Backgrounder

India’s Muslims: An Increasingly Marginalized Population

India’s Muslim communities have faced decades of discrimination, which experts say has worsened under the Hindu nationalist BJP’s government.
Muslim women in the state of Assam protest against India’s new citizenship law in February 2020.
Muslim women in the state of Assam protest against India’s new citizenship law in February 2020. Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • Some two hundred million Muslims live in India, making up the predominantly Hindu country’s largest minority group.
  • For decades, Muslim communities have faced discrimination in employment and education and encountered barriers to achieving wealth and political power. They are disproportionately the victims of communal violence.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling party have moved to limit Muslims’ rights, particularly through the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from nearby countries.

Introduction

India is home to some two hundred million Muslims, one of the world’s largest Muslim populations but a minority in the predominately Hindu country. Since India’s independence, Muslims have faced systematic discrimination, prejudice, and violence, despite constitutional protections.

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Experts say anti-Muslim sentiments have heightened under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has pursued a Hindu nationalist agenda since elected to power in 2014. Since Modi’s reelection in 2019, the government has pushed controversial policies that critics say explicitly ignore Muslims’ rights and are effectively intended to disenfranchise millions of Muslims. The moves have sparked protests in India and drawn international condemnation.

How many Muslims live in India?

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India is a country of religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Its estimated two hundred million Muslims, most of whom identify as Sunni, account for about 15 percent of the population, by far the largest minority group. Hindus make up about 80 percent. The country’s Muslim communities are diverse, with differences in language, caste, ethnicity, and access to political and economic power.

How did India’s partition influence Hindu-Muslim relations?

Some of the animus between India’s Hindus and Muslims can be traced back to the cataclysmic partition of British India in 1947, scholars say. Economically devastated after World War II, the British lacked the resources to maintain their empire and moved to leave the subcontinent. In the years before partition, the Indian National Congress party, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, pushed for independence, organizing civil disobedience and mass protests against British rule. Meanwhile, the All-India Muslim League political group, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, called for a separate state for Muslims.

In 1947, a British judge hastily decided the borders for a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan (including what is today Bangladesh). The partition sparked deadly riots, gruesome communal violence, and mass migrations of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs to India. Survivors recall blood-soaked trains carrying refugees from one country to the other, towns burned to the ground, and bodies thrown in the streets. Historians estimate between two hundred thousand and two million people were killed.

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Why communities that had coexisted for hundreds of years attacked each other remains unclear. Some experts fault the British and their “divide-and-rule” strategy, which provided some electoral privileges for the Muslim minority, about 25 percent of the population. Others point to tensions between Hindu and Muslim political movements, which rallied constituents along religious lines.

Around thirty-five million Muslims stayed in India after partition, choosing to remain with relatives and preserve their property and wealth, among other reasons. Many opposed the creation of a separate state for Muslims in the first place.

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How did religion factor into India’s constitution?

The country’s now seventy-year-old constitution enshrines egalitarian principles, including social equality and nondiscrimination. The word “secular” was added to the preamble in 1976, but the constitution does not explicitly require the separation of religion and government as some national charters do.

Leaders of the Congress party who fought for independence advocated for an India that recognized all citizens and faiths as equal. Gandhi, who envisioned a secular state free from discrimination, was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist. Nehru, India’s first prime minister, believed that secularism was essential to building a peaceful society and avoiding another tragedy like what followed partition; he saw those trying to divide India along religious lines, especially Hindu groups, as the nation’s greatest threat.

How did Hindu nationalists come to power?

Hindu nationalism was first articulated in the 1920s by Indian author and politician V. D. Savarkar in his book Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? Hindu nationalists believe Hindus are the “true sons of the soil” because their holy lands are in India, whereas the Christian and Muslim holy lands are outside it. They generally champion policies intended to make India a Hindu state. Many see Indian Muslims as suspect foreigners, despite the fact that most are descendants of Hindus who converted to Islam. Hindu nationalists point to partition and the creation of Pakistan as the ultimate manifestation of Muslim disloyalty.

Political tensions started to strain India’s secular model in the 1980s. After suffering an electoral defeat in 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi exploited religious divisions to help return the Congress party to power. Gandhi, who was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards in 1984, was succeeded by her son, Rajiv, who further favored Hindus. “Congress’s sustained move toward Hindu majoritarianism over several decades created fertile ground for the more extreme ideology of the BJP,” Kanchan Chandra writes in Foreign Affairs.

Founded in 1980, the BJP traces its origins to the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer group. The BJP came to power in 1998 elections, though it shelved its more radical goals to hold together a coalition it led until 2004 when the Congress party regained power. These goals included ending the special status of Kashmir, a disputed Muslim-majority region; constructing a Hindu temple in the northern city of Ayodhya; and creating a uniform civil code so all citizens would have the same personal laws. (There is currently a separate Muslim personal law for issues such as marriage and inheritance.)

In 2014, the BJP won a single-party majority for the first time in the Lok Sabha—the lower house of parliament and India’s most influential political body—making party leader Narendra Modi prime minister. The party again secured a majority in 2019 after a divisive campaign filled with anti-Muslim messaging, and Modi’s government is expected to stay in power for its full five-year term ending in 2024.

“The Modi government made it extremely clear to Muslims that they were not going to address them at all. The exclusion was quite blatant,” says Ghazala Jamil, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “There has been a marked increase in anti-Muslim hostility in all kinds of institutions.”

What types of discrimination do India’s Muslims face?

Muslims have experienced discrimination in areas including employment, education, and housing [PDF]. Many encounter barriers to achieving political power and wealth, and lack access to health care and basic services. Moreover, they often struggle to secure justice after suffering discrimination, despite constitutional protections.

A 2019 report [PDF] by nongovernmental organization Common Cause found that half of police surveyed showed anti-Muslim bias, making them less likely to intervene to stop crimes against Muslims. Analysts have noted widespread impunity for those who attack Muslims; in recent years, courts and government bodies have sometimes overturned convictions or withdrawn cases that accused Hindus of involvement in violence against Muslims.

The previous Congress-led government commissioned a landmark study [PDF], known as the Sachar Committee Report, of India’s Muslim society in 2006, which identified many inequities, but it failed to implement most of the recommendations.

What controversial actions has the Modi government taken with regard to Muslims?

In December 2019, the Indian parliament passed and Modi signed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows for the fast-tracking of citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Critics say the law is discriminatory because it excludes Muslims and applies a religious criteria for the first time to the question of citizenship. The Modi government argues that the law is designed to provide protection for vulnerable religious minorities who faced persecution in these three Muslim-majority countries.

“The longer Hindu nationalists are in power, the greater the change will be to Muslims’ status and the harder it will be to reverse such changes.”
Ashutosh Varshney, Professor, Brown University

At the same time, the BJP promised in its 2019 election manifesto to complete a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC was created in the 1950s for the unique case of the state of Assam to determine whether residents were Indian citizens or migrants from what is now neighboring Bangladesh. In 2019, the Assam government updated its register, which excluded nearly two million people. If implemented nationwide, all Indians would be required to prove their citizenship. Critics say this process could render many Muslims stateless because they lack necessary documents and are not eligible for fast-tracked citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act. The government has also deported Muslim Rohingya refugees who face persecution in Myanmar.

Modi has meanwhile diminished the political standing of what was India’s only Muslim-majority state: Jammu and Kashmir. In August 2019, the government split the state, which lies in the mountainous border region in dispute with Pakistan, into two territories and stripped away its special constitutional autonomy. The government cut internet and mobile services in the region for months, and thousands of people have been detained or placed under house arrest, including prominent mainstream political figures and pro-separatist activists.

“The longer Hindu nationalists are in power, the greater the change will be to Muslims’ status and the harder it will be to reverse such changes,” says Ashutosh Varshney, an expert on Indian intercommunal conflict at Brown University.

What have been the largest outbursts of violence?

Babri Masjid, 1992. Disputes over the mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya have turned deadly in recent decades. Hindus claim a general from the Muslim Mughal empire built the mosque on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram during the sixteenth century. In 1992, Hindu militants destroyed the mosque. An estimated three thousand people, most of them Muslim, died in ensuing riots—the deadliest religious clashes since partition. In 2020, Modi set the cornerstone for a new Hindu temple on the site after the Supreme Court approved its construction.

Gujarat riots, 2002. Nationwide clashes broke out after a train of Hindu pilgrims traveling from Ayodhya through the western state of Gujarat caught fire, killing dozens of people. Blaming Muslims for starting the fire, Hindu mobs throughout Gujarat killed hundreds of Muslims, raped Muslim women, and destroyed Muslim businesses and places of worship. Opposition politicians, human rights groups, and U.S. lawmakers criticized Modi, then Gujarat’s chief minister, and the BJP for not doing enough to prevent the violence and in some cases encouraging it. An Indian government investigation said the train fire was an accident, but conflicting reports have said it was arson.

Muzaffarnagar riots, 2013. In towns near the city of Muzaffarnagar, more than sixty people were killed in clashes that broke out between Hindus and Muslims after two Hindu men died in an altercation with Muslim men. An estimated fifty thousand people, most of them Muslim, fled the violence; many lived in relief camps for months, and some never returned home.

Anti-Muslim mobs. In recent years, large-scale outbreaks of violence have rarely erupted, but random attacks on Muslims frequently occur. Hindu mob attacks have become so common that India’s Supreme Court warned that they could become the “new normal.” One of the most common forms of anti-Muslim violence is vigilante groups attacking people rumored to trade or kill cows, which many Hindus believe are sacred. At least forty-four people, most of them Muslims, have been killed by these so-called cow protection groups, according to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report. Muslim men have also been attacked after being accused of “love jihad,” a term used by Hindu groups to describe Muslim men allegedly trying to seduce and marry Hindu women to convert them.

New Delhi clashes, 2020. In March, violence broke out as Muslims and others protested the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi. Around fifty people were killed, most of them Muslim, in the capital city’s worst communal violence in decades. Some BJP politicians helped incite the violence, and police reportedly did not intervene [PDF] to stop Hindu mobs from attacking Muslims.

“The idea was that if you were a Muslim, you were liable to be attacked anywhere, anytime.”
Ghazala Jamil, Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Critics say that BJP officials have ignored recent violence. “During Modi’s first five-year term, there were continuous attacks on Muslim individuals, which kind of made the community feel under siege,” says Jamil. “The idea was that if you were a Muslim, you were liable to be attacked anywhere, anytime.” Hate speech and misinformation spread online have also encouraged violence against Muslims. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, calls to boycott Muslim businesses [PDF] flourished online, with commenters blaming Muslims for spreading the virus.

Who wants to preserve India’s secularism?

Experts, such as Varshney, note that although anti-Muslim sentiment is rising among Hindus, not all Hindus and not all people who voted for the BJP are anti-Muslim. Both Muslims and Hindus, including activists, legal scholars, and students, have fought against the BJP’s moves to undermine India’s secularism.

The Citizenship Amendment Act in particular has sparked widespread protests. Following its passage, student activists, including many Muslims, organized demonstrations that continued into early 2020. The chief ministers of several states said they would not implement the law. Nearly two thousand academics and professionals signed a statement condemning the law for violating the spirit of the constitution. Legal scholars petitioned India’s Supreme Court, arguing the law was unconstitutional. Members of the Indian diaspora also protested against it.

How is the world responding to the rising discrimination in India? 

Many foreign governments and international bodies have condemned the BJP’s discrimination of Muslims, citing actions in Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act as particular concerns.

The UN human rights office described the law as “fundamentally discriminatory,” and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concerns it could render people stateless. Several Muslim-majority nations and Muslim Arab activists have spoken out against rising Islamophobia in India. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of fifty-seven member states, advised India to take “urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia.”

The United States has called out the Modi government’s discriminatory practices, but President Donald J. Trump has mostly been silent on the issue and sought warm relations with Modi. During a visit to India in February 2020, Trump praised Modi’s religious tolerance and said nothing about the outbreak of violence in Delhi. On the other hand, in its 2020 report [PDF], the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government agency, classified India as a “country of particular concern,” its lowest rating. The commission urged the U.S. government to sanction Indian officials responsible for abuses. Members of Congress have also expressed concerns.

Recommended Resources

The Congressional Research Service examines India’s religious freedom issues [PDF].

In Foreign Affairs, Kanchan Chandra explains the roots of Hindu nationalism’s triumph in India.

This Human Rights Watch report details discrimination against Muslims under India’s new citizenship policies.

Sameer P. Lalwani and Gillian Gayner examine resistance in Kashmir before and after the Modi government stripped the region’s constitutional privileges.

Freedom House tracks the deterioration of freedoms and discrimination of Muslims in India.

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