For India’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory

Muslim women with a portrait of Narendra Modi, the candidate from the Bharatiya Janata Party, on Friday in Varanasi. Allies say there is no reason for Muslims to fear a government led by him.
May 16, 2014
NEW DELHI — Like real estate agents the world over, Rahul Rewal asks his clients if they have children or pets, since both limit options. But there is another crucial but often unspoken question: Are they Muslim?
“I tailor the list of places that I show Muslims because many landlords, even in upper-class neighborhoods, will not rent to them,” Mr. Rewal said. “Most don’t even bother hiding their bigotry.”
Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage when telling of the withdrawn apartment offers, rejected job applications and turned-down loans that are part of living in the country for them. As a group, Muslims have fallen badly behind Hindus in recent decades in education, employment and economic status, with persistent discrimination a key reason. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans.
Now, after a landslide electoral triumph Friday by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Hindu nationalists, some Muslims here said they were worried that their place in India could become even more tenuous.

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“Fear is a basic part of politics, and it’s actually how politicians gain respect, but for us fear also comes from the general public,” said Zahir Alam, the imam of Bari Masjid, a mosque in East Delhi, in an interview Friday. “The meaning of minority has never been clearer than it is today.”
The B.J.P. is led by Narendra Modi, who is widely expected to become India’s next prime minister. Mr. Modi — a Hindu, like a majority of Indians — has a fraught relationship with Muslims, who make up about 15 percent of the country. He was in charge of the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when uncontrolled rioting caused 1,000 deaths, mostly among Muslims. He has also been linked with a police assassination squad that largely targeted Muslims.
But Mr. Modi ran a campaign that focused on promises of development and good governance, and that largely avoided religiously divisive themes. His allies say there is no reason for Muslims to fear a national government led by him, and in interviews on Friday, many Muslims said they believed that.
B.J.P. candidates won in 102 constituencies where Muslims make up at least one in five voters, up from just 24 of these seats in 2009, according to a Reuters analysis. Mohammad Sabir, 25, who supplies parts for fans at a business in Varanasi, said that while he did not vote for Mr. Modi, he did not fear an administration led by him.
“He is now a national leader, and he needs to focus on nation building,” Mr. Sabir said. “If he cannot take everyone along, then he cannot succeed.”
Mr. Modi’s victory came in large measure from India’s aspirational urban electorate, who yearn for a better future for themselves and their children. Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor at King’s College London, said that rapid urbanization and a growing middle class were softening barriers among Hindu castes, but that the same forces had increased divisions between Hindus and Muslims.
“In the village, you are bound to meet Muslim families because it’s such a small universe,” he said. “In the cities, you have these vast ghettos.”
Mr. Modi won a huge majority in the electorally critical state of Uttar Pradesh, in part because of deadly riots last year that broke a traditional voting alliance between low-caste Hindus and Muslims. But now that he has won, Mr. Modi must reassure India’s Muslims, said Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator.
“Many people in India and around the world will be watching whether he reaches out to minorities in the coming days,” Ms. Chowdhury said.
Tavleen Singh, an Indian author and admirer of Mr. Modi, said that critics of Mr. Modi focused on his ties to rioting and assassinations without pointing out that such violence has long been part of Indian society.
India was born in 1947 amid the blood-soaked horror of partition, which split British India into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and largely Hindu India. Riots in New Delhi in 1984 after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards led to the killing of thousands of Sikhs, with leaders of the Indian National Congress participating. Violence among castes has long been a regular feature of rural life in India.
“It’s an ugly Indian reality,” Ms. Singh said.
But that is exactly why Mr. Modi is such a poor choice as prime minister, said Siddharth Varadarajan, the former editor of The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper. Many among India’s liberal intelligentsia see Mr. Modi as a threat to India’s secularism, which is enshrined in its Constitution. It is a characteristic that distinguishes India from Pakistan and binds a nation of extraordinary diversity.
“Many of the things that are evil about India are not going to find their solution with Mr. Modi,” Mr. Varadarajan said. “If anything, they’ll get worse.”
In recent months, residents of a well-to-do Hindu neighborhood of a small city in Gujarat have protested outside a home purchased in January by a Muslim, saying his presence would disturb the peace and lower property values — the same arguments used for decades in the United States to exclude blacks from white neighborhoods.
In Mumbai this year, a ship captain credited with helping to rescue about 722 Indians from Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion said he was unable to buy an apartment in an affluent section of the city because no one would sell to a Muslim.
Zia Haq, an assistant editor at The Hindustan Times, said it had taken him nearly a year to find an apartment in New Delhi several years ago because he kept looking in neighborhoods dominated by Hindus who refused to rent to him. He finally found an apartment in a Muslim slum.
“This is the story of every middle-class Muslim who moves to a city in India,” Mr. Haq said. “Sometimes landlords are very upfront and say they won’t rent to Muslims. Others have excuses, like they have decided not to rent the place at all.”
But some Muslims say that such experiences demonstrate that Mr. Modi is hardly unusual in his difficulties with Muslims, and that his economic credentials make him worthy of leading the nation.
At Hyderabad’s Moazzamjahi Market, a crenelated stone complex with a mix of businesses run by Hindus and Muslims, Syed Jaleel, 56, the owner of a fruit and vegetable stand that sells produce from his farm, said he was delighted by Mr. Modi’s victory.
“Riots don’t matter because they happen all the time,” he said, clutching a lemonade to help cool off in the heat. “What matters is business development — just look at how Modi developed Gujarat. They don’t even have power cuts. He’ll do the same for the country now.”

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