Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a function at a hospital in Ahmedabad on Oct. 11. (Ajit Solanki/AP)
Last week, India’s Supreme Court took on an issue that has turned into a major political controversy: the hijab. In February, the southern state of Karnataka had banned women from wearing the hijab in classrooms — enraging Indian Muslims and delighting Hindu nationalists, who saw the state’s move as another triumph in their continuing campaign against Muslims in India.
The court’s decision ended up showing just how polarized India’s religious landscape has become. One of the judges on the panel declared wearing headscarves a matter of personal choice; the other essentially dismissed the problem, saying that the hijab was not “essential” to Islam.
But India’s Muslims can’t simply act as if the issue doesn’t exist. Muslim girls in India are fighting — just like their counterparts in Iran — for their fundamental right to dress and live on their own terms. Many Muslim girls were barred from entering school premises or sitting for exams when they insisted on wearing the hijab, which they believe is a fundamental right. These women believe that the general attack on the hijab is merely a pretext — part of the wider assault on every aspect of the Muslim identity.
That such an assault is well underway can no longer be denied, even if some people in the international community persist in ignoring it. On the streets of India today, Hindu nationalists have been seen brandishing swords and chanting provocative slogans outside mosques. Videos shared on social media of mob attacks on Muslims are far too common. And Muslim students and activists have seen their houses demolished by state officials without due process, clearly as retribution for speaking up against atrocities. The news organization Scroll recently reported that many Muslims are leaving India due to “rising majoritarianism.”
Just this month, India has witnessed a spate of incidents involving targeted attacks on the Muslim community.
In the first week of October, a mob barged into a heritage mosque in the city of Bidar, performed a Hindu ceremony and chanted the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” (Glory to Lord Rama). Then a disturbing video went viral showing several Muslim men being tied to a lamppost in Gujarat, after they were accused of trespassing and disturbing a Hindu festival. As the men were flogged, allegedly by police officers in civilian clothes, the crowds chanted nationalist slogans and danced. A similar incident took place last month, when people associated with an ultra-right-wing group called the Bajrang Dal reportedly assaulted Muslim boys for participating in the Hindu festival of Navratri, accusing them of enticing Hindu girls.
Extremists clearly feel empowered, and it is not hard to guess why. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at the peak of his power. His crackdown on independent media and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) increasing dominance across all of India’s institutions are limiting society’s capacity to push back against such radicalism.
Members of his party, meanwhile, have added fuel to the fire: A sitting BJP member of Parliament, Pragya Thakur, recently stated that Muslims should not be allowed in Hindu festivals. Thakur is on trial for allegedly taking part in a bombing that killed six people near a mosque; she was elected while out on bail, after spending eight years in jail. Another BJP lawmaker appeared to call for a “total boycott” of Muslim businesses recently, with crowds cheering and clapping in response.
Modi, who has one of the biggest followings on social media of any Indian, has not called for inclusion or for an end to the violence against Muslims. Nor has he publicly reprimanded his lawmakers for speech that has further encouraged communal hate in India.
At the same time, the outside world doesn’t seem willing to stand up for India’s Muslims and other minorities. World leaders apparently prioritize maintaining strategic relations with India to counter China and Russia, not understanding that this willful and convenient ignorance is amplifying state-sanctioned violence against the 220 million Muslims in India.
Britain has recently offered a glaring example of the long reach of sectarian hatred allegedly emanating from India. Last month, the city of Leicester experienced an outpouring of communal violence between Hindu and Muslim communities. A BBC investigation has shown that the disinformation that led to the violence was inflamed by social media accounts from India. These fault lines are also present in the United States: An Indian independence day celebration in New Jersey in August controversially featured a piece of construction equipment similar to bulldozers used in India to demolish Muslim homes.
It was another reminder that the hate and division growing in India will not stop at its borders. A statement by Human Rights Watch released this month warned of a surge in crimes against Muslims in India. Yet the Modi government has mocked all criticism by human rights groups and international media as attempts to discredit his government.
As the world remains silent in the face of increasing injustice in India, I am reminded of an old Egyptian proverb: “Oh Pharaoh, who turned you into a tyrant?” “No one stopped me,” he replied.
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