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Strangers in their own land: India becomes Muslim under Modi

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It’s a lonely feeling knowing your country’s leaders don’t want you. In India which is now basically Hindu first, you are maligned because you are a Muslim.

It colors everything. Things have changed over the decades, dear friend. Neighbors no longer perform acts of kindness—no more attend celebrations, no more knocking on doors in painful moments to inquire.

“It’s a lifeless life,” said Ziya Us Salam, a writer who lives in Delhi with his wife, Uzma Ausaf, and their four daughters suburbs.

When he was a film critic for one of the major Indian films newspaperMr. Salam, 53, used to fill his time with movies, art and music. At the end of the work day, ride an older friend’s motorcycle to a favorite food stall for a long chat. His wife is also a journalist and writes about life, food and fashion.

Now that Mr. Salam’s daily life is reduced to the office and home, his thoughts are occupied by heavier worries. He said it was tiring that bank tellers, parking attendants and other passengers on the train were all constantly racially profiling him because he was “obviously Muslim.” Family conversations are darker, with both parents focused on raising their daughters in a country that increasingly questions and even seeks to erase markers of Muslim identity — their dress, their diet, even their Indian identity altogether.

One was an impressive student-athlete who was struggling so much that she needed counseling and missed several months of school. The family often debated whether to stay in the mixed Hindu-Muslim community in Noida, outside Delhi. Their eldest daughter, Mariam, a graduate student, tends to compromise as long as it makes life bearable. She wants to move.

It can be difficult anywhere but in Muslim areas. Real estate agents often ask families point blank if they are Muslim; landlords are reluctant to rent to them.

“I’ve started to take it in stride,” Mariam said.

“I refuse,” Mr Salam retorted. He was old enough to remember that in an extremely diverse India, coexistence was largely the norm, and he didn’t want to exacerbate the country’s growing apartheid.

But he’s also pragmatic. He hoped that Mariam would move abroad, at least with the country’s current situation.

Mr. Salam remains hopeful that India is in a transition phase.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is playing a long game.

He emerged in 2014 on the promise of rapid growth, sweeping the decades-long Hindu nationalist movement firmly from the fringes of Indian politics to the center. He has since chipped away at the secular framework and strong democratic institutions that have long held India together despite its sometimes explosive religious and caste divisions.

Right-wing groups began using the immense power surrounding Modi as a shield to try to reshape Indian society. While the government stood idly by, their members sparked sectarian clashes before officials showed up, razing Muslim houses and rounding up Muslim men. Emboldened groups of vigilantes lynched Muslims they accused of smuggling beef (cows are sacred to many Hindus). Top leaders of Modi’s party have publicly praised Hindus who committed crimes against Muslims.

Bias runs rampant across much of the broadcast media, and especially on social media. WhatsApp groups spread conspiracy theories about Muslim men luring Hindu women to convert and even about Muslims spitting on restaurant food. While Modi and his party officials deny claims of discrimination by pointing to welfare programs that cover Indians equally, Modi himself is now repeating anti-Muslim tropes in elections that end early next month. He has targeted India’s 200 million Muslims more directly than ever before, calling them “infiltrators” and suggesting they have too many children.

This growing Islamophobia has now become the subject of Mr. Salam’s writings. Movies and music, the joys of life, feel smaller and smaller now. In a book, he documented the lynchings of Muslim men. In a recent follow-up, he described how Indian Muslims feel “orphaned” in their homeland.

“If I don’t focus on important issues and limit my energy to movies and literature, then I won’t be able to look in the mirror,” he said. “What will I tell my grandchildren tomorrow when they ask me what you were doing when you had an existential crisis?”

As a child, Mr. Salam lived on a Delhi street where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived together. When the afternoon sun becomes hot, children play under the trees in the courtyard of a Hindu temple. The priest will bring water for everyone.

“To him, I was just like any other kid,” Mr. Salam recalled.

These memories are one of the reasons Salaam remains stubbornly optimistic that India can regain its secular fabric. Another reason is that Modi’s Hindu nationalism, which has swept much of the country, has faced resistance in several of the country’s more prosperous southern states.

Family conversations among Muslims are very different: about college degrees, promotions, life plans—the usual aspirations.

In Tamil Nadu, often bickering political parties have united to protect secularism and focus on economic well-being. Its chief minister, MK Stalin, is an avowed atheist.

Jan Mohammed, who lives with his family of five in the state capital, Chennai, said neighbors attended each other’s religious celebrations. In rural areas, there is a tradition: when a community completes the construction of a place of worship, villagers from other faiths will come here with fruits, vegetables and flowers and stay to eat.

“It’s not just accommodation, it’s understanding,” Mr. Mohammed said.

His family were overachievers—the norm in the country where they were educated. Mr. Mohammed holds a master’s degree and works in the construction industry. His wife, Rukhsana, has a degree in economics and started an online clothing business when their children grew up. Maimoona Bushra’s daughter holds two master’s degrees, teaches at a local university and is preparing for her wedding. The youngest, Hafsa Lubna, holds a master’s degree in business and rose from intern at a local company to a 20-year-old manager in two years.

Two of the daughters had planned to pursue Ph.D. The only concern is that potential grooms will be intimidated.

Ms Ruksana joked: “The proposal failed.”

A thousand miles north, in Delhi, Mr. Salam’s family lives in what feels like another country. This is a place where prejudice is so commonplace that even friendships of 26 years can be broken up.

Mr. Salam nicknamed a former editor “The Man Mountain” because of his tall stature. He shielded Mr. Salam from the wind as they rode the editor’s motorcycle after get off work in Delhi winter.

They were often together; Mr Salam was present when his friend got his driving licence.

“I go to pray every day and he goes to the temple every day,” Mr. Salam said. “I used to respect him for that.”

A few years ago, things started to change. The first is WhatsApp messages.

The editor began forwarding to Mr. Salam some of the staples of anti-Muslim misinformation: For example, Muslims would rule India in 20 years because their women gave birth every year and their men could have four wives.

“At first, I said, ‘Why do you want to get involved in all this?’ I thought he was just an old man who got all this and forwarded it,” Mr. Salam said. “I give him the benefit of the doubt.”

The turning point came two years ago, when Yogi Adityanath, a Modi protégé, was re-elected as leader of Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh is a densely populated state bordering Delhi, where the Salam family lives. Adityanath, who has been more explicit about Muslims than Modi, governs in the saffron robes of a Hindu monk and often greets large crowds of Hindu pilgrims with flowers while cracking down on public displays of Muslim faith.

On the day of counting, the friend kept calling Mr. Salam, delighted that Mr. Adityanath was ahead. Just a few days earlier, the friend had been complaining about rising unemployment and the difficulty his son found in finding a job during Adityanath’s first term.

“I said, ‘You’ve been happy since this morning, what did you get?'” he recalled asking his friend.

“Yogi ended the namaz,” the friend replied, referring to Friday Muslim prayers that often spill into the streets.

“I said goodbye that day,” Mr. Salam said, “and he was never in my life again.”

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