Is Hindu nationalism mellowing?

NEW DELHI – India’s Hindu nationalists gloated as Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, went to meet Norendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of their Bharatya Janata Party.  Indian media described the meeting as America’s “cave-in” and “about face” to the chief minister of Gujarat state. 

Nine years ago Modi was banned from visiting the United States for his widely reported complicity in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.  More than 1, 000 Muslims there were beaten, hacked and burned to death by Hindu rioters.

Asked about the Modi-Powell meeting, an American diplomat in the Indian capital told me, on condition of anonymity, that Modi’s political positions have been “evolving,” warranting the new American gesture. I would normally have dismissed his comment as pure diplomatic hogwash, but I see a large grain of truth in it.

Of course the United States had to mend fences with the man who, polls show, could become the next prime minister of India.  But then Modi and the BJP also are trying hard to shed their image as Hindu fanatics, reinforced by their alleged connivance at the Gujarat riot and the destruction of the historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque.

For the last half-dozen years, the BJP has been trying seriously – its critics say “shamelessly” – to court Muslims. And many Muslims are reciprocating.  On Feb. 22, I found it hard to believe my eyes as I watched on TV a sprinkling of Muslim caps in Modi’s rally in Silchar town in my native Assam state.  During a 2007 visit to Silchar I saw Muslims fuming over his widely believed abetment to the Gujarat massacre.  A Muslim tailor in Silchar told me that he wanted some “young man with a [suicide] belt” to do away with him.  

So what’s changing many Muslim minds about the BJP? Indian Muslims are “more self-confident” than they used to be, Bushra Alvi, a Muslim writer in New Delhi, told me last week.  They no longer fear, she added, that Hindu nationalists would be able to erode Muslim culture in India, which they tried to do for decades.  Spread of education and heightened conscious about identity and self-worth appear to have helped stimulate their self-confidence, as it has among people in many other countries.

The BJP’s outreach to Muslims shows a reassessment of its ideology.  The party’s manifesto stipulates, among other things, three highly controversial projects to assimilate Indian Muslims into a Hinduized social mainstream.  One, Islamic tenets enjoining Muslims to follow the Islamic code in marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc., would be outlawed. Secondly, a temple would be built to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the gutted Babri Mosque.  Thirdly, an article in the Indian constitution that provides wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir would be scrapped.

Yet in January BJP president Rajnath Singh infuriated Hindu nationalist diehards by  announcing that his party wouldn’t, after all, seek to end Kashmir’s special status.  And on the campaign trail Modi and his associates have been mysteriously silent on the Ram temple and Muslim canon law issues.

Soumen Purkhayasthha, the BJP’s “good governance” strategist, insisted to me that his party doesn’t plan to pursue those anti-Muslim projects.  The BJP, he said, wouldn’t tolerate any Muslim-bashing. “There has not been a single Hindu-Muslim riot in the five states that came under BJP rule” since the Gujarat, he added.

I think the party has learned its lesson of Gujarat, which turned it into an international pariah. The American blacklisting of Modi, an NGO operative told me, “was too much for them to take.”

At any rate, many Indian Muslims are opening up to BJP overtures for a host of reasons.

For decades they voted blindly for the ruling Congress party, which took their votes for granted and turned a blind eye to their causes and interests.  Assured in their minds that they’ve all but stonewalled the BJP’s Hinduization drive, many of them are attracted by the party’s record and promises of good governance and good economic management.

Modi has earned nationwide acclaim for fostering impressive economic growth in his state.  “We want faster economic growth,” said Sohael Razzack, a Muslim community leader and food industry executive.  “Muslims will benefit from it as anybody else.”

Muslims also realize that the BJP could come to power in the general elections scheduled for April. They think it would be foolish to alienate it.

It’s possible, though seems unlikely, that once in power, the Hindu nationalists may revive their anti-Muslim agenda.   For some Muslims, including the writer Alvi, that would have a bright side as well. Hindu hostility would bolster Muslim solidarity and Islamic revival, as it has in the past.

Today, most politicians and political strategists in India recognize Muslims’ electoral clout and growing willpower, even though they make up only about 15 percent of the Indian population of more than 1 billion.  West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim policy is a case in point.

Banerjee is reviled in neighboring Bangladesh as an anti-Muslim bigot.  She has blocked an agreement between Dhaka and New Delhi that would allow an increased flow of river water to lower riparian Bangladesh, and the mostly Muslim Bangladeshis attribute it to her hatred of Muslims.

Inside West Bengal, however, Banerjee is denounced as virulently by right-wing Hindus for her “rampant appeasement” of Muslims.  She has facilitated job opportunities for Muslims; promoted Muslim girls’ education; given aid to madrasahs, or Islamic schools; and adopted other programs that benefit Muslims. Once clue, Muslims make up about 30 percent of West Bengal voters.

The BJP appears to have given up on healing Indian society from the cultural “virus” or “parasites” as Hindus chauvinists still Muslims. But, as the American diplomat noted, Modi’s and his party’s attitudes toward them are “evolving” and softening.Nancy Powell’s visit with the Hindu nationalist candidate for prime minister signaled that America’s policy toward them is evolving, too.

Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’  is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

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