India’s Muslim minority votes to ‘survive’ as largest state holds elections

By David Asta Alares

Lucknow, India, Mar 4 (EFE).- “As a minority, and especially as a besieged minority, the first thing that you vote for is your own survival,” said Irena Akbar, a Muslim resident of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where elections are being held.

The former journalist-turned-Islamic calligrapher gives voice to the fear that exists among millions of Indian Muslims, of being discriminated against and relegated to second-class citizens by the rise of Hindu nationalism, embodied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Uttar Pradesh’s current head of government, the controversial Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, is seeking to repeat the BJP’s 2017 landslide victory in India’s largest state, with a population of over 200 million.

The outcome of the seven-phase elections, which began on Feb. 10 and are considered key ahead of the general polls in 2024, will be announced on Mar. 10.

But both Muslims – numbering 38 million in Uttar Pradesh alone and about 15 percent of the country’s population according to the last census in 2011 – as well as critics of the BJP view a second term of the Hindu right-wing party as potentially catastrophic.

“So the thing is that the Yogi government, like the Modi government at the national level, is relegating Muslims unofficially to second-class citizens although officially we have all the rights granted to us under the Constitution of India,” Akbar told EFE in the state’s capital, Lucknow.

Yogi is known for making inflammatory speeches. A video of a speech from 2014, when he was still a local parliamentarian, in which he is heard exhorting a crowd against other religious communities, sparked a strong controversy.

“If they kill one Hindu, we will kill..” said Yogi, to which the crowd responded with “100,” allegedly referring to Muslims, Indian news channel NDTV reported at the time, an incident that Akbar refers to.

More recently, the Hindu monk claimed that the ongoing elections were a battle between 80 percent and 20 percent, in an apparent reference to the ratio between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority, which sparked another controversy as well as a subsequent clarification by Yogi that he was not referring to religion.

The recent tensions over the wearing of the Islamic veil – hijab – in classrooms, following its ban in several institutes in the south of the country, also resonates in Uttar Pradesh.

Modi’s rise to power in 2014 and his party’s win in Uttar Pradesh three years later led to an increase in violence against minorities, according to several organizations including nonprofit Human Rights Watch (HRW).

These political developments gave rise to attacks by extremist groups against people in the name of protecting of cows, considered sacred in Hinduism.

The suppression of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) also left a wound on the Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh.

The legislation enacted by the Modi government in December 2019 to fast-track Indian citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan sparked protests nationwide for excluding Muslims.

About 20 people died in the protests and the subsequent government crackdown in Uttar Pradesh, especially between Dec. 19-20, 2019.

“The anti-CAA protests happened across the country, but the so-called violence only happened in BJP-ruled states. And that was used as an excuse to kill Muslims or punish them or send them to jail,” Akbar explained.

In a report released last year and titled “A State at War with its People,” countrywide civilian campaign Karwan-e-Mohabbat (Caravan of Love) denounced “the complete breakdown of state mechanisms that were designed to protect citizens against exactly the kinds of violations that the state unleashed in UP on the 19th and 20th of December 2019.”

In the central Muslim-majority neighborhoods of Lucknow, a city whose architecture shows the influence of the Muslim nawab rulers that dominated the city until the arrival of the British, the general opinion is that real problems such as unemployment should be the focus of the election campaign.

Mohammad Akram, while sharpening knives and scissors in his narrow premises, told EFE that he will vote for the Samajwadi Party (SP), which has significant support among the Muslim community and is seen as the only party capable of wresting Uttar Pradesh from the BJP.

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