India Is Not Modi, We Once Said. I Wish I Still Believed It.


JUNE 23, 2023

Every Indian Muslim knows about the pause: the moment when another Indian, usually a Hindu, hears your name, waits a few seconds, and then, with a furrowed brow or a step back, acts surprised and confused that you, too, are Indian. The implication is one of suspicion, as though we are Indians with an asterisk—or worse, as though we are not Indians at all.

I have encountered this reaction at literary parties in New Delhi, where guests greet each other with air kisses, as well as during my office hours in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when more than one Hindu American student has expressed surprise that I—a Pakistani, they incorrectly assumed—cared so much about India.

The experience is exhausting, but it is not new. My father went through it growing up in Tanzania, as did his father in India. But today, presumptions about Indian identity appear to have narrowed still further, and the man responsible, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is receiving a red-carpet welcome in Washington, D.C., with a state dinner and a speech to a joint session of Congress.

India was once more accepting, more tolerant. That’s what we Indian Muslims say, especially when Hindus are around. What other choice do we have?

And to some degree, it’s true. Ages ago, in 2005, I worked on the campaign to block Modi from entering the United States. What strikes me about that campaign now is, well, how easy it was.

A decade ago, I could barely persuade a dozen members of the House of Representatives—Democrat or Republican—to sign a letter expressing concern for political prisoners in Bahrain. But, at least in 2005, it wasn’t really that difficult to criticize Modi, because India, State Department officials told me, is not Modi. It has never been Modi, and it can never be Modi.

I loved that line. I used it all the time. And I believed it. But today, whether we like it or not, India is Modi, and the United States is partly to blame, because Modi knows that regardless of what he does, he will receive a warm embrace here.

Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Indian Muslims have been attacked—and in some cases killed—for doing the following: eating beef, attending Hindu festivals, falling in love with a Hindu, posting on social media, selling vegetables, “causing” COVID-19, not standing for the Indian national anthem, praying inside a mosque, praying inside their homes, giving their child a Muslim name, protesting, driving, and wearing what they want.

By 2050, India will have the world’s largest Muslim population, surpassing Indonesia, and yet it is a community in peril. Conditions in India have been compared to those in countries preparing for genocide. Extremists have openly called for killing Muslims by the millions, and political operatives boast on Twitter when Muslim homes are destroyed by government bulldozers. India also leads the world in internet shutdowns, has cracked down on journalists at an alarming rate, and continues to grant impunity to those who attack Christians, Dalits, Adivasis, and other marginalized groups.

Earlier this month, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, a Dalit was reportedly attacked by upper-caste Hindus because he wore stylish clothes and sunglasses. A few days ago, also in Gujarat, Muslims were flogged in public for protesting the destruction of an Islamic shrine. In fact, as many as 90 percent of hate crimes in India since 2009 occurred after Modi came to power. Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, Modi is now the world’s most popular leader, with an approval rating of 76 percent in India.

Modi is loved in America too. Soon after he became prime minister, he spoke to a sold-out crowd of about 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. After securing his second term, he spoke to 50,000 in Houston. By some estimates, he has received the largest reception of any foreign leader in the United States except the pope, and according to a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, nearly 70 percent of Hindu Americans—versus about 20 percent of Indian Muslim Americans—support Modi.

Many of Modi’s supporters—like Trump supporters—are known to get rowdy, to put it mildly. Attendees at an India Independence Day Celebration in California last year called demonstrators who tried to bring attention to religious discrimination in India “stupid Muslims,” grabbing and breaking their signs. In New Jersey that same year, Hindus drove a bulldozer—a symbol of anti-Muslim hate in India—through the Indian-dominated city of Edison with a picture of Modi affixed to it.

These days, when I attend a social gathering and I see another Indian American in attendance, I’ll often walk to the other side of the room. Am I being excessive and unfair? Of course. But I’ve grown weary of feeling that I might need to conceal parts of myself in order to be liked and accepted by other Indians.

I was born in California to Gujarati immigrants from East Africa. In 2002, I traveled to Gujarat as a service-corps fellow with the American India Foundation to work with an NGO in Ahmedabad. It was the first time anyone in my family had visited our ancestral homeland.

Twelve days after I arrived, a train carrying Hindu volunteers caught fire in the Gujarat city of Godhra, resulting in what the scholar Ashutosh Varshney calls the “first full-blooded pogrom in independent India.” More than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslim.

I will never forget, a few days into the pogrom, seeing an elderly Hindu woman, her back hunched, throwing a brick at a Muslim restaurant, being ever so careful not to harm the Hindu restaurant just above it. When a group of Hindu boys saw her struggling, they ran to her aid, offering her water and biscuits so that she could maintain her stamina and continue destroying Muslim property.

That tenderness, that love, that compassion—I did not know how to make sense of it, especially when combined with burning, looting, and killing.

Modi’s complicity in the violence is the easy part of this story. What many Indian Muslims talk about, especially when Hindus are not around, is this: Why did so few of our Hindu friends, whom we once loved, stand up for us?

In the decades since the pogrom, I can count on one hand the number of Hindu American friends who have reached out to acknowledge what I went through in India. Many of my parents’ Hindu friends in Sacramento, California, where they live, stopped talking to them after I started criticizing Modi. I know my parents are proud of my work. I also know they miss their friends.

As Modi visits America, I wish I were still a congressional staffer, if only for the chance to brief elected officials this week to remind them of how much power they have over India.

From 2011 to 2015, I lived and reported from a Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad for a book I am writing about the 2002 pogrom and its aftermath. When I interviewed officials in the Gujarat government and in Modi’s inner circle, they would be so enamored of speaking to an American that they would ignore my questions and not even bother to ask my name. After meeting in person, some would throw me out of their office as soon as they learned I was Muslim. But many more would beg me to stay, insisting I tell them everything I have ever heard about India in Washington.

That’s the curious thing about Modi: In India, he is a strongman who brags about his chest size, but outside it, he is so desperate for adulation that there are memes of him awkwardly hugging world leaders. The United States has this advantage over India. It can get Modi to change, even just a little, and I fear that unless something is done, Modi’s project to redefine India and its diaspora will become irreversible.

Two years ago, my wife and I welcomed our first child, a son we named Mirza. After Mirza and I eat Indian food—especially butter-coated parathas stuffed with potatoes—he often goes around and declares, “I am from India!”

It is a beautiful, adorable thing. I hope Mirza continues to say that. But I worry that before long, he, too, will be told he is not Indian.

Courtesy/Source: The Atlantic