Voters in the Indian city of Muzaffarnagar and adjoining districts in the key state of Uttar Pradesh went to the polls on Thursday amid lingering sectarian tension from recent riots. Thousands of Muslims were displaced last year and still cannot move back to their homes for fear of reprisals. Amit Shah, a Hindu nationalist stalwart and PM candidate Narendra Modi’s right hand man, called for “revenge” against a government that “protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus” at an election rally. There’s more, as Reuters reports:
In a series of speeches in the area, Shah also said voters should reject parties that put up Muslim candidates. He said Muslims in the area had raped, killed and humiliated Hindus. […]India’s 1.2 billion people include 150 million Muslims, who form a sizeable minority in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state and a key electoral battleground.The riots in Muzaffarnagar last year started with a minor scuffle, which were exacerbated by inflammatory speeches by several local politicians, news reports have said.
Secular Indians and religious minorities have been deeply skeptical of Modi, who was Chief Minister then, for his alleged role in sectarian riots that killed at least 1000 people, mostly Muslims, in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Since then, Modi has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Supreme Court, and he’s tried to improve his image. He had Muslim clerics endorse his campaign, issued burqas for women at election rallies, and promised of good governance and economic prosperity. However, his party’s rhetoric took an increasingly sectarian tone just as the elections began, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where sectarian divisions are strong.Part of it is just electioneering. Caste and religion have historically played a key role in shaping and mobilizing constituencies, and the inflammatory rhetoric is intended to make sure party supporters vote on election day. A Muslim candidate recently said that it was India’s Muslim soldiers who won a war with Pakistan, not the Hindus, for the same purpose.But this is Modi, and his shameful record when it comes to maintaining communal harmony does not give him as much leeway. Still struggling to distance himself from the Gujarat riots, for which he still has not apologized, Modi should think twice about embracing a sectarian Hindu narrative.