At the crack of dawn on Dec. 5, 1992, my mother found a poster on the door of our apartment in Mumbai (then Bombay). The poster had an image of the Babri Mosque, painted in black with men holding swords standing in a circle around the monument. It read “Chalo Ayodhya 6 December” (let’s march to Ayodhya on Dec. 6). The Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque built by Mughal emperor Babur in Ayodhya, a town 960 miles from Mumbai, had been a disputed structure for years; some Hindu leaders alleged that it was built over the birthplace of Lord Ram. In the 1990s, right-wing Hindu leaders and members of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party started a polarizing movement, and ultimately called on Hindus all over the country to converge in Ayodhya on Dec. 6 to demolish the mosque.
Hindu nationalists responded to that call and climbed on top of the mosque brandishing swords. The grand mosque, a symbol of faith for India’s largest minority, was razed to the ground. Overnight the patriarch of our family, who was feted as a progressive writer and a government school teacher, was reduced to being merely a “Muslim.” Provocative speeches by leaders of the BJP and other right-wing groups fueled a whirlwind of carnage: More than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed around country; Mumbai alone witnessed 500 murders.
It was then that we, the sole Muslim occupants of a Hindu residential colony, began to feel that we didn’t belong. We moved to a Muslim-dominated pocket of Mumbai — India’s most cosmopolitan city.
BJP and its leaders who led the campaign for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya were voted to power in the general election that followed.
Twenty-six years later, as India marks the anniversary of the demolition of the mosque, Indian Muslims continue to live their worst nightmare as they wake up each morning to humiliating and threatening discourse by legislators and members of the ruling party.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes are not just encouraged but also rewarded by those in power. According to a report on hate crimes released by Fact Checker, 76 percent of victims of hate crimes in India over the past 10 years have been Muslims. Ninety percent of these attacks have occurred since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was voted into power in 2014.
By labelling Muslims as “beef eaters” and expanding bans on the consumption of beef by putting in place new rules to curtail cow slaughter that disadvantage Muslim and lower-caste Hindus, the Hindu nationalist BJP is encouraging young Hindu men to become so-called cow vigilantes, who brandish their patriotism and faith by physically attacking Muslims. Even a rumour that a Muslim family ate beef for dinner, or a Muslim man ferried a cow to a slaughterhouse, can prove fatal in the hinterlands today.
When Muslims are not being lynched for bovine-related reasons, they are attacked for marrying Hindu girls, for sporting a beard, or for wearing a skullcap or other symbols of religious identity. They are berated on popular, state-favoured news channels for being ungrateful betrayers and traitors who have no love for the national flag.
Attacks on Indian Muslims are also a part of a wider campaign to undermine the community and its rich history. The Taj Mahal is an iconic 17th-century mausoleum, built by another Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, but it is frequently disparaged in remarks by Modi’s deputies. Yogi Adityanath, Modi’s choice as chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, has stated that the Taj Mahal isn’t sufficiently Indian — code for belonging to India’s Islamic past. “Foreign dignitaries visiting the country used to be gifted replicas of the Taj Mahal and other minarets, which did not reflect Indian culture,” he said at a rally in the state of Bihar last year.
“Now, [Hindu] holy books such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana are offered as gifts.” In the past six months, names of iconic cities and railway stations such as Allahabad and Mughal Sarai named after Muslim figures have been changed to reflect Hindu culture.
The obliteration of India’s Islamic history and culture is also reflected in the rewriting of school textbooks in provinces ruled by the BJP. Mughal rulers such as Akbar and Shah Jahan who embellished India’s cultural legacy are being reintroduced in academia as debauched, villainous invaders who robbed India of its Hindu heritage.
Communal fault-lines are not new in the country. When India was partitioned in 1947 — leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — tens of millions of Muslims chose a secular India as their homeland; they were betting on a more promising future in a country that enshrined religious equality into its constitution. But Hindu nationalists have long claimed a greater moral right over the nation and have questioned the patriotism of Indian Muslims. And the prejudice is no longer just rhetorical. It has turned into violent hatred that has spilled onto the streets of the country.
The shift in India’s attitude toward minorities is being met with resistance and response by writers, artists and activists. Even Bollywood, which usually keeps its distance from politics, is responding in small ways. A film released in August titled “Mulk” (Nation) tells the story of a Muslim family that is forced to prove its patriotism in the face of a prejudiced police force and society. The film is a work of fiction but reflects the agony of the 180 million Muslims in India.
Ever since 1947, Muslims have consciously chosen to place their destiny in the hands of a secular India, believing in the guiding principles of democracy. That faith is now being tested every day. In 2014, when Modi was elected prime minister, Muslims knew they now had a leader who carried the stigma of ruling the state of Gujarat in 2002, when nearly 800 Muslims were massacred in a planned attack by Hindu mobs. In its verdict on those riots, the Supreme Court of India described Modi’s government at the time as “modern-day Neros” who looked elsewhere when “innocent children and helpless women were burning.”
In Modi’s India today, as acts of communal violence increase, the worst fears of Indian Muslims are coming true.