Being Muslim in Modi’s India

It’s a lonely feeling knowing that the country’s leaders don’t want you. Being vilified because you are Muslim in what is now largely Hindu India.

It colors everything. Friends have changed over the past decades. Neighbors limit their friendly gestures to each other – no longer join in celebrations or knock on doors to ask questions in times of pain.

“It is a soulless life,” said Ziya Us Salam, a writer who lives on the outskirts of Delhi with his wife, Uzma Ausaf, and their four daughters.

When I was a film critic for one of India’s major film studios NewspaperMr. Salam, 53 years old, used to spend time on cinema, art, and music. The workday ends with riding on the back of an elderly friend’s motorbike to his favorite restaurant for a long chat. His wife, a fellow journalist, writes about life, food and fashion.

Now that Mr. Salam’s daily routine is limited to the office and home, his thoughts are occupied by heavier concerns. The constant ethnic profiling because he is “obviously Muslim” — by bank tellers, by parking lot attendants, by passengers on the train — is tiring, he says. Family conversations turn darker, as both parents focus on raising their daughters in a country that increasingly questions or even tries to erase markers of identity of Muslims – how they dress, what they eat, even their Indian identity.

One of them, an impressive student-athlete, struggled so much that he needed counseling and had to miss months of school. The family often debated whether to stay in the mixed Hindu-Muslim neighborhood of Noida, just outside Delhi. Their eldest daughter, Mariam, is a graduate student and favors compromise, anything to make life bearable. She wants to move.

Anywhere except Muslim areas can be difficult. Real estate agents often ask directly whether families are Muslim; The landlord does not want to rent the house to them.

“I started doing it comfortably,” Mariam said.

“I refuse,” Mr. Salam replied. He’s old enough to remember when cohabitation was largely the norm in an incredibly diverse India, and he doesn’t want to add to the country’s discrimination.

But he is also pragmatic. He wished Mariam would move abroad, at least while the country was like this.

Mr. Salam clings to the hope that India is in a passing phase.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is playing a long game.

His rise to national power in 2014, with its promise of rapid development, catapulted the decades-long Hindu nationalist movement from the margins of Indian politics to the center . Since then, he has dismantled the strong secular and democratic framework that has long held India together despite the country’s sometimes explosive religious and caste divisions.

Right-wing organizations began using the enormous power surrounding Mr. Modi as a shield to try to reshape Indian society. Their members incited sectarian conflicts as the government looked away, then officials appeared to raze Muslim homes and round up Muslim men. Enterprising vigilante groups have executed Muslims they accuse of smuggling beef (cow is sacred to many Hindus). Top leaders in Modi’s party have publicly praised Hindus for committing crimes against Muslims.

In much of the broadcast media, especially on social media, bigotry goes unchecked. WhatsApp groups spread conspiracy theories about Muslim men luring Hindu women to convert their religion, or even about Muslims spitting on food at restaurants. While Mr. Modi and his party officials have rejected claims of discrimination by pointing to welfare programs that cover Indians equally, Mr. Modi himself is now repeating anti-Muslim tactics in the election that ends early next month. He has targeted India’s 200 million Muslims more directly than ever, calling them “infiltrators” and insinuating that they have too many children.

This growing Islamophobia is now a dominant theme in Mr. Salam’s writings. Cinema and music, the pleasures in life, now seem smaller. In one book, he recorded the executions of Muslim men. In a recent sequel, he describes how Muslims in India feel “orphaned” in their homeland.

“If I don’t deal with important issues and limit my energies to cinema and literature, I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror,” he said. “What will I tell my children tomorrow — when they ask me what Dad is doing in the midst of an existential crisis?”

As a child, Mr. Salam lived on a mixed Hindu, Sikh and Muslim street in Delhi. When the afternoon sun gets hot, the children will switch games under the canopy of a tree in the courtyard of a Hindu temple. The priest will bring water to everyone.

“To him, I was just like any other kid,” Mr. Salam recalls.

Those memories are one reason Mr. Salam remains stubbornly optimistic that India can restore its secular fabric. Another problem is that Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalism, while spreading across the country, has been opposed by some states in the country’s more prosperous south.

Family conversations among Muslims are very different: about university degrees, career advancement, life plans – the usual aspirations.

In Tamil Nadu, often bickering political parties have united in defense of secularism and a focus on economic welfare. Its prime minister, MK Stalin, is a declared atheist.

Jan Mohammed, who lives with his family of five in Chennai, the state capital, said neighbors participated in each other’s religious celebrations. In rural areas, there is a tradition: When a community finishes building a place of worship, villagers of other faiths will come bring fruits, vegetables, and flowers and stay for a meal.

“More than accommodation, there is understanding,” Mr. Mohammed said.

His family was full of overachievers – the norm at their level of education. Mr. Mohammed, has a master’s degree, doing business in the construction field. His wife, Rukhsana, who has a degree in economics, started an online clothing business after the children grew up. One daughter, Maimoona Bushra, has two master’s degrees and is currently teaching at a local college as she prepares for her wedding. The youngest, Hafsa Lubna, has a master’s degree in commerce and within two years went from being an intern at a local company to a manager at the age of 20.

Two of the daughters planned to continue their studies toward doctorates. The only worry is that potential grooms will be intimidated.

“The proposals are no longer available,” Ms. Rukhsana joked.

Thousands of miles north, in Delhi, Mr. Salam’s family lives in a place that feels like another country. A place where prejudice has become so frequent that even a 26-year friendship can be torn apart.

Mr. Salam gave the former editor the nickname “human mountain” because of his large stature. When they rode on the editor’s motorbike after work in the Delhi winter, he shielded Mr. Salam from the wind.

They are often together; When his friend got his driver’s license, Mr. Salam was there with him.

“I would go to pray every day and he would go to the temple every day,” Mr. Salam said. “And I used to respect him for that.”

A few years ago, things started to change. WhatsApp messages appear first.

The editor started passing Mr. Salam some anti-Muslim misinformation: for example, Muslims will rule India in 20 years because their women give birth every year and their men are allowed to married four wives.

“Initially, I said, ‘Why do you want to be involved in all of this?’ I thought he was just an old man who took all this and passed it on,” Mr. Salam said. “I give him the benefit of the doubt.”

The breaking point came two years ago, when Yogi Adityanath, a Modi protege, was re-elected as leader of Uttar Pradesh, the populous state bordering Delhi where Salam’s family lives. Mr. Adityanath, more openly hawkish than Mr. Modi toward Muslims, governs in the saffron robes of a Hindu monk, regularly greeting crowds of Hindu pilgrims with flowers, while at the same time suppress public expression of Muslim faith.

On the day of counting the votes, the friend kept calling Mr. Salam, happy that Mr. Adityanath was leading. Just a few days earlier, this friend had complained about rising unemployment and his son’s struggle to find work during Mr. Adityanath’s first term.

“I said, ‘You’ve been so happy since this morning, what have you got?'” he recalled asking his friend.

“Yogi finished namaz,” the friend replied, referring to the Friday Muslim prayers that often spill out into the streets.

“That was the day I said goodbye,” Mr. Salam said, “and after that he didn’t come back into my life.”


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