Is Modi’s India Safe for Muslims?

Hindu nationalism is on the rise in the country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population.

By James Traub

Narendra Modi flashes the victory sign while driving through the streets on May 8, 2014 in Varanasi, India. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

This past March, a group of community activists in Aurangabad, an industrial city in central India, convened a morcha — a demonstration — to protest a series of blatantly anti-Muslim measures taken by the state government in Mumbai, which is controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The morcha operated according to a well-worn protocol: A colorful tent was erected in a vacant lot across the street from the office of the district commissioner, and 250 or so Muslim men sat in the shade while a succession of speakers — a very long succession of speakers — denounced the state government and called for civil disobedience, in the spirit of Gandhi’s famed Salt March against the British, should their demands not be met.

The leaders of the demonstration then walked up a long driveway to formally present their demands to the district commissioner, who promised to relay them to the Maharashtra state authorities. The humble folk stayed back in the tent so as not to block traffic. Quite a few of them were qureish — cattle butchers — who had lost their jobs when the government had banned the consumption of beef the week before. They were trying to figure out how they were going to feed their families or send their kids to school. And they were wondering who, if anyone, would protect their interests amid India’s new politics of Hindu chauvinism.

Over the last year, since Modi became prime minister, the news out of India has focused almost entirely on his struggle to open up India’s economy and attract foreign investment. That has been reassuring both for many Indians and for economic partners abroad. But Modi is himself a product of the militant, trident-shaking ideological parent of the BJP known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He was chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002 when Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims, and he was blamed for failing to stem the violence. The RSS chauvinists, who dream of a Hindu-dominant India, adore him as their champion. That is precisely what India’s Muslims fear.

India’s Muslims have noted every apparent straw in the wind. And there have been many of late. In March alone: Subramanian Swamy, a senior BJP leader from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, declared in a speech that mosques, unlike temples, are not holy places and thus can be demolished. Two days later, the BJP chief minister of the northern state of Haryana announced that the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text, would become mandatory throughout the state. A number of churches were vandalized. A 71-year-old nun in the eastern state of West Bengal was gang-raped. And the beef-ban movement was spreading to new states.

India, of course, contains multitudes, and these incidents could be dismissed as the usual turbulence. Modi has conducted himself with remarkable circumspection, reassuring Muslims and other minorities about their place in Indian society, avoiding loaded or ambivalent language, and building bridges with Pakistan. He has not, however, tried to stop BJP state governments from pursuing a more nationalist agenda or has done much to curb inflammatory rhetoric. India has survived, and thrived, as a multiconfessional, multicultural nation because of a shared faith in secular principles enshrined in the country’s constitution. But India’s Muslims, who have worn that secular identity as a suit of armor in Hindu India, now feel more vulnerable than they have in many years.

An evening view in Aurangabad, known as the city of gates. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

A Homecoming

I lived and taught at the Maulana Azad College in Aurangabad almost 40 years ago. Aurangabad then was a dusty backwater with a majestic history. The city owes its name to Aurangzeb, the last of the Muslim rulers known as the Great Mughals, who moved his court there from Delhi in 1680 in the vain hope of crushing once and for all the rebellion of the Maratha hill tribes, which were Hindu. Aurangzeb has the worst reputation among the Mughals; he is often described, by both Hindus and Muslims, as an intolerant ascetic who banned music and dance and who destroyed tens of thousands of Hindu temples. The truth is more complicated and sheds light on the practical problem of governing the vast and diverse subcontinent. (Aurangzeb’s empire included virtually all of present-day Pakistan and most of India, save the south and northeast.) Rafat Qureshi, a retired historian in Aurangabad, told me that Aurangzeb had been “defamed.” The notorious icon-smasher destroyed only a handful of temples, and those usually for plausible military reasons. (Non-Aurangabad historians generally agree.) He only banned music and dance in the court. He gave land for Hindu temples. Most of his generals and governors were Hindu; to this day the names of Aurangabad's neighborhoods, like Jaisinghpura, reflect the gifts of land the emperor had given to his trusted Hindu lieutenants.

Aurangzeb might have wished to rule as a Muslim chauvinist; but he couldn’t. Muslim conquerors had ruled over Hindu India for most of the previous seven centuries, and almost all had seen the wisdom of adaptation. They forged alliances with Hindu princes and at times took Hindu wives. Over time, Islamic and Hindu religious practice, art, and daily custom blended into one another. Britain’s colonial masters did little to meddle with this syncretic culture, permitting both Hindu and Muslim princes to rule over their subjects as they wished. The independence movement was largely led by men committed to a secular India. In a 1940 speech before the Indian National Congress, Maulana Azad, the Muslim political leader after whom the college I taught at is named, said, "I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice, and without me this splendid structure of India is incomplete."

Students at Maulana Azad College in Aurangabad. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Nevertheless, as independence loomed, some Muslim leaders embraced the idea that they were a separate "people" threatened by the Hindu majority and requiring a nation of their own in order to survive. The British, eager to let go of India and unwilling to adjudicate an increasingly bitter debate among Indians, agreed to divide the subcontinent into two countries, India and Pakistan. By the time of Partition, in 1947, sectarian fear and hatred on all sides had been stoked to such a level that millions of Muslims fled north to Pakistan, while Hindus escaped in the opposite direction. Both sides carried out terrible massacres. But while virtually all Hindus left Pakistan, the overwhelming majority of Muslims stayed in India. With 170 million members of the faith, India has the world’s second-largest Muslim population — larger than Pakistan’s, smaller only than Indonesia’s.

India's founding fathers reassured the nation's minorities of their place in that "indivisible unity" by exalting the principle of secularism. India's government would not have a national religion and would not legally differentiate among faiths. The country’s first cabinet included not just Hindus — of various castes — but Muslims, Christians, a Parsi, and a Sikh. Soon after Partition, Gandhi embarked on a fast to call attention to the plight of Muslims. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru single-handedly ended a religious riot by protecting a Muslim from a Hindu mob. Muslims saw in Nehru's Congress party the proof of the national commitment to secularism. Congress has dominated the Muslim vote from that time to today.

But the binding force of secularism began to slip after Nehru’s death in 1964. In the late 1970s, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, began to cultivate the Hindu nationalist vote. Her son Rajiv played both sides of the communal spectrum, endorsing the language both of Hindu chauvinism and of the conservative Muslims who demanded a separate "family law" to govern their faith. Extremists from both religions staged an epic confrontation over a 16th-century mosque allegedly built on the site of a temple to the Hindu god Ram in the ancient city of Ayodhya. Destroying the Babri mosque and rebuilding the Ram temple became a great rallying cry for the RSS, which secular Indians generally regard as a quasi-fascist body prepared to use violence to achieve its goal of "purifying" India of non-Hindu elements.

In 1992, mobs coordinated by RSS leaders dismantled the mosque brick by brick, leading to riots across India, including in Mumbai and Aurangabad. In Nehru's time, Hindu nationalist parties had barely registered in national politics. But the BJP was on the rise: It governed India from 1998 to 2004, though the prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was a polished member of the Indian elite.

An Indian policeman looks on as a row of shops burns in Ahmedabad on March 1, 2002. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Narendra Modi, by contrast, appeared to represent a decisive break with the sacrosanct value of secularism. His role in the 2002 riots remained highly controversial, and he was an ascetic, pious son of the soil rather than the kind of Westernized, Anglophone figure who had long ruled India. Modi's victory looked like the nightmare India’s Muslims had long dreaded. Yet virtually every Muslim I spoke to in Aurangabad viewed his first year in office as a pleasant surprise. Maqdoom Farooqui, the principal of Azad College, said, “Modi is trying very hard to balance against the RSS forces. We can see from his body language that he wants to do something good for the country.” The college was founded by Rafiq Zakaria, the father of foreign-policy pundit Fareed Zakaria, and several people cited to me, with great satisfaction, the words Modi had spoken in a CNN interview with Fareed: “Indian Muslims will live for India; they will die for India. They will not want anything bad for India.” While many people I spoke to viewed Modi as a puppet of the RSS, none could cite anything he had said or done to advance the organization’s cause, known as Hindutva, of forging a specifically Hindu identity for India.

Modi appears to find himself in the same situation as Aurangzeb: He may understand India in sectarian terms, but he cannot rule it that way. Modi is an extraordinarily gifted politician, far better than his nearest rivals. Good politicians do not try to do that which cannot be done. And Modi plainly understands that if, say, he had abolished India’s Ministry of Minority Affairs, as some had hoped and others had feared he would do, he would have aroused such fierce opposition that his supreme goal of making India a high-growth, modern nation would have been dead on arrival. Even as it is, the Congress party makes hay from every communal incident in the country. Defending secularism is still good politics in India; it is, in fact, just about the only thing the embattled Congress has left.

Indian Muslim women clad in hijabs hold up sweets and a portrait of victorious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi on May 16, 2014. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

The Fever of Religion

Indians often despair about their feverish mass embrace of democracy. When I was covering the election last year, many people told me they were rooting for Modi to become a benevolent dictator, India’s answer to China’s strongmen. Modi may have intended that as well, especially after he put together a thumping majority in India’s lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha. Yet he has been frustrated at every turn, most recently in his efforts to amend a land-acquisition law that makes it difficult to put together plots for industrial development. Aroon Purie, the editor of India Today newsmagazine and one of the country’s foremost journalists, recently wrote, “The way to govern this complicated country is to engage in discussions and win arguments with those who disagree” rather than “squashing dissent” and orchestrating a cult of personality. India can’t be China for many reasons, perhaps foremost among them that Indians seem to be less willing than Chinese to defer to a vision of the collective good imposed from above.

Secularism promises equal treatment before the law, but not equal opportunity or, of course, equal outcomes. Muslims in Hindu-majority India are a disadvantaged minority. According to a 2013 report by the Rahman Committee, established by the government of Maharashtra in 2008 to examine the condition of Muslims in the state, 60 percent of Muslims there live below the poverty line, and 2 percent have graduated from college. They comprise less than 1 percent of the elite Indian Administrative Service in Maharashtra and only 4 percent of the state’s police force, which does not require higher education. Muslims nationwide have less access than the average Indian to credit, health care, and primary education. They are often the victims of ethnic violence. A few years before I first visited Aurangabad, much of the marketplace was burned down when a rumor spread that the son of a Muslim butcher had turned a cow out of the shop with the point of a knife, drawing blood. Religious violence in the city flared up anew in the late 1980s and early 1990s (though not since).

Syed Rizwan, a motorbike mechanic, poses for photograph at his shop in the Begumpura neighborhood of Aurangabad. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Haji Mohammad Isa Quresh, leader of the qureshi (butcher) community, at his office in Aurangabad. The qureshi community faces a heavy decline in business after the introduction of the beef ban law in Maharashtra state. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Indian Muslims, like African-Americans in the United States, are marginalized members of a culture they have done so much to shape. The Sachar Committee, which studied the condition of Muslims nationwide, reported in 2006 that "Muslims complained that they are constantly looked upon with a great degree of suspicion not only by certain sections of society but also by public institutions and governance structures." Respondents said that they could not buy or rent property where they wished or send their children to good schools. "Security personnel enter Muslim houses on the slightest pretext." The committee made dozens of recommendations to the central government, then controlled by Congress; few were implemented. Muslim voters have largely stuck with Congress nonetheless, just as African-Americans have remained loyal to the Democratic Party in the United States. India’s Muslims, however, may have finally begun to lose faith in Congress.

I spent one afternoon in Begumpura, an ancient Muslim neighborhood where Aurangzeb’s first wife — his begum — once had her palace. On the broad, dusty main street I found Syed Ahmed, a miller, sitting barefoot among the sacks of flour in his shop. Ahmed had never gone to school, though all four of his children now attend Urdu-language public schools. (If he had any money he would send them to one of the many private English-language schools in town.) Ahmed had little interest in cow slaughtering or forced conversions; his chief complaint was that Begumpura only received drinking water every third day, and then for less than an hour. This was a problem across Aurangabad; the city’s Municipal Corporation had regularly promised to install pipes but hadn’t managed to do so. Ahmed said that even skilled young men in the neighborhood couldn’t find employment. He had long voted for Congress, but in the state election in October 2014 he had voted instead for the candidate of a little-known Muslim party called the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). “Parties should be secular,” Ahmed said. “But the other parties are useless, so I decided to try something new.” Thanks to a split among other parties, the candidate, a journalist named Imtiyaz Jaleel, won and is now one of three state-level AIMIM officeholders in India.

Imtiyaz Jaleel, leader of AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen) and member of the legislative assembly from the central Aurangabad constituency, speaks to journalists, addressing concerns over the beef ban. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Syed Ahmed, a flourmill owner, receives containers of grain for milling from customers at his shop in Begumpura. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

There is a good reason why India has never had a significant national Muslim party, despite the vast size and persistent disadvantage of that population: Muslims are scattered across the country and constitute a minority everywhere save the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The electoral math just doesn’t work. But the enfeeblement of Congress, which is now hunting for leadership among the fourth generation of the Nehru family, may force Muslims to start looking elsewhere. The party now holds less than a tenth of the seats in the Lok Sabha and runs only one of India’s 10 largest states. Nor has it demonstrated a gift for good government. An alliance of Congress and a local party ruled Maharashtra for the 15 years prior to the BJP victory in 2014, and the residents of Begumpura have nothing good to say about that period.

Yet no one I talked to in Begumpura felt entirely comfortable with the idea of a Muslim party. Syed Rizwan, who sells “chilled and normal drinking water” and self-publishes an English-language newsletter, lamented that the AIMIM had fought Hindu communalism with Islamic communalism and insisted that Congress would rebuild — at least once the party’s standard-bearer, Rahul Gandhi, gave way to his more politically adroit sister, Priyanka. At the same time, he feared the consequences of persistent economic failure among Muslims. “What the people will do?” he asked, as we stood in front of his tiny shop, open to the street. “They will go join the terrorists?” This is a dark thought rarely voiced by India’s Muslims, who are at pains to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation.

Tourists visit Bibi-Ka-Maqbara, a mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in memory of his wife, Dilras Banu Begum. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Muslim Quiescence

Although the strain of Sunni fundamentalism known as Deobandi was founded in India in the 19th century, the Islamic extremism now all too common in Pakistan barely took root in India. The AIMIM has offered one of the few examples of “political Islam.” In the 1940s, the party, based in the princely state of Hyderabad, agitated for a separate state for Muslims; the party’s founder was jailed and deported to Pakistan. In the 1980s and 1990s, the AIMIM’s leader, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, led Muslim protests over the planned demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The party is now controlled by his two sons. The more inflammatory of them, Akbaruddin Owaisi, consistently ridicules Hinduism and Hindu deities, makes wild claims about the number of Muslims killed in communal violence, and was jailed after a 2012 speech in which he cried that Muslims would need only 15 minutes to show India’s Hindus who is the stronger. Educated Muslims generally find the party embarrassing. No one among a group of Muslim students I spoke to at Azad College admired the party. One compared it to Shiv Sena, Maharashtra’s own rabid Hindu nationalist party. Others called Owaisi a rabble-rouser.

No one, however, would say that of Jaleel, the new AIMIM representative who won the Aurangabad Central seat. Jaleel was a highly regarded television journalist who got sick of the more inane aspects of his job and quit. He is charming, charismatic, and moderate; I was told that he ran on the AIMIM ticket because Congress didn’t offer its slot to him. He performed remarkably well for a political unknown representing a party that had never succeeded beyond the level of municipal government, winning by 60,000 votes over his divided field. Jaleel told me that he succeeded by attacking Congress and its allies, who had repeatedly promised Muslims the moon at election time and forgot about them immediately thereafter. “I said, ‘They betrayed you.’ And that clicked.” At the time, Jaleel was running the AIMIM’s campaign for elections to the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation. He planned on targeting the 24 Muslims on the Municipal Corporation who represented Muslim-majority constituencies but belonged to Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party. When the election was held in April 2015, the AIMIM took 26 of the municipal body’s 113 seats, making it the largest party after the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena collection. The AIMIM even won several seats in non-Muslim-majority districts. The impressive victory sent a signal that Congress may no longer be able to count on the Muslim “vote bank.” Jaleel’s personal role in the triumph is likely to hasten a showdown between his secular vision of the party and the Owaisis’ sectarian one.

The Aurangabad that I encountered in 1976 was a graceful, old Mughal capital slowly subsiding into dust. (Tourists come not to see the city’s monuments but to visit the ancient paintings and sculptures in the nearby caves of Ajanta and Ellora.) Over the last four decades, Aurangabad has managed to undergo a dazzling growth spurt without, somehow, losing its air of urban neglect. The population has ballooned from about 200,000 to 1.5 million, and the fraction of Muslims has dropped from perhaps 40 percent to a quarter. Aurangabad now has good private schools, American chain restaurants, major auto manufacturers, and a beer industry that earns $500 million a year. Five years ago, the local corporate gentry bought 150 Mercedes cars in a single day, a publicity stunt that made a splash in the national press. I don’t think I saw a single Mercedes during my week in town. The streets of Aurangabad are choked with bicycles and scooters and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, not to mention cows and goats. The three-wheelers ease their way around and through giant potholes, turning traffic into a snarled figure 8. Aurangabad, in short, looks like most Indian cities, with a bright, busy rim of modernity surrounding a decayed and apparently irremediable core.

The Viswakarma Cave in the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ellora. (Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Thanks to a combination of industrial development and institutions like the Azad College, which now educates 11,000 students (including those at the Women’s College, for students — or parents — who prefer single-sex education), Muslims in Aurangabad are better off than those in the impoverished northern states of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Nevertheless, most Muslims work in the “informal sector” as artisans, shopkeepers, or day laborers. Very few occupy upper levels in the city’s big firms (or drive Mercedes vehicles). Muslims are also underrepresented in the public sector, as they are throughout the country. This problem used to beset non-upper-caste Hindus as well, but the states now set aside fixed ratios of government jobs and seats in universities for a range of officially disadvantaged groups — Scheduled Castes (formerly known as Untouchables), Scheduled Tribes, and a category known as Other Backward Classes (to which Modi himself belongs).

Muslims have long sought such “reservations” for themselves, but generally without success. From the point of view of Aurangabad’s Muslims, there is no better proof of political abandonment than the snatching away of these benefits. The Rahman Committee had recommended an 8 to 10 percent reservation for Muslims in Maharashtra. The Congress coalition government showed no interest in the issue until a few months before the state election, at which point it suddenly proposed a 5 percent policy for Muslims and a whopping 16 percent for Marathas, the indigenous tribal group of the region, who are Hindu — and who dominate the state’s politics. The Bombay High Court then voided the set-aside for Marathas, but concluded that a reservation of university seats for Muslims would not violate India’s Constitution. But Congress’s blatant handout policy wasn’t enough to win the state election. And the BJP chose not to institute the policy once it took power in Mumbai.

India’s expansive reservations policy has less to do with a mass recognition of the injustice of a system of inherited inferiority than with the political mobilization of the poor. In some states, backward groups are so numerous that close to half of available seats are reserved for them. Perhaps for this reason, Modi has never advocated the rollback of existing reservations even though they would seem to violate his belief in the free market and self-reliance. He has, however, said that religion-based reservations would destroy India. This concern for the delicate threads that bind diverse Indians together seems a little late in the day for a lifelong devotee of the RSS; like American opponents of affirmative action who worry about “counting by race,” Modi seems more concerned about Muslim than Hindu threats to secularism. It’s a safe bet, at least in BJP states, that reservations will continue undisturbed and that Muslims won’t benefit.

A beef shop in Butti Lane area of Aurangabad. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Where’s the Beef?

The reservations policy doesn’t much affect the common man. The beef ban, on the other hand, is a visceral blow. Beef is the chief source of protein for most Muslims and for many Christians (and for apparently large numbers of Hindus eating it on the sly). Sufian Mohammad, a sturdily built Azad College student who translated for me at the morcha, said that he had been suffering since the ban had gone into effect the week before. “In my family,” he said, “we buy 2 kilograms” — 4.4 pounds — “of beef every three days.” When I asked whether he could eat chicken, which costs about as much, Mohammad made a face. “We are a people who eats beef. We can’t change.” If the ban is a serious misfortune for eaters of beef, it’s a catastrophe for those who produce it. The secretary of the cattle slaughterers’ society, Hajji Muhammad Isa Qureshi, a very jovial man who hugged me and handed me his business card in the same motion, told me that 20,000 people in Aurangabad district alone make a living butchering cattle. They were now out of work. What’s more, he noted, the 2,000 to 3,000 bullocks they used to kill every day will now be abandoned. “What will become of these animals?” he asked. “They will walk the streets without any water or food.” The figure for Mumbai is said to be 9,000. The thought of those additional animals crowding the road, feeding on garbage and growing ever more sickly, is not pleasant.

The beef ban is bad for public health, bad for animal husbandry, and bad for consumers, producers, and farmers — most of them Hindu — who depend on the $100 or so they once earned from selling a bullock for slaughter. As a policy, it makes no sense save as a sop to Hindu fundamentalists and an insult to Muslims. As Aziz Afroz, an unskilled laborer in Begumpura, said hotly, "They didn't ban alcohol, even though both religions forbid it. They didn't ban cigarettes. They know that Muslims depend on beef."

The beef ban had first been raised by the right-wing Shiv Sena when it ran the state government and was then abandoned with the Congress victory in 2000. When I asked Atul Save, a BJP state legislator, why the new government had pursued the issue, he more or less confirmed the Begumpura view. “India is a country of Hindus,” he said. “In Hinduism, the cow is the mother of life.” I pointed out that while cows are holy in Hindu mythology, bulls are just animals. “A bull also,” clarified Save, “is part of the family of the cow.” I asked whether the BJP should have made some special provision for the farmers and the butchers. Save noted that the plan had first been mooted 15 years before. “They could have found some other job,” he said blandly.

Qureshi workers at the municipal slaughterhouse in Padegaon, Aurangabad. The slaughterhouse workers earn 100 rupees per animal but since the beef ban bill, the slaughtering of bulls and bullocks has stopped and their work load has decreased. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

The BJP stoutly insists that the beef ban was not intended to harm Muslims, but at the core of RSS metaphysics is an understanding of India in which Muslims are strangers. I had, in this regard, a very enlightening conversation with Sarjerao A. Thombre, a retired economist and college president who occupies leadership positions in several local and state RSS bodies. Thombre is a soft-spoken gentleman who professes no ill will toward any of India's citizens. But he nonetheless patiently explained RSS doctrine to me. "Muslims come from moderate temperature zones,” said Thombre. “Eating meat is the nature of such places. But the natural food of India is vegetarian. And a vegetarian diet is more environment-friendly. Banning cow slaughter is not anti-Muslim; it is in favor of nature." In the name of “Indianization,” he said, Muslims must change their habits. "They live here," said the good doctor, "but they have not acquired the Indian philosophy. Once they acquire the Indian thinking and the Indian philosophy, there will be no problems."

Thombre often lapsed into Sanskrit as he cited the great texts of India’s indigenous faith. Unlike other religions, he explained, Hinduism rests upon a "way of life" rather than an orthodoxy. The cow was holy to the ancients because it was so precious. The philosopher Kautilya, "the first economist," stressed that man is embedded in nature, as he is at one with the universe. Outsiders have sought to destroy these ancient principles, said Thombre. The British tried to convert Indians from self-sufficient farmers to "wage earners." The British-style socialism that Nehru imported to India "crippled the common man and made him live on the dole." Progressives and "leftists" have tried to turn India into a nation like other nations. India has resisted and has at long last elected the BJP and Modi to restore India to its origins. In short, ancient Hindu values and mythology, free market economics, and reverence for nature form a cosmic harmony.

I asked Thombre whether he worries that Modi has decided to drop the party's cultural agenda in the name of political expediency. Not at all, he said, reminding me that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the party's predecessor, had collaborated even with leftists and progressives to oust Indira Gandhi at the end of the Emergency period in 1977. Modi, he said, is biding his time. This is precisely what Aurangabad's Muslims fear.

While I was in Aurangabad, two Taliban suicide bombers blew themselves up in front of Christian churches in Lahore, Pakistan, killing 15 people. Lahore is located 18 miles from the border with the Indian state of Punjab, but it might as well be in a different cosmos. The only terrorism news from India during that time was the confession of Areeb Majeed, an engineering student who, along with three friends, had gone to Iraq to join the Islamic State. Majeed explained that while trolling extremist websites he had met and fallen in love with “Tahira,” a female warrior. Once he reached Syria, Tahira had changed her Facebook status to “married.” Majeed was wounded in several engagements and returned home, disillusioned. It was a reassuring story; only a lovelorn Indian Muslim would fall for the jihadi message. India has left-wing rural revolutionaries (such as the Naxalites, who have waged a guerrilla war against government officials and police detachments across a growing swath of the Indian countryside), but no Muslim ones. And India, by and large, does not export Islamic extremists. But why?

When I asked people in Aurangabad this question, I generally got blank looks. Hindu moderation is hardly taken for granted in India, but Muslim moderation is (except, of course, by Hindu extremists). My educated friends at Azad College sought explanations in the history of tolerance for diversity dating back centuries. Simpler men had simpler explanations. Wahid Khan, a retired driver I spoke to in the Lucky House of Biryani, a cheap cafeteria in the heart of the teeming old city, said, "This country is better than all other places. We are moderate; people don't go to extremes." That may be so, but the Mughals ruled over the people who today occupy both India and Pakistan. Ethnicity cannot explain why Indian Muslims don't "go to extremes" while Pakistan is in real danger of being torn apart by extremism. Nor can economics: India's Muslims may now have better prospects than their Pakistani counterparts, but that has only been true for the last decade or two. What's more, Muslims in Pakistan enjoy self-rule, while in India they have the status of a disadvantaged and often mistreated minority. By installing an RSS man in the highest office, the Indian people have driven home that second-class status. Yet the closest thing to a sectarian reaction among India's Muslims has been the victory of a Muslim party in a tiny handful of local elections.

A view of daily life in the butcher community in Sile Khana, India. (Photo by Sami Siva for FP)

Stability by Diversity

The sheer diversity of India requires rulers to reach beyond their own group, but diversity has hardly proved to be a source of political stability in the Middle East or the Balkans. In India, it has. The reason for that, surely, may be found in India's politics, so different from its sibling state.

Pakistan is a democracy, with an elected civilian government, competing parties, and a loud press. It is, however, a very circumscribed democracy. Real power belongs to the military and intelligence services, which act with impunity; the political parties serve largely as the instrument of tiny elites; the larger society remains feudal. Politics in Pakistan are all spectacle and no substance. This is not true in India — and not simply because of the deeply entrenched principle of civilian supremacy. The era when a small number of Brahmins dominated India's political culture is over. Indian politics are inclusive not simply in the formal sense that parties seek to enlist the votes of all groups, but in the substantive sense that all groups have the opportunity to advance their interests through the ballot. It is a game that, owing to their modest numbers and geographical spread, Muslims have a hard time winning at, but have nevertheless found very much worth playing.

One of the striking things about India is simply how much politics it has. In the formal sense, Indians vote for representatives in national, state, and local governments; and owing to the nation's federal system, real power lies at each of those levels. In the informal sense, Indians are constantly holding morchas or bandhs, demonstrations that block the roads or shutter shops. When you're stuck for an hour waiting for the police to reopen a highway closed for a bandh, you too may start wishing that India could be just a little more like China; but a real democracy encourages "voice" over "exit." And it is voice, above all, to which India's democracy is almost helplessly devoted.

One morning, while I was leafing through the Aurangabad edition of the daily Times of India, I saw an article about the decision by "top authorities" at the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University — the local university, renamed for a Scheduled Caste hero — to exclude the media from the university senate meeting. This was treated as an outrage: Leaders of the students’ union and the Maharashtra Underprivileged Teachers Association called on those authorities to accept the obligation of transparency suitable for a public institution. That same day, the university teachers’ union staged an "agitation" to demand that officials fill a long-vacant finance post and take action against a college principal accused of sexual harassment. Such confrontations seemed to occur on a daily basis.

India's democracy, like America's, is better at mobilizing aggrieved minorities to block proposed policies than it is at forging political consensus around needed reform. This can be a real problem when an ambitious leader like Modi is trying to make a sharp break with the past. It can, however, be a virtue in the face of dangerous impulses. Thombre's hopes — and my Muslim friends' fears — that at some point Modi will show his true colors and press for the Hindutva agenda may well prove unfounded.

Should that prove to be the case, Muslims would be reassured that, however vulnerable their position in India, the political system will protect them from the worst. They will not have reason to "join the terrorists," as Syed Rizwan, the Begumpura water merchant and publisher, put it. It may be true that India has too much democracy for its own good. That, however, is vastly preferable to having too little.

Correction, Aug. 18, 2015: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the RSS is a wing of the BJP.


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