Modi says he does not oppose Islam or Muslims amid mounting criticism over campaign speeches

Indian prime minister, who in recent rallies referred to Muslims as ‘infiltrators’, asked them to think about their future growth

Namita Singh
Wednesday 08 May 2024 12:22 BST
Modi opens controversial Hindu temple on razed mosque ahead of India’s elections

Narendra Modi has said in a recent interview he did not oppose Islam or Muslims amid mounting criticism over his polarising rhetoric in campaign speeches targeting the community.

The Indian prime minister, who in recent rallies referred to Muslims as “infiltrators”,  asked the community to think about their future growth as they voted in the ongoing general election.

Mr Modi denied discriminating against the community and linked his recent comments to what he described as opposition Congress party’s election plan to “loot” wealth from majority Hindus and redistribute it among Muslims, who make up about 14 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion population. The Congress denies making any such promise.

"We are not opposed to Islam and Muslims," Mr Modi told broadcaster Times Now in an interview aired on Monday, ahead of the third phase of the election. "The opposition is looking after its own benefit. Muslim community is intelligent ... the opposition is worried that their lies have been caught."

"I want to say to the Muslim community: introspect, think. The country’s progressing, if you feel any shortcomings in your community, what is the reason behind it? Why didn’t you get government benefits in the time when Congress was in power?” Mr Modi, who is running for a rare third-term in the seven-phase election, said.

"Think of your children and your own future," Mr Modi said. "I don’t want any community to live like labourers because someone is scaring them."

Mr Modi, who cast his vote in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, kicked off the election campaign in April, showcasing economic achievement and promising to make India a developed nation by 2047. However, he changed tactics after the first phase of voting and focused more on firing up his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindu base by attacking rivals as pro-Muslim.

Mr Modi’s party and the Hindu nationalist ecosystem it’s embedded in – collectively known as the Sangh Parivar – are proponents of making India a Hindu-first nation.

In speeches in recent weeks, Mr Modi said women’s wealth could be at risk if Congress comes to power, claiming the party would snatch away their “mangalsutra” – a sacred gold chain indicating their marital status – and give it to its support base, in an apparent reference to Muslim.

The opposition won’t stop there, he has repeatedly claimed, saying the party was conspiring to take away “your property” and “distribute it among selected people”, referring to Muslims.

In another speech this week, Mr Modi asked voters to decide if “vote jihad will work or Ram Rajya”, referring to the kind of rule seen under revered Hindu deity, Lord Ram.

"India is at a turning point in history; you have to decide if ‘vote jihad’ will work or Ram Rajya," he said during a campaign in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh as he claimed that the interests of opposition Congress were aligned with those of Pakistan, invoking what his critics have slammed as Islamophobia.

“Terrorists in Pakistan are threatening jihad against India. And here, those in the Congress have also announced to do vote jihad against Modi ... that means people of a particular religion are being asked to vote unitedly against Modi. Imagine what level the Congress has stooped to," he said.

The Congress party and other political opponents have characterised Mr Modi’s remarks as “hate speech” that could fan religious tensions and have also filed complaints with India’s election commission, which is overseeing the polls, for breaching rules that ban candidates from appealing to “caste or communal feelings” to secure votes.

The commission can issue warnings and suspend candidates for a period of time over violations of the code of conduct, but it has issued no warnings to Mr Modi so far.

Analysts say Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist party have made controversial remarks to invigorate their hardline base as the election sees comparatively low voter turnout from previous years, stirring anxiety around incumbency and voter disenchantment. They say Mr Modi’s party is also ratcheting up polarising speeches to distract voters from larger issues, like unemployment and economic distress.

While India’s economy is among the world’s fastest growing, there is discontent over living condition and rising prices. The opposition alliance hopes to tap into this discontent, seeking to galvanize voters on issues like high unemployment, inflation, corruption and low agricultural prices, which have driven two years of farmers’ protests.

“The mask has dropped, and I think it is political compulsions that have made them do this,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political science professor at New Delhi’s Ashoka University. “In recent elections, the BJP’s wins have been associated with getting the voters out (to vote),” Mahmudabad said. “There may be some fatigue, anti-incumbency or even disenchantment,” which has led the BJP to escalate their rhetoric.

Mr Modi’s party had counted on getting votes from the fervour over a Hindu temple that was built atop a razed mosque that Mr Modi opened in January. Many saw the spectacle as the unofficial start of his election campaign.

“Instead, people are talking about inflation, unemployment and economic distress,” Mr Mahmudabad said. “And so in order to galvanize and consolidate their vote, the BJP has raised the specter of Muslims.”

Mr Modi’s critics say India’s tradition of diversity and secularism has come under attack since the prime minister and his party rose to power a decade ago.

While there have long been tensions between India’s majority Hindu community and Muslims, rights groups say that attacks against minorities have become more brazen under Mr Modi. The party denies the accusation and says its policies benefit all Indians, even as it published videos on social media attacking Muslims.

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