Four Anti-Muslim Claims Dominating India’s Election: What’s the Truth?

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India’s Hindu nationalists have peddled conspiracy theories about Muslims. Here are some facts about their claims.

NEW DELHI — In April, as India was preparing for the first phase of its mammoth seven-stage national election that will conclude with results on June 4, pollsters asked voters what issues they were most concerned about.

Jobs and inflation ranked the highest in their responses. But as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have tried to defend their decade-long record of governance in the face of criticism from the opposition led by the Congress party, they have also been accused by critics of promoting tropes that, for a long time, have been anti-Muslim dog whistles for the country’s far-right.

The opposition has accused Modi of hate speech against Muslims, and India’s election commission – the independent authority tasked with holding the country’s polls – has sent a warning to the BJP party chief about the PM’s comments. Election laws do not allow the overt use of religion to garner votes. But Modi has denied that he engaged in hate speech.

Al Jazeera fact-checked four claims about Muslims – India’s largest religious minority, with a population of 200 million people – that have dominated the election discourse in recent days.

‘Those with more children’

What Modi said: During an election rally on April 21 in the western state of Rajasthan, Modi claimed that if the Congress party came to power, it would distribute the country’s wealth among Muslims. “When they were last in power, the Congress said that Muslims have the first right to the nation’s resources. What does that mean? If they come to power, that means they will collect all the wealth. And who will they give it to? Those who have more children. To infiltrators.”

Nearly a month later, when asked by a Network 18 reporter why he had used that language while speaking about Muslims on the stage in Rajasthan, the Indian prime minister denied he was referring to Muslims. “Why are you doing injustice to Muslims?” he said, saying that overpopulation prevails in poor families. “I never said Hindu or Muslim.”

But Modi has previously used the trope of Muslims having a particularly high reproductive rate. In 2002, after deadly anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time, he faced questions over his government’s failure to support relief camps for victims, which were mostly set up by non-profits and Muslim groups. In a campaign rally at the time, Modi had suggested that such relief camps could become “baby-producing centres”, and how for “some people”, that could mean a family of as many as 25 children.

The larger claim: The idea of a Muslim population explosion is central to a Hindu majoritarian conspiracy theory that suggests that the Muslim community is deliberately growing fast to overtake the Hindu population in the future.

It is not dissimilar to the “great replacement theory” in the West, a white nationalist conspiracy theory that says the immigration of people of colour will make white people a minority in Western countries. In India, the far-right refers to it as ‘population jihad‘.

After the prime minister’s Economic Advisory Committee released a report on May 7, suggesting that the share of Hindus in India’s population had declined by 7.8 percent between 1950 and 2015, and the Muslim share had grown by 43.2 percent, BJP leaders amplified suggestions that Hindus in the country would be in danger if the opposition came to power.

The facts: Critics have argued that the BJP’s claims make selective use of numbers to buttress a narrative of a demographic explosion, otherwise belied by the government’s own data. Overall, Muslims do have a higher birth rate than Hindus, but the gap between them is shrinking. The National Family Health Survey in India shows that Muslim women in India are facing the sharpest drop in total fertility rates in the three decades from 1992 to 2015. The total fertility rate for Muslims has dropped by 2.05 percent, compared with a 1.36 percent decline among Hindu women.

Fertility rates in India also vary widely by region. Nationally, the fertility rate is 2.36 percent for Muslims and 1.94 for Hindus. But in the north Indian state of Bihar, for instance, where 83 percent of the population is Hindu, the overall fertility rate is 3 percent – higher than the national average for both communities. Meanwhile, in the southern state of Kerala, where Hindus constitute 55 percent of the population and Muslims 27 percent, the overall fertility rate is 1.8.

‘Congress will snatch mangalsutrasgive them to its vote bank’

What Modi said: In an April 23 speech, Modi also warned people that the Congress would take away the possessions – such as the bridal necklace, or mangalsutra – of Hindus and give it to its “vote bank”. Modi was widely understood to have been referring to Muslims. He has often accused the Congress of a “politics of appeasement” towards Muslims, which in the April 23 speech, he said he had exposed.

In the April 21 speech two days earlier, he referred to comments in 2006 by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party to suggest if the opposition came to power, it would give Muslims the first rights to the nation’s resources.

The larger claim: Modi and the BJP have long alleged that the Congress favours Muslims over Hindus and that, through its decades of rule, the Congress – the party of Mahatma Gandhi that led the country’s freedom struggle – had “appeased” Muslims. In essence, the argument is that Muslims in India have been given privileged access to wealth and public benefits.

The facts: From education to health to income levels, Muslims are the most economically disadvantaged religious group in India. The government’s latest data suggests that while Muslims constitute 14 percent of the national population, they represent only 4.6 percent of students enrolled in higher education.

In June 2023, an Indian English daily, The Hindustan Times, analysed the government’s All India Debt and Investment Survey (AIDIS) and Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) to show that Muslims are the poorest religious group in India.

Some analysts believe that Modi’s claim about former PM Singh assuring Muslims of the first right to national resources was a misrepresentation of what he had said. Singh, in his 2006 speech, had referred to prioritising the government’s responsibility to traditionally underprivileged castes, socially and economically backward communities, and religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Then, in a separate sentence, Singh had said: “They must have the first claim on resources.”

“When we listen to the entire speech of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, we understand that he was not only talking about Muslims. He was talking about all deprived sections,” Siddarth Sarathe, a fact-checker from the Quint, an Indian media outlet, told Al Jazeera.

‘Congress will take away reservations’

What Modi said: During a rally in West Bengal state on May 12, Modi said the opposition Congress party was planning to take away job reservations from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) – underprivileged communities that are beneficiaries of Indian affirmative action policies – and give them to Muslims.

On May 21, he doubled down on the claim in another speech.

The larger claim: Modi and the BJP are accusing opposition parties of taking away affirmative action benefits meant for lower-caste Hindus and handing those over to Muslims.

The facts: The Indian government’s affirmative action programmes – reservations in jobs and education – are solely based on caste and socioeconomic criteria, not on religion. A Pew Research Center report from 2021 says that nearly all Indians, regardless of religion, identify with a caste. About 43 percent of Muslim respondents identified as part of the “Other/Most Backward” classes.

In state after state, governments across party lines have for decades offered caste-based reservations. And those belonging to traditionally underprivileged castes have been beneficiaries – whether Hindu, Muslim or from any other faith.

In fact, Modi himself boasted in 2022 of his track record in Gujarat, when he led the state.
“Among Muslims in Gujarat, there are 70 groups, who are OBC. When I was in Gujarat, they used to get benefits in the OBC category,” he said.

‘Love jihad’

What BJP says: Modi referred to this conspiracy theory in passing in a speech in April, but it is a favourite theme for the BJP and its allies. In the southern state of Karnataka, which voted in late April and early May, and where the BJP was voted out of power last year, BJP leaders have claimed that cases of ‘love jihad‘ have gone up since then.

The larger claim: But what is ‘love jihad’? The conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of deliberately luring Hindu women into converting to Islam. The theory has existed since the late 2000s, and prominent cases emerged in 2009 in Kerala and Karnataka.

The theory has been amplified by the BJP governments across the country, with several states introducing anti-conversion legislation and intensifying police crackdown on Muslim men and interfaith couples.

A Bollywood film titled Kerala Story released last year was also accused of peddling the ‘love jihad’ theory. The film, which was promoted by Modi, showed women and girls in southern Kerala state converting to Islam to be recruited into the ISIL (ISIS) armed group. It also claimed that 32,000 had disappeared from the state to join ISIL.

The facts: The ‘love jihad’ theory is not backed by facts or evidence, and Indian courts have ruled out that there was an organised conspiracy by Muslims to woo Hindu women and convert them to Islam. Bridge, a Georgetown University research project, has called it “widely debunked” in a factsheet.

The claims in Kerala Story were also challenged by both fact-checking groups and by local communities in Kerala. The filmmakers admitted that the figures used in the film were inauthentic and that only three women joined ISIL.

Courtesy: Aljazeera

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