As a child when I visited India, I rarely had jet lag. At the crack of dawn, I’d be awoken first by the azaan— the call for morning prayers from the mosque. I’d barely fall asleep again when the bells in the temple would ring to the aarti— the devotional Hindu prayer. The neighborhood mosque and temple were close enough for their acoustics to be inseparable. To the untrained ear of a child the two calls sounded the same but were vastly oppositional. The azaan, translated, means there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. The aarti is a paean to Lord Vishnu, the mighty Lord of the Universe.
By sunrise in most parts of India the gods of Hindus and Muslims have laid their respective claim to the celestial White House. On Earth, things seemed more cooperative. The azaan signaled that it was time for the aarti. The muezzin would wake the priest up with “Allah ho Akbar” (Allah is great) to remind him to give Lord Vishnu the same deference. By agreement, the muezzin and the priest made sure their calls for prayer did not overlap. Only years later did I realize the significance of this acoustic juxtaposition. The first lesson that India teaches you about coexistence is that for people to truly get along they must be their religious selves.
My first memory of religious expression was a procession of men beating their chest in the streets. I thought it was a funeral. Men looked angry but were crying and some had blood dripping from their bared chest. It was Muharram, the death anniversary of Hussein Ali, grandson of Prophet Muhammad. I recall how my grandmother, a Hindu who expressed her Hinduism in symbolic carnates, casually went about her business as if nothing was happening. Many Indians of every faith wear their religion on their sleeves, and few think the worse of anyone because of it.
If the left-leaning media is to be believed, India is hurtling towards dark ages and her days of religious tolerance are over since Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a party which unabashedly flaunts Hinduism, was reelected by a landslide. An editorial in the Guardian expressed disappointment in the election of Modi. Soon after the election results were announced notable Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, wrote in the New York Times that Modi had “seduced India with hate.” Some believe that Indian Muslims are living in fear. Just like many believed that Trump’s victory signified rise of prejudice and white supremacy, so many feel that Modi won because he inspired prejudice, specifically hatred of Muslims in Hindus. Is this media-inspired moral panic or is there some truth?
Part of the problem in judging the significance of Modi’s return is the temptation in divorcing the present from the arc of history. If you magnify the present, there truly is much to be concerned about. Misinformation, particularly about the scientific achievements of Hindus five thousand years ago, is on the rise. Cows have assumed a special status in society and, for now, are off the menu. Many Muslims have been bullied by cow-vigilantes — self-appointed Hindu thugs charged with keeping cows from the frying pan. Magnified, India is a fallen star whose dimming light casts a shadow of despondence over a long horizon of despair.
But it is constellations not stars which tell stories. To understand India’s constellation, we must return to 1947, when the British Raj ended, and the subcontinent was divided into India and East and West Pakistan. India chose to remain secular, rather than base its national constitution on Hinduism, even though Hindus comprised the vast majority. Leaders of the Congress Party, which had inherited India, pleaded with the frightened Muslims not to leave. Many Muslims stayed back. India was reshuffled with a new aspect ratio rather than amputated.
The Congress Party felt morally responsible for reassuring Indian Muslims that their decision to remain in India was correct. They were given concessions, though historians would argue that they were political expedients, not concessions. For example, Muslims were granted their own civil law in marriages. There is one law for Hindu women and another law for Muslim women.
The line between reassurance of Muslims, a noble endeavor, and bringing religion into politics, an ignoble consequence, is thin. By 1960, Congress Party, ostensibly secular, crossed that line. The Party under Jawaharlal Nehru joined forces with the Muslim League to oust the democratically elected Communist Party in Kerala — India’s most literate state. Feroze Gandhi, Nehru’s son-in-law, wasn’t pleased with the political alliance his father-in-law — India’s first prime minister (PM) — and his wife, Indira, had chosen. Feroze warned that an alliance with an overtly religious party was an uncomfortable precedence for India’s secular politics. Feroze and Nehru did not get along. Though both were idealistic, Feroze was more principled and Nehru more pragmatic.
The Congress Party wagered that Muslims voted en bloc. Their calculation made two assumptions. The first that Muslims were united — united by theism and a continual fear of the Hindu majority. The second that religious leaders could tell Muslims who to vote for. The Congress began mixing religion with politics.
Before the elections in 1980, Indira Gandhi met Shahi Imam Bukhari, the highest authority of the Jama Masjid — India’s most important mosque, asking for his support. Bukhari agreed, but had terms of his own. Bukhari then advised millions of Muslims to vote for Indira Gandhi. Imagine if the Archbishop of Canterbury had instructed the Protestants of Northern Ireland to vote for Mrs. Thatcher. Whether or not the Protestants paid attention, the net effect of mixing religion so explicitly in politics, would have been even greater resentment from the Catholics towards Protestants.
By projecting a one-size-fits-all psephology on all Muslims, politicians not only devalued their individuality but discouraged people from seeking their individualism. The “Muslim” badge became stuck to their identity by superglue. An example — innocuous but instructive. A young man running for local elections came to my grandparents’ house to canvass for support. He was a friend of the family. My grandmother loved him. When he left, my grandmother, fiercely Hindu, said — “what a nice Mussalman (Muslim). He even supports India when India plays Pakistan in cricket.”
The idea that Muslims are a monolith, an idea still extant, is deeply offensive, unapologetically patronizing, and demonstrably false. Nevertheless, the two communities were different in one regard. After independence the Hindus and Muslims in India were joined by destiny but separated by counterfactuals — different “what ifs”? To many Hindus, for India to be logical, the two-nation theory had to be rejected, which meant Pakistan had to be illogical, the partition had to be a mistake — a regret, at best.
Muslims, understandably, saw Pakistan differently. Just as the Jews who aren’t domiciled in Israel, who live in the U.S. for example, still view Israel with reverence, Muslims in India looked to Pakistan with affection and reverence. A homeland that was never home is still a homeland. But unlike the U.S. and Israel, who are allies, India and Pakistan were perpetually at war with each other. How the two communities viewed Pakistan became a source of tension between them.
Actually, it wasn’t the wars which were the problem. It was cricket. For most of post-independence, Pakistan was undeniably the better team. India would frequently get walloped, and walloped badly, in both the short and long versions of the game by Pakistan. Hindus wondered if Indian Muslims supported Pakistan. The shame of losing to Pakistan turned into resentment for Muslims. The loyalty of Indian Muslims towards India was questioned.
Imran Khan, the fiery Pakistani bowler who was the nemesis of Indian batsmen, once declared, apparently in jest, that the Kashmir dispute, the festering land dispute between India and Pakistan, should be settled over a test series. Pakistan beat India 4-0 in that series. Cricket was salt to the wounds of the partition.
India is a complex country with complex emotions. Even as Hindus questioned the loyalty of Muslims, they flocked to cinema to watch Muslims. In the arts the Muslims flourished. Several successful actors, playwrights and singers were Muslims. Bollywood — India’s music and film industry — is fiercely agnostic — the type of amorality which comes when money is the only arbiter of judgment. For a while Bollywood was dominated by the Khans —the trio of Shahrukh, Aamir, and Salman, particularly Shahrukh, who was also known as “King Khan.” The Khans drew, predominantly Hindu, crowds to the cinema, making Bollywood rich through their fans.
Can the popularity of the Khans be extrapolated to broader Hindu sentiments about Muslims? Is it really possible for Muslims to be so successful in movies if Hindus are inherently prejudiced against them? The master logician would scoff at my fallacious dichotomy. But wisdom would not discount the broader significance of the popularity of the Khans, which indicates that prejudice, even if it exists, can be overcome.
Commerce guts prejudice more effectively than entertainment. When I was getting married in India, I needed a special suit tailor made for my physique. My physique isn’t exceptional but needs exceptional attention to detail. The choice wasn’t any tailor, but any Muslim tailor. Muslims had a reputation for attention to detail. Muslim tailors would thrive during colorful Hindu weddings and Hindu-owned grocery stores would profit during Ramadan. Hindu-Muslim commerce most succeeded when both sides clung to their traditions.
Indian Muslims were far from pampered. They had the highest rates of poverty. They lived in closed spaces — partly because of poverty. The politicians, content by their “Muslims are a monolith” strategy, never bothered improving their economic condition. Instead they indulged the demands of the vocal few whose decibels were generalized to the silent many.
In 1988, Salman Rushdie’s controversial Satanic Verses, for which he received a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, was immediately banned in India. Was banning the book the highest priority for the government? At that time, Muslim women, like Hindu women, in rural Bihar, one of India’s poorest and least developed states, still defecated in open spaces, often behind the bushes, risking being assaulted by men or being bitten by poisonous snakes. Defecating in the open is one of the most pernicious problems facing women in rural India. It’s dangerous. It challenges the modesty of a culture in which immodesty is eschewed. That it was allowed to go on for so long is a testament not only to Indian politics, but those charged with reporting its warts.
Modi promised a sanitation drive and has delivered — 80 million toilets have been built in India, and many millions still need to be built. One of the untold stories of this election are the Muslim women who voted for Modi. The construction of toilets seems to be one reason for Modi’s popularity in this constituency.
There’s a certain distance from the truth one inevitably acquires when making general statements of a country as complex as India. I don’t blame Pankaj Mishra, or the Guardian or New York Times, for missing the significance of toilets for Muslim women in rural India. Like me, I suspect Mishra does not have to relieve himself in the bushes. And I would hazard a guess that if we had to go out in the sweltering heat or the dark night to defecate in the open, our wish list from India’s PM might change — banning inflammatory books, or reducing fake scientific news, might assume less pertinence. A toilet at hand is worth two in the bush.
With identity politics, politicians felt they didn’t have to do anything material for disadvantaged communities. Policies which uplift all communities — Hindus and Muslims, alike — don’t have the same religious-specificity as banning blasphemous books. But economic growth disproportionately helps Muslims precisely because they’re disproportionately poor. Modi’s pro-growth policies have brought many Muslims out of poverty.
Modi’s mandate in this elections shows that Indians are tired of being divided. They’re signaling to their politicians that local, grievance-based, identity politics, doesn’t work anymore. They’re tired of being played against each other. And they’re tired of a media which seems to gallantly miss the point, their point. The Congress Party, led by Feroze Gandhi’s grandson, Rahul Gandhi, has been slow to understand the national mood. But Modi understands the proletariat and promises to address problems which transcend India’s multiple divisions — sanitation, healthcare, roads, corruption, national security. Nationalism has terrible connotations but nationalism, for many Indians, simply means issues which affect them all.
After the election, I received a text from an Indian American physician, a Hindu, who was worried that Hindus in India were descending into Taliban-style theocracy. I, too, had concerns but I wasn’t as concerned as he was and couldn’t see the sky falling imminently. Our conversation rapidly deteriorated. I accused him of moral panic and silly hyperbole. He accused me of “normalizing the BJP” and compared my behavior with those who ignored the Nazis. The conversation got sillier — the sort you see in the comments on YouTube. He then sent me a video of a Muslim man being beaten by Hindu thugs. The video was distressing and I felt bad. Then I remembered India’s past. I still felt bad but felt proud, too, at how far India had come.
In 1980, violence erupted between Hindus and Muslims in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, because a pig had entered a Muslim colony. A conservative estimate places the death toll at 400. In 1987, Hindus and Muslims fought each other in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, after the disputed Babri Mosque was reopened for worship. In 1989, over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in Hindu-Muslim violence in Bhagalpur, Bihar, after false rumors that Muslims had killed a dozen Hindu students. I could go on and on. This is just a glimpse of the episodic communal violence in India.
The human death toll of the riots aside, riots rip the psyche of the region and destroy its economy for generations. Only a simmering mistrust between communities remains. During Modi’s first term, India recorded the fewest Hindu-Muslim riots. The significance of the absence of riots can’t be understated. Riots should be a zero event. If India in the 1980s gets a grade F for Hindu-Muslim relationship, then the absence of riots, notwithstanding the rise of the cow vigilantes, surely gives India today a C-. India has a long way to go before it can get a B+. But how far India still has to go should not diminish how far India has come.
The popular narrative of Modi’s victory in the media, that he won because Hindus have become more fanatical, is very different from the realities in India. Of a thousand reasons people voted for Modi, 999 have nothing to do with religion. To believe that the Hindu votes for Modi were actuated by a chronic resentment of Muslims renders upon Hindus the same uncharitable assumption of uniformity which is still rendered upon Muslims. The assumption of tribalism is deeply offensive.
Saurabh Jha is a physician and writer. He was born in India, raised in Britain, and practices in the United States. He can be reached on Twitter @RogueRad