With the strength of the Hindu nationalist political movement
polarizing religious communities in India over the last two decades,
the Muslim minority has faced socioeconomic marginalization and
at times been targeted by violent attacks.
When India was granted independence in 1947, and Pakistan split
off to become a homeland for Muslims, India was set up as a secular
country embracing pluralism. But that promise has not mirrored
many minorities' real-life experiences.
is secular, so as a country they have celebrated their Muslims,
but that does not usually apply to Indians themselves," said
Meenakshi Ganguly, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has lived
and worked in India for more than three years.
As the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, gained
momentum in the 1980s and then won the parliamentary majority
from 1998 through 2004, "there was a campaign of hate that
we still haven't seen the end of," Ganguly said.
"The BJP embraces, and has always embraced, the ideology
of Hindu nationalism, which fundamentality believes that Hindus
are the owners of the nation, and Muslims have a history of disloyalty
and should not be given any privileges," said Ashutosh Varshney,
a political science professor at the University of Michigan, and
an expert on ethnic conflict in India.
While the party no longer holds the majority in parliament, it
is still one of the most popular in the country and some states
are still BJP run because of India's federal system. The experience
of Muslims living in these states, including Gujarat, can be vastly
different than those in other regions of the country.
"In South India, Muslims are more prosperous, less fearful.
In North India it is more dangerous," said Theodore Wright,
political science professor emeritus at State University of New
York at Albany, who studies Muslims in India.
The outsiders within
At the time of partition, many Muslims chose to stay in India
instead of moving to Pakistan for economic reasons, because they
could not afford to make the long move or because of Indian nationalist
"The creation of Pakistan meant that Muslims became the
'other'," said Ali Asani, a Harvard University professor
of Indo-Muslim languages and culture. "Those Muslims that
stayed back in India have always had this label."
In November 2006, a report commissioned by the Indian government
on the status of the country's Muslims, who are the largest religious
minority and make up 13.4 percent of the population, found that
they had fallen behind even the lowest caste of Hindus, known
as untouchables, in socio-economic indicators in some states.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office summarized the findings
of the report, saying the Muslim population is "relatively
poor, more illiterate, has lower access to education, lower representation
in public- and private-sector jobs."
In urban areas, Muslims are mostly relegated to "slums characterized
by poor municipal infrastructure," the statement said. Much
of the ghettoization seen in cities occurred when Muslims fled
Hindu areas after incidents of violence.
The report issued recommendations to improve the status of Muslims,
including establishing an Equal Opportunity Commission, and creating
diversity incentives for education, employment and housing.
The Union Minister for Minority Affairs approved some of the
recommendations in August 2007, but they have yet to be implemented.
Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims has deep roots in
India and was particularly bad around the partition. Politically
motivated riots aimed at Muslims intensified in the last decade
as Hindu nationalist popularity grew.
The violence hit a high in 2002, when a train carrying Hindu
activists was attacked by a Muslim mob and 58 were killed in a
fire on the train. The incident set off riots around the country
and as many as 2,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat, the U.S.
State Department's 2003 Report on International Religious Freedom
In March 2006, a government commission determined the train fire
was an accident rather than a Muslim conspired crime.
Regional experts and academics now refer to the violence that
followed as a pogrom.
"The big-scale riots were state sponsored. There was deliberate
targeting of Muslim stores and Muslim homes," said Human
Rights Watch's Ganguly.
In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, India's National Human Rights
Commission and the Supreme Court criticized the government of
Gujarat for its weak prosecution of Hindus implicated in the violence.
Incidents of violence often are politically motivated with the
goal of winning votes from Hindus or intimidating Muslims, but
they are set off by an event such as the slaughter of a cow or
an inter-faith couple eloping, said Wright.
At least every month, there is a new attack, Ganguly said. And
the failure of the state to prosecute attacks by Hindus exacerbates
the problem, she added.
"It feeds into Muslim anger. There are attacks by Muslims
as well, but as a state you need to provide a sense of justice
that the laws apply to all," she said.
In more recent incidents, the government has tried to fend off
such riots. When terrorists attacked Hindu temples at the disputed
site of Ayodhya and Varanasi in 2005, the government quickly spoke
out to discourage riots by Hindus.
Christians and other minorities
Violence is not limited to Muslims and Hindus. The Christian
population, which makes up about 2.3 percent of the country, has
also been targeted by Hindus, and missionaries have been attacked
"The argument is that [Christians] proselytize ... that,
according to Hindu nationalist ideology, must be vigorously fought,"
In 2006, the U.S. State Department's India Religious Freedom
Report stated, "Some Hindu organizations and others frequently
alleged that Christian missionaries lured converts, particularly
from the lower castes, with offers of free education and health
Other reports show that Christians have been the target of forced
conversions or re-conversions by Hindus. In 2005, the National
Commission for Minorities asked the governments of Rajasthan and
Maharashtra to stop forced reconversions in a response to attacks
on Christians and a social boycott against Christians who didn't
Smaller religious minorities in India, such as Buddhists and
Sikhs, have had little issue with Hindus in recent years, in part
because the religions are considered closer to Hinduism. While
the federal government has publicly recognized and spoken about
the need to give religious minorities more access to education
and job opportunities, as well as protection from violence, the
state and local governments are often not in line with the federal
ideals, said Asani.
"There is recognition there is a problem. There have been
committees and reports, sometimes the courts have even ruled,
but the federal government tends to find its hands politically
tied," said Asani.