Muslims of Bangalore under Narendra Modi’s regime

This article deals with the fast-changing reception of Narendra Modi’s policies by the Muslims of Bangalore. Whilst an investigation in August 2014 revealed a relative serenity following the recent change in central power, it evolved into a much more visible concern during a second field investigation in August 2015. Here, the analysis focuses first on the situation observed in 2014 vis-à-vis the national context, with new perspectives induced by the recent transformations1This article was written before the Dadri lynching in which a mob attacked a Muslim family on the night of 28 September 2015 in Bisara village, near Dadri, in Uttar Pradesh, killing 52-year-old Muhammad Akhlaq Saifi and seriously injuring his 22-year-old son. The attack took place after a false rumour spread that the family had killed a cow and consumed its meat on Bakrid (Id-ul-Adha).

In May 2014, the victory of the Hindu nationalists at the legislative elections led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), allowed Narendra Modi to rise to power as Prime Minister, though his level of responsibility in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 20022Narendra Modi was then Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. was at the centre of a number of controversies 3Charlotte Thomas, Domination et résistance de la minorité musulmane d’Ahmedabad (Gujarat) après le pogrom de 2002 : les paradoxes de la ghettoïsation à Juhapura, Doctoral dissertation, IEP de Paris, 2014. Modi certainly did lead a campaign focused on a type of development in India that would associate society as a whole, including religious minorities. However, a few months into the BJP’s victory, the highest spheres of the central State led attempts to polarise the Hindu majority and the religious minorities. How does this phenomenon affect India as a whole? How significant are regional differences?

This article seeks to answer these questions by using the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore, considered as India’s Silicon Valley, as a case study. Located in the Southern state of Karnataka, this city is interesting in that it is home to the same number of Muslims as the national average (14%), originating from different regions of India; but it is also known for a relative communal harmony characterizing Hindu-Muslim relations, which thus creates a feeling of security among the latter4Aminah Mohammad-Arif, “Muslims in Bangalore: A Minority at Ease ?”, in Laurent Gayer et Christophe Jaffrelot, dir., Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, London, Hurst, 2012, pp. 287-310. Has this harmony resisted the battering undertaken at the national, even regional, scales by the Hindu nationalists?

Attempts of polarisation at the national level

Since the party’s accession to power, the policy led by the BJP was immediately marked by all-out attempts to polarise religious groups. Although certain regions of India have been affected more directly than others (such as the state of Uttar Pradesh in North India), none of the states have really been spared due to the generalised access to information in India.

These polarisation attempts first and foremost take the form of a verbal agitation which manifests itself in staggering declarations from the highest level; not directly from Narendra Modi, but from the members of his government, particularly during electoral campaigns: Sushma Swaraj, Foreign Affairs Minister, thus declared that the Bhagavad Gita5The central part of the Maharabharata epic, the Bhagavad Gita is one of the founding texts of Hinduism. was the National Book of India, whilst the Minister for Women and Children’s Rights, Maneka Gandhi, declared that the profits stemming from cow slaughter6An extremely sensitive topic in India given cows’ sacredness in Hinduism were used to finance terrorist activities (thus implicitly and a priori attributed to Muslims). As for the Secretary of State for Food Processing Industries, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, she opposed, in a speech in the midst of the electoral campaign, two categories of Indians, the Ramzade (literally “sons of Ram”, an expression referring to Hindus), and the Hamrazade (literally “bastards”, here the non-Hindus).

However, this polarisation is mostly taking place through the instrumentalisation of themes historically exploited by Hindu nationalists such as conversions to Islam, mixed marriages or cow slaughter7For now, depending on which state, there are several laws on the question. Karnataka is regulated by a law from 1964, the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act, which forbids cow, veal and female buffalo slaughter but authorises that of bulls and male buffalos over 12 years of age. The campaigns for forced reconversions to Hinduism and against mixed marriages have thus been adorned with catchy titles aimed at arousing emotions such as fear (Love Jihad8The term might have been used for the first time in 2007 in Gujarat state: or, on the contrary, pride (ghar vapsi or “home coming”) amongst the Hindu majority. Love Jihad invokes the idea of a plot by Muslims aiming at seducing Hindu women to convert them; ghar vapsi is a reference to the forced conversions to Hinduism justified by the fact that the ancestors of the converted were Hindu. Although both themes are mainly and episodically mobilised during (pre-)electoral periods, the issue of cow slaughter has represented a recurrent stake, directly targeting Muslims both because they have a strong presence in the bovine industry (most butchers are Muslims), and because they are big consumers of beef, a cheaper meat compared to others. This issue has already translated into legislative measures in some of the states where the Hindu nationalists are in power: since April 2015, the consumption of bovine meat is thus punishable by prison in the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, as well as in Haryana state.

Another sector traditionally targeted by the Hindu nationalists is education. Some personalities, including ministers, have for example voiced their support in favour of giving greater importance to mythological Hindu texts in the school curriculum9 Some states have gone even further by taking concrete measures: in Haryana state, the Bhagavad-Gita is now part of the school programme. Other initiatives do not necessarily stem from the higher spheres of the State but are just as revealing of a growing and more visible polarisation: in the city of Ahmadabad for instance, in some schools, Hindu children or Muslim children representing the overwhelming majority have chosen to distinguish themselves by the colour of their uniforms10Safran colour for the Hindu children, green for the Muslim children..

Which repercussions at the local level?

Currently, the state of Karnataka, where the Congress is locally in power, remains free from laws that could affect religious minorities. It is indeed too soon to determine if the Narendra Modi’s premiership will lead to an escalation in the sectors where discrimination already exists against Muslims (particularly in housing and employment), or even if it will spread to other sectors; but the risk that the victory of the Hindu nationalists at the central level will strengthen the violent or discriminatory endeavours at the local level is not negligible. Examples of such dynamics were recently observed in Mumbai where a young Muslim holder of an MBA, upon applying for a job in marketing at a private company specialised in diamond exports (Hare Krishna Imports) received a rejection letter in May 2015 stating the following motives: “We regret to inform you that we hire only non-Muslim candidates”11

Above all, Hindu nationalists12Here I use the term “Hindu nationalists” rather than “BJP” as the latter is not systematically involved in inter-community violence. Violent events can be organised by other movements inspired by the same ideology such as the Bajrang Dal for example. have managed to establish themselves in different regions of Karnataka state. This state is even considered as their bastion in South India. The city of Mangalore is particularly representative of this phenomenon, where they have created a moral police force in charge of the implementation of “good morals”. In response, Muslims have created their own brigades such as the Muslim Defence Force. Each group particularly fights against dating and other relations between girls from its community and boys from the other community.

Beyond the struggle against religious mix in male/female relations, the influence of Hindu nationalists in Mangalore is also apparent in the discrimination against Muslims, as suggested by the very high incarceration rate of Muslims, whom according to a journalist represent 40% of the prison population13 which an important number of young people who have been accused of terrorism, often wrongly, according to many Muslim and non-Muslim organisations). Faced with this situation, resistance groups against Hindu nationalists have been formed recently by Muslims who have sometimes formed alliances with Dalits14Politically laden name corresponding to the people referred to as untouchables by the Brahman tradition. and lower castes, such as the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, which became the Popular Front of India in 2010. This resistance also takes the shape of counter-protests in response to Hindu nationalist demonstrations. Slogans or posters hostile to the “Other” are thus used by both sides.

Bangalore, a peaceful haven?

In spite of this situation, a field enquiry carried out in Bangalore in August 2014 with young Muslim engineers showed, almost surprisingly, an absence of concern regarding the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi’s leadership. Here are a few of the representative answers: “For now, I am not worried, Modi has other fish to fry”15Akmal, 22 years old, intern in a large computing business., “I don’t think that it is worse with Modi than with the Congress”16Humeira, 27 years old, engineer for an international corporations specialising in computing services., “I am not very worried, Modi has shown us a bright future. As a nation, there might be many changes”17Shahnaz, 34 years old, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering..

In order to understand this apparent serenity, it is important to be aware of the local historical and political context of the Muslim population in Bangalore. First of all, the city is characterised by an important cosmopolitanism mainly stemming from a substantial and continuous migration of diverse religious and linguistic groups since the 17th century. This cosmopolitanism is most visible in language use, as only 35% of the population speaks Kannada, the regional language, in comparison with 25% speaking Tamil, 17% Telugu18Janaki Nair, The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005. and 12,7% Urdu19, according to the 1991 census.

Furthermore, the Muslims, as heterogeneous as they can be, enjoy a rather privileged situation in comparison to that of their co-religionists elsewhere in India, which is rooted in a combination of factors. The local policies of the princely state of Mysore and of Karnataka after the 1947 independence were indeed favourable to minorities (reservation system20The reservations in India are a system of quotas implemented for certain categories of the population considered as underprivileged. This system is mainly in place in the education system, the administration and the elected assemblies. for the lower castes as soon as 1972; first Commission, then first ministry established in India for minorities, creation of a financial support organisation for minorities, etc.). In comparison to their co-religionists living in other regions, the Muslims of Bangalore have higher levels of education (81,3% for men, 77,2% for women in 2011), and have partially benefited from the tremendous economic boom of the city. Although it is difficult to put numbers forward, this privileged situation has enabled the emergence of demographically significant middle classes, which are very dynamic in the establishment of institutions dedicated to the promotion of “community” development (schools, colleges, hospitals, charities, publishing houses, etc.). On the political level, Muslims have not historically been the object of polarisation between political parties, as the confrontations have essentially taken place around caste-related issues. As for political violence, even though riots21The two main riots occurred for the following reasons: moral outrage (violent protests by Muslims against an article on the Prophet published in the Deccan Herald in 1986); linguistic nationalism from Kannada speakers, the regional language of Karnataka (riots in 1994 in reaction to the airing of a news show in Urdu – a language that is identified with Muslims – on prime time television). have at times opposed them to the Hindu majority, they were generally rare events with low fatality rates until now, in comparison with other regions of India, and even of Karnataka (the highest number of fatalities, 25, was reached in 1994 with 25).

Finally, Bangalore has a tradition of “interfaith dialogue” which is seen in the rather regular holding of meetings gathering representatives from diverse communities, where peaceful discourse and mutual understanding are promoted. These meetings are initiated and organised by secular groups such as the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum but also by groups representing the interests of particular communities (Muslims, Christians, Dalits etc.). This combination of factors has engendered among Muslims, as a religious minority, a feeling of security, including in underprivileged neighbourhoods, as demonstrated by a field enquiry carried out in 2010, and this even while the BJP was in power locally (2008-2013)22Aminah Mohammad-Arif, “Muslims in Bangalore: A Minority at Ease ?”, in Laurent Gayer & Christophe Jaffrelot, dir., Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, London, Hurst, 2012, pp. 287-310.. This feeling does not exclude criticisms against the State, but these are essentially formulated in terms of social and not religious discrimination.

Beyond this favourable context, other reasons could explain the absence of tangible concern about Modi’s victory, such as the generalised rejection of the political elite, beyond parties. This is the consequence of a great feeling of deceit towards the Congress, largely shared in India, for many reasons: generalised corruption, “soft” governance, insufficient protection of minority rights, etc. This discontent does not necessarily result in votes in favour of the BJP (according to an opinion poll from the CSDS23The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 8% of Muslims voted for this party at the national elections of 2014), but the victory of the Hindu nationalists has not necessarily led to a radical rejection in Bangalore, or even to a palpable apprehension. In fact, on the contrary, as the delays in development (infrastructures, water, electricity) are affecting Indians regardless of their religious backgrounds, the hopes for a better life stemming from Narendra Modi’s promises are shared by a number of Muslims, in particular those from the middle classes.

The Muslims of Bangalore are thus confronted with a situation combining a fairly favourable local context for Muslims with a national context fostering a permanent feeling of vulnerability. However, the blows received at the national level have started to weaken the sense of security felt by Muslims, as shown in the interviews carried out in August 2015. The serenity that had been observed in the previous year has indeed been progressively replaced by a much more visible apprehension. The discourses and the policies led at the national level and in different regions of India are considered by the Muslims interviewed as directly hostile to them. The recent execution of Yaqub Memon for his participation in the Mumbai attacks in July 2015, whilst ministers or officials accused of complicity in the pogroms of Gujarat (2002) were freed without charges, has reinforced the perception of double standards by Muslims across India, including in Bangalore. Finally, the victory of the Hindu nationalists at the municipal elections of Bangalore (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) on August 25th, 2015 threatens to further increase the sense of vulnerability felt by the Muslims of the city.

For now, the discourses and actions of the Muslims of Bangalore remain channelled by organisations and movements promoting harmonious inter-communal relations. However, if the Hindu nationalists continue their polarising policies, more radical groups could gain momentum with Muslims, such as the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (Council of the Union of Muslims) which, after an unexpected breakthrough at the last Maharashtra elections, now seeks to extend its influence to states such as Karnataka. They have thus run candidates for the latest municipal elections in 30 of the 198 districts (wards) of Bangalore, without winning a single seat but still making their presence fairly visible in the Muslim neighbourhoods of the city. Created in 1927 in Hyderabad, this party functions like an inverted mirror of Hindu nationalism, by adopting a rhetoric centred on the polarisation of communities. The risks of the tensions between the local and the national contexts resulting in negative effects on the local situation are not to be underestimated, even in a city as cosmopolitan as Bangalore.