India’s Treatment of Muslims Risks Echoing the Apartheid My Grandfather Fought Against: Ndileka Mandela


"I’m worried that the world’s largest democracy, long a hope for the global South, is increasingly in danger of becoming what it once so selflessly confronted."

Ndileka Mandela | Independent

THIS year’s Nelson Mandela International Day – which fell on Mandela’s birthday (18 July) – was marked by historic speeches that warned of an unprecedented assault on our democracy. However, they were all missing something. Something big.

In just weeks, India will mark 75 years of independence. Through principled and nonviolent resistance, the jewel in the British crown forced the West to confront the awful gap between the rhetoric of freedom and the fact of imperialism. Behind great leaders of different faiths – such as Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Azad – India set out to become a pluralistic and secular democracy. But what will the country be like 75 years from now?

Mandela Day

Mandela Day encourages us all to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s – and the world’s – efforts to end apartheid and promote peace, and I remember all that India did for South Africa.

For decades, while the West turned a blind eye to apartheid in my country, India stood with us, backed us and advocated for us. In my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, we found our own Gandhi. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi was shaped by his early experiences in South Africa, his conscience stung by the racism and supremacism that once defined my country.

Mandela himself once praised Gandhi’s role in creating what he called in 1991 the “first democratic political organ in Africa” with the help of South Africa’s Hindu community. Indeed, Mandela and many in the African National Congress were staunch opponents of various efforts by the apartheid government to deport the country’s large south Asian population.

But now I have a concern. I’m worried that the world’s largest democracy, long a hope for the global South, is increasingly in danger of becoming what it once so selflessly confronted.

Demolished homes. Systematic discrimination. Mob violence, aided and abetted by police forces. Even banned marriages. If this sounds like South Africa 75 years ago, you wouldn’t be wrong. But I’m speaking of India today, where Islamophobia has been mainstreamed and institutionalised to the point where India is risking a system with the same inequalities as apartheid.

Largest Muslim Population

Only last week, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) last Muslim lawmaker resigned, leaving the governing party without a single Muslim member of parliament. To put that in perspective, there are some 200 million Muslims in India – one of the largest Muslim populations in the world – and they all now lack even basic representation. Many Christians are actively discriminated against, too.

Just recently, BJP leaders mocked Islam’s prophet, jeopardising important diplomatic relationships. The Modi administration belatedly acted after neighbouring countries such as Iran, Qatar and Kuwait retaliated economically.

None of this is to say there have not been incidents of prejudice or violence against Hindus, too. A recent report from Rutgers University noted a rise of Hinduphobia on social media, and the Indian ambassador to the United Nations, TS Tirumurti, recently decried the “emergence of contemporary varieties of religiophobia, especially anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist and anti-Sikh phobias”.

As seen in India, but also in France and the US, Islamophobic views no longer belong to the fringes of society. They have become normalised and mainstreamed, increasingly part of the vernacular of established political parties and governments around the world. Blatantly Islamophobic sentiments that stigmatise Muslims en masse contribute to rocketing numbers of hate crimes.

The international community seems to have forgotten that small acts of discrimination can eventually lead to world-changing events. And during a time of great economic and geopolitical instability, ignoring such actions could bring stark repercussions.

Beyond political and economic intervention, we also need the power of moral leadership. And as we saw with Gandhi and Desmond Tutu – religious icons who birthed peace-making processes that inspired generations – this should perhaps come from faith leaders themselves.

Interfaith Summit

Only recently, Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, hosted a groundbreaking interfaith summit under the leadership of Dr Muhammad Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, head of the world’s largest Islamic NGO, the Muslim World League. By inviting religious leaders from all over the world, including south Asian Muslims and Hindus, to convene and discuss their shared values, they were able issue a forceful call for cooperation. India should have been at the forefront of this endeavour, and could have embraced and amplified these moves.

Indeed, my grandfather had great faith in the power of true Hindu ideals to combat injustice. He drew on Hindu traditions in his resistance to apartheid, notably celebrating Diwali while in prison on Robben Island as an act of defiance. And he once praised Hinduism as the only ancient religion on the world stage. When compared to Lord Rama by a Hindu preacher in South Africa in 1992, Mandela gracefully demurred.

Moreover, he frequently pointed to India’s courageous stand against colonialism as proof that our struggle could succeed, that we had friends and allies all over the world and that our cause was truly universal.

He worked for our country to become a pluralistic democracy, just like India, where people of all faiths and backgrounds had a stake and a voice. So, while we reflect on Mandela Day, I hope Indians remember this history and ask what has become of it. Our country travelled from naked apartheid to an imperfect democracy, but I am fearful that India is taking the opposite path.

When India fought for independence, there were few, if any, examples of real democracy anywhere in the world. But 75 years ago, in a time of vicious religious polarisation, bitter ethnic factionalism and brutal imperialism, India chose better – and the world was better off for it. So today I ask: what will India choose now?


Ndileka Mandela is a social activist and the head of rural upliftment organisation the Thembekile Mandela Foundation in South Africa.

Representational image

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