‘Infiltrators’: Modi accused of anti-Muslim hate speech amid India election

The Indian PM turned to old anti-Muslim tropes in an election rally, potentially signalling a shift in his campaign strategy, say analysts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during an election campaign rally in Balurghat in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, April 16, 2024 [Reuters]

New Delhi, India — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing accusations of spreading hatred against Muslims after controversial comments on Sunday wherein he equated the community to “infiltrators” and peddled anti-Muslim tropes in the middle of the country’s general elections.

Speaking at a crowded rally in the western state of Rajasthan, Modi said if the opposition led by the Congress party came to power, it would distribute the country’s wealth among “those who have more children”, in an apparent reference to Muslims, whom he had spoken about just before.

“Should your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators?” he said to the cheering crowd, before alleging that the opposition would take away even mangalsutras — the auspicious necklace that a husband ties around his wife’s neck in Hindu weddings — if given a chance.

Local poll officials in Rajasthan confirmed to Al Jazeera that they had received at least two complaints against Modi, calling for his election campaign to be suspended and for his arrest.

Renu Poonia, a nodal officer of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in the state capital, Jaipur, revealed that the complaints were received from the Azad Adhikar Sena, a regional political party, and a local non-profit organisation. India’s election code bars parties and politicians from engaging in speeches and campaigns that aim to perpetuate religious or caste differences. But independent watchdogs and activists have long complained that election officials act too slowly, if at all, especially when cases involve powerful officials in the government.

Many leaders in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in India’s Hindu-majoritarian right have long portrayed the country’s 200 million Muslims effectively as outsiders. Muslim asylum seekers and refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar are in particular targeted as “infiltrators”.

The BJP and its partners have also long pushed a conspiracy theory that suggests that Indian Muslims produce more children intending to eventually outnumber Hindus in the country. In reality, government data shows that the Muslim fertility rate in India is dropping the fastest among all communities and has almost halved in the past three decades.

Modi has himself promoted this stereotype — in 2002, after an anti-Muslim massacre in the state of Gujarat, where he served terms as chief minister — infamously mocking relief camps as baby-producing factories.

Yet, in recent years, while others in his party and its coalition partners have often engaged in open Islamophobic commentary and even violence, Modi has focused on his government’s claimed accomplishments in the fields of the economy and social development. That had been the principal thrust of his 2024 re-election campaign too.

Until now.

Asim Ali, a political commentator, said Modi’s remarks were “the most inflammatory statement by a sitting prime minister in the recent history of India” and marked a significant shift in his election pitch. India is poised to vote in the second of seven phases of its national election on Friday, April 26. The first phase of voting was held on April 19.

“Five years ago, the question was why is Modi not reigning in extremist voices; now, PM Modi is the most extremist campaigner,” said Ali.

‘Unconscious comment’ or ‘true nature’?

In his speech, Modi said he was referring to the Congress election manifesto, which promises wealth redistribution amid growing concerns over inequality, and to past statements by the opposition party.

“When they [the Congress] were in power, they said Muslims have first right over resources. They will gather all your wealth and distribute it among those who have more children,” Modi said.

In 2006, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress had said India’s traditionally marginalised communities, including castes that had faced historical discrimination and religious minorities, “particularly Muslims”, should have the first claim on the nation’s resources. Singh’s comment had followed a report by a government-appointed panel under a former judge that had found that the social, economic and educational conditions of Indian Muslims were worse than those of any caste or community.

Modi’s comments, some analysts and common Muslims said, could instigate hate-fuelled violence against Muslims — already a problem that has skyrocketed under the current government’s decade-long reign.

“The PM might have said it as a jibe against the Congress, but eventually this will further perpetuate the stereotype of Muslims as a problem, and not an asset for India,” said Zeyad Masroor Khan, journalist and author of City on Fire, a book on an anti-Muslim riot in Aligarh in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The comments might “even promote acts of violence against Muslims”, he said.

Khan said the shift in campaign messaging “exposes the true nature of Modi”.

Sandeep Shastri, the national coordinator of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) research programme Lokniti Network, said he hoped Modi’s comments were a slip — and not a conscious change in campaign strategy. According to CSDS polling, the BJP holds a comfortable 12 percent vote advantage over the principal opposition alliance.

“I do not think that the ground situation warranted any rashness from Modi,” said Shastri, adding that he was personally “disappointed” by the statement. “It could have been an unconscious comment – made in the rush of the moment or excitement of campaign,” Shastri added, referring to Modi’s assertion, after he won the 2019 election, that he would work for all Indians. Against that backdrop, comments like Sunday’s “are best avoided”, he said.

“If the intention is what the speech suggests, it is a matter of huge alarm.”

‘Scared to go to the market’

Ashfaq Hussain, a 35-year-old contractor in Rajasthan, is not waiting for any clarification from Modi or the BJP about Sunday’s comments. He said he has seen enough.

Hussain was sitting with his teenage son when a snippet of Modi’s speech popped up on his smartphone. He scrolled the feed quickly, he said. “Our PM is using language like ‘infiltrators’ for us. I feel ashamed and it is gutting,” he told Al Jazeera.

Rajasthan has witnessed a series of anti-Muslim hate crimes in recent years, including lynchings.

“[Modi’s speech] endangers my family’s safety and further divides our society by erasing the historical brotherhood.”

“I’m scared to even go to the market alone in the evening; people call names and try to instigate, which then can anytime turn into a lynching,” Hussain said.

BJP national spokesperson Zafar Islam said Modi’s comments were being misinterpreted.

“We need to get this in right context. In the past, a lot of people have come from outside and have now mixed in the society and using resources,” he said, suggesting that Modi was referring to foreign nationals illegal in India, and not Indian Muslims, while speaking of “infiltrators”.

Islam claimed that Indian Muslims had benefited from government schemes under Modi and that opposition parties relied on scaremongering to get religious minorities to vote for them.

But the Congress party chief, Mallikarjun Kharge, said Modi’s “hate speech” was “a deliberate ploy to divert attention”.

Ali, the political commentator, agreed. The opposition has been focusing on the need for a caste census — an enumeration of the populations of different castes in India. The Congress claims this would show how disadvantaged castes have been denied adequate affirmative action. “To respond to the opposition, textbook politics say you need a scapegoat; and for the BJP, it has been Muslims,” he said.

The speech was also worrying, Ali said, because of Modi’s attempt to portray Muslims as dangerous to the very identity of Hindus.

“Mangalsutras are considered sacred – it was a deeply psychological attack that gives a sense that Muslims will endanger your private, domestic space,” said Ali.

“This is a very dangerous moment for Indian politics.”

Source: Al Jazeera