Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

India’s kohl and broken pipes

How far will India’s ruling Hindu nationalists be able to win the trust of the country’s 170 million Muslim minority, asks Hayat Hussein

Al-Ahram Weekly

On a flight to Mumbai a few weeks ago, I got into a political discussion with the man sitting next to me. As the conversation developed, I began to see why India, the second-largest country in the world after China, is still grappling with the sectarian burdens of centuries ago.

Inhabited by 1.3 billion people, 170 million of whom are Muslim, India is a major power house. Its economy ranks 10th worldwide in terms of size, and until recently it has been growing at an impressive rate.

As the rate of economic growth slowed down from nine to five per cent, the Congress Party, in power for 30 years, lost its appeal. Shortly before my trip, Narendra Modi, leader of the right-wing Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a landslide electoral victory against the left-leaning Congress.

Many now view India’s 15th prime minister with suspicion. As former chief minister of the Gujarat state, Modi stands accused of sectarian bias and blatant disregard for his Muslim compatriots. Hard evidence against him is unclear, but circumstantial evidence is frightening.

In 2002, a pogrom in Gujarat took the lives of up to 1,000 Muslims. Modi’s critics insist that he either instigated the pogrom or failed to stop it. In his recent election campaign, Modi preferred not to touch on Hindu-Muslim relations, focusing instead on the need to pick up the economy from its rather sluggish turn.

Modi, an ultra Hindu nationalist who came from a working class background to defeat Raoul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and grandson of Indira and great-grandson of Nehru, seems to have the support of the business and middle classes. But he is viewed with such resentment by Muslims that even before his election more than one extremist Muslim group threatened to kill him.

My travel companion, an Indian businessman called Damodar Ratha, spoke to me of Modi’s past, noting the mixed reactions to his rise to power. Ratha, who is Hindu, was convinced that Modi would not be able to risk his political future by repeating the errors of his Gujarat past. This view is shared by many people in India, but Muslims will no doubt be keeping an eye on the policies of the new prime minister.

Unseating a party that has been in power for 30 years is not an easy task. But even more difficult will be the ability of the austere, workaholic Modi to keep his ultranationalist supporters happy while doing something to persuade the country’s Muslims that he cares for them too.

Ratha’s brother was a Congress Party member, but the party’s performance over the past few years has been so dismal that a majority of Indians, even some of the liberals who normally prefer the secular tendencies of Congress to the strident nationalism of the BJP, were unable to give it another term.

“Modi is going to save the poor people in India, including the Muslims, and his accomplishment in Gujarat is good evidence of this,” Ratha told me.

Muslim grievances: In 2002, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, a state in northwest India. Its capital, Gandhinagar, was named after the Mahatma Gandhi, who was born in the nearby coastal city of Porbandar.

Bordering Pakistan, Gujarat has been the site of repeated sectarian strife between Hindus and Muslims. In a recent conflagration in 2002, more than 27 mosques and 50 mausoleums were destroyed. Close to 1,000 Muslims were massacred by Hindu mobs while the police — some say on Modi’s orders — stood idly by. About 200,000 more were displaced as a result of the conflict.

The Indian courts that looked into the case did not find Modi guilty for provoking the killings, but blamed him for failing to act promptly to stop them.The US initially blamed Modi for the massacre and for sometime slammed a travel ban on him. But with the recent rise in popularity of his party, the ban was lifted and Modi was given an official invitation to visit Washington.
The fact that India has the largest number of Muslims in the world next to Indonesia’s 200 million illustrates how Modi’s policies could make or break this nation, with immense international repercussions.

India is home to 1.3 billion people and is famed for its religious diversity. The subcontinent of 3.3 million square km is inhabited by a majority of Hindus at about 80 per cent of the population. Muslims come next with 13 per cent.

Ratha’s analysis of Modi’s future was intriguing, and I wanted to double check his views against those of a Muslim businessman. Since I was on my way to attend an international conference, I thought that this gathering could be a perfect place to sample the opinions of Indian Muslims.

The conference I attended brought together more than 400 companies. Nearly 100 Indian government officials took part, but when I started asking around I couldn’t locate a single Muslim businessman.

An Indian journalist friend who tried to help me drew a blank, so did the conference organiser who went over the lists. The three of us could not find any Muslims at this world class gathering hosted in a country where Muslims are a substantial minority.

“You will not find a Muslim among government officials. India excludes Muslims from top positions,” Ali Sultan, 35, who runs a hotel bookshop, told me. According to Sultan, Muslims who work in various jobs in the private sector are discriminated against. He was particularly incensed that Muslims are not allowed to pray during working hours.

The plight of Indian Muslims was addressed in an Indian government report published in 2006. The Sachar Report, as it was called, found that Muslims suffered from under-representation in government jobs. Only three per cent of government employees in West Bengal were Muslims, for example, though Muslims made up 27 per cent of the total population.

The Sachar Report was disturbing, but critics claimed it was biased and misinterpreted the data, wrote the UAE newspaper Al-Bayan. BJP officials argue that the Sachar Report was politically motivated and have dismissed calls for positive discrimination in favour of Muslims as “harmful to the nation.”
At one point, former BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi said that the tone of the Sachar Report reminded him of that of the All-India Muslim League in pre-independence days.  
Zaheir, a salesman in a garments shop, was afraid that Muslims might not be allowed to practice their religion freely under the BJP government. “Modi prevented calls to prayers in mosques and banned the slaying of cows when he was in office,” he remarked.

“For our part we coexist with other religions and neighbours peacefully. There is no hatred between us, only respect,” he said.  

There did not seem to be a lot of mosques in Mumbai, yet I heard the call to prayers once as I was walking back to my hotel. When I asked the hotel chef if he had halal beef on the menu, the answer was in the affirmative.

When I asked Moralli, a Hindu public servant from Ahmadabad, the reason so many Muslims were poor, he told me it was because they did not “educate their children” and “tended to have too many babies.”

Nazier Ahmed, the owner of a garments shop, was incensed to hear that. “There are rich Muslims and poor Muslims. Some Muslim families have only two children,” Ahmed said.

Poverty in India is not confined to Muslims either. Almost one out of four people in the country live under the poverty line. This situation may explain why so many Indians are worried about the economy more than they are about Modi’s sectarian past.

Hussein, a Muslim who works for a travel company, told me that he hoped that Modi would do something about the widespread poverty in the country. “I will be one of his big supporters if he does,” he said.

In Mumbai, you see beggars and homeless people everywhere, even around the five-star hotels, asking passers-by to give them as little as one rupee. ($1 is equivalent to 60 rupees)

Life in Mumbai: When you walk around Mumbai it is hard not to remember Egypt. The faces are similar, and the way people are dressed is too. Only the greenery is more impressive, since the wide boulevards of the city are lined by equatorial trees washed in the monsoon rains.

Another similarity is the wide gap in income between the rich and poor. In Egypt, you often see visitors mystified by the proximity of luxury hotels to impoverished districts. This is also true in Mumbai, home to the glamorous film centre of Bollywood.

I toured Bollywood by taxi, and the driver, a Hindu, proudly pointed to the fancy mansions of the film stars. Nearby, I could see the shacks of the poor. The driver told me that these were inhabited by Muslims.

When you read about Hindu-Muslim tensions in India, it is possible to imagine that there are bloodbaths going on in the country. But during my short visit I saw no evidence of sectarian violence.  

The first shop my taxi driver took me to was a handicrafts business owned by a Muslim, Mohamed, who was originally from Kashmir. “I don’t like Modi,” he said. “Some of my relatives still live in Kashmir, and they would like to see him dead because of what happened to Muslims on his watch.”

But even Mohamed had hopes that Modi would make things better in India. “We will have to wait and see,” he said.

Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state in which Muslims are in the majority. One of its prominent political and religious leaders, Omar Farouk, said that he hoped the new Indian government would take “daring measures” to resolve the dispute over Kashmir.

During the election campaign, in which he travelled for more than 300,000 km and spoke at 457 rallies, Modi mentioned that he might consider negotiating a permanent peace deal with Pakistan regarding Kashmir. “The time of divisive policies is over. From now on we will bring our people together,” he said.

While bloody confrontations between Muslims and Hindus in India may not be common, there is fanaticism on both sides. The tensions between the followers of India’s largest two religions predate India’s independence and predate even British colonial rule.

Even today, you can sense the mistrust in the remarks made by ordinary Muslims and Hindus about each other. You can see it even in the way they look at each other. In a shopping area dominated by Muslims, for example, Zaheir boasted that “no Hindu merchant can step in here.”

Researchers attribute the tensions to the way Islam was introduced into the sub-continent. In the south, Islam spread through trade, gaining root gradually and in a peaceful manner. In the north, however, Islam came in the form of conquest, leaving a taste of bitterness among the Hindus that survives to this day.

According to, a Saudi Website promoting religious tolerance, sensational media reports on sectarian attacks tend to make things worse.  

Before the partitioning of India, Mahatma Gandhi made repeated attempts to heal the rift between Hindus and Muslims and failed. He was later assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing ultra-nationalist faction that gave birth to Modi’s party, the BJP.

Ramadan prayers: In Ramadan, Abdel-Rahman, the co-owner of a modest menswear shop, likes to attend the tarawih, a nightly prayer session held only in the month of the Muslim fast with other shopkeepers in the area.

“Ramadan is a month of worship, not eating,” he told me, after I hinted at the banquets we Egyptians tend to have in this particular month.  
I had not been to a mosque in India and wanted to see one, so a driver working for Hussein, a Sri Lankan Muslim, made arrangements to take me along with his boss to the mosque he attended for prayers on Friday.  

After a long drive, the driver located a mosque but Hussein refused to go in. It was “too dirty,” he told me. The next mosque wasn’t in much better shape, but Hussein agreed to pray there anyway as the prayer time was approaching.

The two-floor mosque was situated in a back alley close to open sewers, and yet it was filled with worshippers, including many children who were assigned to the top floor. Near the mosque, there was an empty lot that children used to play football and a tea stand that served them refreshments during the game.

I noticed that all the men in the mosque had their heads covered with a handkerchief or a white skullcap. During a visit to a Hindu temple two days earlier, I had noticed the same thing. The priest told us all to cover our heads, as this was part of the service, just like lighting candles.

After the prayers had ended, a man passed a bag around to make a collection, and some worshippers obliged. The collection was to help the poorest members of the community, Mahmoud, a civil engineer, told me.  

“The money is used to extend water to their homes, or to loan them money for small projects,” he noted.

Outside the mosque, just before the prayers started young men were gathered in a circle, applying kohl to their eyes. I asked a young man why he was doing it. The kohl was making his eyes tear up and turn red, but he gave me a shy smile. “To be beautiful for the prayers,” he said.

As Muslims struggle to fix their pipes and stay beautiful in Mumbai’s back alleys, they will be watching every action of the new government. Modi will need more than cosmetic measures to persuade the world’s largest religious minority that they are not being left behind.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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