Identity crisis: if Narendra Modi is elected, can secular India survive?

Some Muslim activists and human rights groups are worried by Modi's past in Gujarat and what it means for India's future as a multi-faith country.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman show her indelible ink marked finger after casting her vote during the sixth phase of Indian parliamentary elections on in Vejbeour 45 km (28 miles) south of Srinagar. (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images / April 24, 2014)
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Zafar Sareshwala would appear to be an unlikely poster boy for Narendra Modi, the candidate for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the man who many expect will be India’s next prime minister. While most Muslims despise Modi and fear that his victory would make them more insecure, Sareshwala – a devout Muslim businessman who is also an activist for the conservative theological movement Tablighi Jamaat – is leading a high-decibel pro-Modi campaign that has made him a hate figure in his own community.

Sporting a magnificent beard, which gives him the appearance of a cleric, and solemnly quoting Islamic scriptures, the 50-year-old Gujarati entrepreneur has become a fixture on prime-time television debates, unapologetically batting for a man who regards Muslims as descendants of Mughal invaders and, therefore, lesser Indians – “Muslims first and Indians later”.

So, why is Sareshwala, himself a victim of the 2002 violence and once a harsh Modi critic, rooting for him when millions of Hindus, not to mention Muslims, have deep concerns about his strident nationalist views and see him as a threat to India’s secular fabric?

Despite all the opprobrium heaped on him by his critics (he says he has been swamped with hate mail), Sareshwalla represents the dilemma that confronts Indian Muslims today. Given that they are not in a position to stop Modi, the question is: should they continue to oppose him, or try to make peace with him? Draw a line under the past and move on?

This battle of head versus heart – the heart tells them not to forget 2002 while the head counsels pragmatism – is being fought in every Muslim household in India. In Sareshwala’s household, the head has clearly won, crucially because of his personal story.

In the 2002 riots Sareshwalla’s family lost everything. Their home in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital city, was looted and their two companies – an Islamic investment bank and an industrial valve factory – were destroyed in arson and looting.

“We were finished,” he says, recalling how his family was reduced to accepting zakat to survive. Sareshwala lived in the UK at the time. Devastated by the financial ruin, he promptly joined a campaign calling for Modi to be tried for crimes against humanity. Back home, his family realised that if they wished to live and prosper again in Gujarat there was no other option but to seek reconciliation with Modi.

When Modi visited Britain in 2003, Sareshwala had a long meeting with him, paving the way for Sareshwala to return to Gujarat and rebuild his business with generous government assistance.

Sareshwala, of course, rejects allegations of “opportunism” and instead invokes Islamic teachings to defend his “forgive and forget” mission. He argues that it is in Muslims’ own interest to give up confrontation.

“Permanent animosity against a political party and its prime ministerial candidate will not help improve the community’s condition,” he said in a newspaper interview, adding: “The Prophet signed Sulah Hudaibiya, a seemingly humiliating treaty, with the then-pagan Meccans who had oppressed him and his followers. This is the example that I follow and want my fellow Muslims to follow too.”


As a Modi victory begins to look increasingly certain, more Muslims are reported to be reviewing their options and could end up quietly voting for him, especially in Gujarat. While some genuinely believe that 12 years after the riots it is time to move on, others say that in the absence of a viable secular alternative it is wiser to go with the tide. It is their way of buying peace and security.

M J Akbar, one of India’s most respected Muslim journalists, who once famously likened Modi to Hitler (“In Hitler’s case, the enemy was the Jew, in Modi’s case the enemy is the Muslim,” he wrote after the 2002 killings) has joined the BJP. He now defends Modi, arguing that his involvement in the Gujarat riots has not been proved.

He and other Muslim converts to the Modi camp argue that in the past 60 years India has witnessed numerous anti-Muslim riots, most of them under successive Congress governments, so it is unfair to single out Modi. They also point out that not a single incident has happened in Gujarat since 2002 while sectarian riots have taken place in other parts of the country – most recently in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, ruled by a secular ally of the Congress party.

According to critics, however, the issue is not whether a few Muslims choose to vote for Modi in exchange for protection or other personal motives but whether Modi’s exclusivist agenda should be acceptable in a country proud of its pluralist traditions. Javed Anand, a prominent rights activist and the secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy (MSD), says he fully understands people like Sareshwalla supporting Modi but that does not lessen the enormity of what happened under Modi’s watch nor detract from his “Hindutva” agenda, which equates India with Hindus while relegating non-Hindus to the status of “second-class ­citizens”.

“I have no problem if Sareshwala has made peace with Modi only because of his business. But after capitulating to a tyrant, he is now collaborating with him to make India a Hindu rashtra [nation] where minorities, especially Muslims, will be second-class citizens,” he says.

Significantly, Modi has refused to seek Muslim support and is, instead, concentrating on consolidating the Hindu vote. The subtext being: So long as enough Hindus are with me, I don’t need Muslim support. Who cares how they vote?

The prospect of Modi’s electoral success raises a number of questions about India’s political DNA: will the notion of a secular India survive, in a climate in which the nation’s 170 million Muslim citizens can be declared dispensable? Can a government elected only by the majority community truly claim democratic legitimacy? What will be the attitude of such a government towards minority groups?

Thus the significance of this election is wider than the future of the Muslim community and has a bearing on the future of Indian secularism itself. Although the BJP/Modi election strategy has been to reduce the debate to the Hindu-Muslim divide, at its heart this election is really about whether India wishes to remain a secular democracy or turn itself into a Hindu state in which minorities will be pushed farther to the ­margins.

Then there is the question of morality. Will India be crossing a moral red line by voting into power a person accused of having blood on his hands?

A blog post by an American journalist Thane Richard, titled India Crosses the Moral Line of No Return if Narendra Modi Becomes prime minister, has gone viral.

Richard, who spent some time in India and runs a digital radio station covering Indian politics and culture, was provoked to write it after an Indian woman he met in Detroit told him: “Even if Narendra Modi was involved in the Gujarat riots, I don’t care. His economic work wins out. I will vote for him.”

Richard wrote: “Since then, I have not been able to shake a deep-seated disturbance at her disregard for essential humanity. This disregard, I fear, is shared by many in India … Has India become so desperate for rapid economic growth, so blinded by the promise of prosperity, that she has forgotten basic humanity? It seems that, in the race towards higher GDP, the majority of India is willing to inject itself with the steroids of bigotry or ruthlessness. Ethics be damned.”

Such concerns cut across sectarian lines. In recent weeks, there has been a spate of public statements from India’s liberal intellectuals, artists and rights activists – mostly Hindus – urging voters to “check fascism”. A group of high-profile Bollywood figures such as the actress Nandita Das and the directors Vishal Bhardwaj and Govind Nihalani have written an open letter highlighting the dangers of electing a government inspired by an ideo­logy of “hate” and “intolerance”. They warn that “today the very sense of India is vulnerable” and the “need of the hour” is to protect the country’s “secular ­foundations”.

“The best thing about our country is its cultural diversity, its pluralism – the co-existence of a number of religions and ethnicities over centuries … And, this has been possible only because Indian society has prided itself on being essentially secular in character, rejecting communal hatred, embracing tolerance,” they wrote.

Separately, more than a dozen of India’s most prominent artists and academics, including the novelist Salman Rushdie and the sculptor Anish Kapoor, expressed their “acute worry” at the prospect of a Modi victory. Pointing out that Modi has repeatedly refused to apologise for the anti-Muslim violence he is accused of inciting, they said: “Such a failure of moral character and political ethics … is incompatible with India’s secular constitution, which ... is founded on pluralist principle” .


Modi is running an extremely toxic campaign, portraying Muslims as fifth columnists and secular Hindus as their collaborators. He pointedly refers to his Hindu critics by attaching the Muslim prefixes “Mian” or “Maulana” to their names. And he revels in provoking Muslims. He caused a furore when, in an interview with Reuters, he was asked whether he had any remorse for what happened in 2002. He replied: “We’re human. We feel remorse even when a puppy is knocked down by car.”

Taking his cue, other BJP leaders have followed suit. Giriraj Singh, a senior party figure from the northern state of Bihar, told a public meeting that “those who want to stop Narendra Modi from becoming prime minister are looking towards Pakistan. In the coming days, they will have no place in India. They will only have place in Pakistan.”

Another prominent leader, and Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, was reprimanded by the Election Commission for urging voters to take “revenge” for the Hindus killed in the Muzaffarnagar riots.


From all accounts this is the most polarised election campaign in recent memory. The Congress and its allies have matched the BJP in deploying divisive rhetoric and abusive personal attacks. While the Modi camp has raised questions about Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins, Congress has taken pot shots at Modi’s humble origins by calling him a chaiwala (tea-seller) and speculating about his marital status.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair; hover through the fog and filthy air. Does this quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth describe the election campaign of 2014 as the most vitriolic ever?” asked the TV anchor Barkha Dutt.

Yet, at the start of the campaign, the buzz was that the election would be fought on development issues and the BJP, in particular, went to town presenting the election as a referendum on the UPA government’s 10-year-old record in office. But with Modi as its candidate, nobody believed that story – his selection amounted to hurling a grenade into a crowd and expecting people not to react.

The BJP’s decision to field Muslim-baiting Modi as its prime-ministerial candidate signalled its real intentions. And it suited a floundering Congress. Defending a patchy record, it grabbed the chance to turn it into a “secular Congress” versus “communal BJP” contest. Religious and caste-based regional parties quickly lined themselves up behind either the BJP or the Congress depending on their own agendas. The only redeeming feature is that the campaign has remained largely peaceful. So far.


The atmosphere has become so febrile that it will take a long time for it to return to normal. If Modi does become PM he will have his work cut out. Not only will he need to woo his domestic critics, especially Muslims, he will also be under diplomatic pressure to allay the fears of India’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan and China, whom he has openly criticised. The wider Muslim world will need assurances that his Islamophobia and pro-Israel tilt will not affect India’s relations with them.

Indeed, the entire world is watching closely as to what kind of India it will wake up to on May 16. Will secular India survive?

Hasan Suroor is the author of ­India’s Muslim Spring: Why is ­Nobody Talking about it?