh lost that election, Kumar’s work had already paid off. In his two years in Congress, Walsh wrote a letter in support of Modi’s visa as part of increased U.S. Republican support for the Indian politician.

With the Modi win, the Obama administration has extended a warm welcome to the new prime minister, working to overcome past tensions. The administration has put the visa issue behind it by inviting Modi to Washington.

Signs of Hope

Modi and his party’s troubled past may indeed be the best predictor of India’s future. But there are reasons for hope—both from Modi himself and from the civil society groups challenging Islamophobia in India and the United States.

One of Modi’s first acts in office was to invite Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration, followed by a one-on-one meeting the following day. Pakistani officials have expressed trepidation about what Modi and the BJP’s Hindu nationalism may mean for already strained relations between the two countries. But after the meeting, Sharif reported that the two countries would work together to overcome mistrust.

Civil society groups in both countries—including the Coalition Against Genocide, which formed in response to the 2002 Gujarat violence—have said they will continue to hold Modi accountable and counter persecution against Indian Muslims and other minorities. Communal violence certainly did not disappear in the wake of Gujarat. Indeed, outbreaks of violence in Hyderabad and Assam this month are a reminder to Modi of the urgency of addressing Islamophobia forthrightly.

Accountability will be a key factor to ensure Modi’s win really is about “uniting people,” as he claims, and not advancing a culture of Islamophobia.

Debayani Kar is a senior communications associate with PolicyLink and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.