Rise of sectarian violence a concern in India elections

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India is in the penultimate phase of its elections and, so far, one of the issues that’s been front and centre on the campaign trail is the rise of sectarian violence.

Muslims make up a sizeable minority in the country, constituting 13% of India’s 1.2 billion people.

However, in the last five years during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure, crimes against Muslims have increased and this has been weighing heavily on the minds of voters.

Syed Gayoor Haider believes he’s never been more self-conscious of being a Muslim. Since Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Haider says his family has lived in constant fear.

“We live in cramped quarters in a Muslim ghetto not out of choice but necessity. We hear of Muslim families being attacked by right wing Hindu groups so often. We’d feel unsafe living in a Hindu majority neighbourhood. If my Hindu neighbour had a change of heart one day and didn’t feel friendly towards me anymore, my family and I could become just another casualty.”

In the past five years, 36 Muslims have been murdered by right-wing Hindu mobs. These people were either accused of eating beef or slaughtering cows, an animal Hindus consider sacred.

Many of the murders are from militant Hindu groups that often have ties with or align themselves to Prime Minister Modi’s BJP.

Delhi resident, Syed Gayoor Haider Naqvi, says the violence has been encouraged by the government.

“Earlier there used to be instances of sectarian violence, but never to such an extent that an entire community had to live in fear. This has been deliberately encouraged done by the government in power.”

Leader of the ruling BJP, Nalin Kohli, has denied these allegations.

“The BJP, we do respect religious sentiments of the majority, but we also respect Muslims who don’t eat pork. This can’t be turned into a political argument. PM Modi himself has said that whoever breaks the law, must face action irrespective of that person’s faith.”

However, critics say the government has not done enough. In 2019, a BJP minister was seen honouring eight men convicted for lynching a Muslim cattle trader and many BJP leaders have often gone out of their way to raise the issue of cow protection as a policy issue; which critics argue, has emboldened these radical groups.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, the punishment for cow slaughter in BJP ruled states has become stricter; in some states, even leading to life imprisonment.

Smriti Singh from Amnesty International says lack of action from authorities leads to impunity.
“When there is a lack of action from authorities it leads to impunity which emboldens such groups. We see that there is a tacit approval, to the extent of not taking action against perpetrators or even political leaders coming out and making strong statements against these issues.”

It’s also given India’s main opposition party, the Congress, ammunition to target the ruling BJP. It’s promising to crackdown on these groups if voted to power. Congress leader, Sanjay Jha, says that there is a pattern with the killings.

“It tells you there is a pattern in to these killings. They have mostly happened in BJP ruled states. They have been killed by people who have a fundamental, bigoted leaning.”

While the BJP has routinely distanced itself from cow vigilante groups, it’s not convinced voters like Syed Gayoor Haider. He says, in these elections, he’ll vote for a party that can ensure he doesn’t feel persecuted in his own country.