‘Invisible in our own country’: Being Muslim in Modi’s India

Muslim Family's Struggle in India's Changing Landscape

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A Muslim Family’s Struggle in India’s Changing Landscape

Six years ago, a young Muslim boy in the northern Indian city of Agra came home from school, his face flushed with anger. “My classmates called me a Pakistani terrorist,” the nine-year-old told his mother, Reema Ahmad, an author and counselor.

Reema remembers the day vividly. “Here was a feisty, little boy with his fists clenched so tightly that there were nail marks in his palm. He was so angry.” The boy explained that during a mock fight in class, a group of his classmates had pointed at him and shouted, “This is a Pakistani terrorist. Kill him!” They had also called him “nali ka kida” (insect of the gutter).

Reema complained to the school, but was told they “were imagining things… such things didn’t happen.” Deeply troubled, she eventually decided to pull her son out of the school. Today, the 16-year-old is home-schooled.

“I sensed the community’s tremors through my son’s experiences, a feeling I never recall having in my own youth growing up here,” Reema says. “Our class privilege may have protected us from feeling Muslim all the time. Now, it seems class and privilege make you a more visible target.”

The Ahmad family’s story reflects the turbulent journey that India’s 200 million-odd Muslims have faced since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Hindu vigilante mobs have targeted Muslim businesses and individuals, while online “auctions” of Muslim women and accusations of “love jihad” have fueled Islamophobia.

“Muslims have become second-class citizens, an invisible minority in their own country,” says Ziya Us Salam, author of the book “Being Muslim in Hindu India.”

But the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi deny that minorities are being mistreated. Syed Zafar Islam, a BJP spokesperson, attributes rising Islamophobia to “irresponsible media houses” and says the government’s welfare schemes are reaching all communities, including Muslims.

Yet, the changing atmosphere is palpable in Agra. Reema recalls leaving a school WhatsApp group in 2019 after a message was posted echoing Modi’s rhetoric about killing “terrorists and enemies of India” in their homes. “Suddenly appealing for non-violence was equated with being anti-national,” she says.

Environmental activist Erum, a fifth-generation Agra resident, has also noticed a shift in conversations among the city’s children. “Don’t talk to me, my mother has told me not to,” she heard one child tell a Muslim classmate, reflecting a “deeply ingrained phobia” of Muslims.

Kaleem Ahmed Qureshi, a seventh-generation Agra resident, now feels uneasy even disclosing his name when traveling. “There is this anxiety [which we live with]. When I travel now, I have to be very aware of where I am, what I say, what I do.”

 Muslim Family's Struggle in India's Changing Landscape

The future of India’s Muslims, divided by class, sect, caste, and region, remains uncertain. Memoirs by young Muslims speak of a “lingering fear” and a sense of needing to seek asylum abroad. Reema Ahmad, too, feels a deep sense of loss. “In the beginning I thought it [Muslim-baiting] was fringe and it would pass. That was 10 years ago. Now I feel a lot has been permanently lost and damaged.”

Yet, amidst the turbulence, there are also stories of resilience and hope. Arzoo Parveen, a young woman from Bihar, is determined to become a doctor, inspired by her mother’s untimely death. With the help of the Rahmani30 coaching institute, she and other underprivileged Muslim students are striving for a better future through education.

As India’s Muslims navigate these challenging times, their journey reflects the complex and often contradictory realities of a nation grappling with its own identity and the place of its religious minorities.

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