India's Muslims fear for their future under Narendra Modi

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Shaukat Ali
Image caption,
Shaukat Ali was accosted by a mob in Assam state

With an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in India in recent years, some fear the world's largest democracy is becoming dangerously intolerant under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan reports.

It happened just days before the first phase of voting in the Indian elections.

A Muslim trader in the north-eastern state of Assam was leaving work when he was accosted by a mob.

Shaukat Ali was surrounded by the group, forced to kneel in sludge as he was attacked.

"Are you Bangladeshi?" one man shouted, questioning his Indian citizenship.

"Why did you sell beef here?" asked another as he jabbed his finger at Mr Ali.

Instead of stepping in to help, the crowds that gathered filmed the incident on their mobile phones.

'An attack on my entire faith'

A month later and Mr Ali is still struggling to walk. I met him at his home, a short drive from the market, surrounded by lush verdant countryside and rice fields.

As the 48-year-old sat cross-legged on his bed, his eyes filled with tears as he recounted the horror of what happened.

"They beat me with a stick, they kicked me in the face," he said, showing me the injuries to his rib cage and his head.

For decades his family have served beef curry from their small food stall - but never before had they faced such trouble. Some states have made it illegal to sell beef because Hindus consider the cow sacred - but it is legal to sell it in Assam.

Shaukat Ali wasn't just injured physically - he was stripped of his dignity. The mob made the devout Muslim to eat pork, forcing him to chew it and then gulp it down.

"I have no reason to live now, " he said as he broke down, "This was an attack on my entire faith."

On the day we met, dozens of members of the local Muslim community had gathered at his house to check on Mr Ali. As they listened to his story, some started to cry as they wondered if they were now vulnerable too.

Image caption,
Villagers came to support Mr Ali after the incident

As the world's largest democracy goes to the polls, questions are being raised about how inclusive India is to its large Muslim minority population of 172 million.

Shaukat Ali is the latest victim of an increasing number of attacks perpetrated on those selling, or suspected of selling beef.

A February 2019 report from Human Rights Watch found that between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people - 36 of them Muslims - were killed across 12 Indian states. Around 280 people were injured in more than 100 incidents across 20 states over the same period.

In her annual report, United Nations Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet raised concerns over "increasing harassment and targeting of minorities - in particular, Muslims and people from historically disadvantaged and marginalised groups, such as Dalits (formerly known as untouchables)."

Religious violence claiming victims of all faiths has been an unwelcome mainstay of this country's history since its inception.

But there's real concern that those who wield power in today's India are embracing a culture of impunity.

One of the most chilling examples was what happened in the aftermath of one of the most gruesome gang rapes in India in recent years.

In January last year, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was taking the family's horses to graze, when she was kidnapped in Kathua district in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Held captive for a week in a Hindu temple, she was drugged and repeatedly gang raped and tortured before she was murdered.

A police report filed afterwards said the crime was part of a plan by a group of Hindu men to drive the nomadic Muslim Bakerwal community that she belonged to, away from the area.

More than a year on, a policeman stands guard outside her family home in a remote part of Kathua, hidden at the end of a long and bumpy dirt track.

"They said this is the daughter of a Muslim, kill her and they'll get scared and run away," her father told me as he wiped tears from his eyes.

Image caption,
The video of Mr Ali being forced to eat pork went viral, sparking outrage

Her parents refuse to give up the home their little girl once lived in, but they're concerned about their safety.

"We're scared to go out now as we fear for our lives," her mother said. "If we step out, people swear at us and threaten to beat us."

In the aftermath of the eight-year-old girl's death, hundreds took to the streets and marched. But many of the local protests were in support of the eight Hindu men charged with the gruesome attack, and not in solidarity with the victim and her family.

Two BJP ministers serving in the state government, Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, were among those who took to the streets to support the alleged perpetrators.

"This one girl has died and there is so much of investigation. There have been many deaths of women here," Mr Singh reportedly told a rally at the time.

India votes 2019

While Mr Modi condemned the rape, he didn't call for the men to resign immediately. It took weeks of pressure for them to step down.

"The party did not want Mr Ganga and Mr Singh to step down. They resigned because media created an impression that they were supporting the rape accused," he said.

This wasn't an isolated case. There have been several instances where members of the BJP party have openly supported the perpetrators of religious violence, showing a blatant disregard for those who have suffered.

The party espouses a Hindu nationalist ideology and some of its senior figures call for a Hindu state. But party leaders have repeatedly stressed that they are not anti-minority.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
BJP president Amit Shah has referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as "termites" at rallies

A group of men accused of beating 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq to death with bricks in 2015 because they suspected him of killing a cow, were spotted at an election rally held by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

The controversial BJP politician, who was recently ordered by India's election commission to suspend campaigning for a few days last month over his anti-Islam rhetoric, often shares the stage with Mr Modi.

Most recently, Jayant Sinha, the civil aviation minister who sits in Mr Modi's cabinet, told the BBC that he had funded the legal fees for a group of men who were given the death penalty for killing a Muslim cattle trader in 2017.

In an interview with BBC Hindi's Jugal Purohit, Mr Sinha said he helped the convicts, who were BJP members, because he believed they were wrongly convicted.

Leading writer and political activist Arundhati Roy, who has been a vocal critic of the BJP government, describes these sort of actions as "an outsourcing of terror", arguing that vigilante groups are able to carry out such crimes because they are protected from above.

"It's not just the leaders that we have to look to. What is happening to the mind of people who are constantly being fed this sort of hatred - to call that kind of poison back is going to be hard, " she told me.

But BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli rejects any assertion that his party's policies have contributed to a rise in hate crime. He accused the UN and human rights reports of "skewing statistics to build up a narrative that does not exist".

Mr Kohli stressed that under a Modi government, the BJP has provided welfare which has led to the development of people of all faiths. The party is for all 1.3 billion Indians, and does not discriminate based on religion, he said.

Media caption,

India's elections: Why you should care

But as India goes to the polls, some fear that a second BJP term could bring this country closer to a majoritarian state.

One of the party's manifesto pledges is to remove all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who are living in India.

The party has promised an amnesty for some - Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains - but Muslims are notably excluded.

At campaign rallies, BJP president Amit Shah refers to these immigrants as "termites" and "infiltrators", drawing scorn from many quarters.

In the district of Goalpara in Assam, a group of villagers are seated in a circle on plastic chairs.

Many are holding pieces of paper with photos of their family members on it.

Last year, people across this state were asked to present documentation of their family trees and prove that they're Indian. In this case, having the documentation to prove they entered Assam before 24 March 1971 - a day before neighbouring Bangladesh declared independence.

Ufaan, a mother of four, unfolds a piece of paper. On the top is a photo of her husband who died last year, and below him are the faces of her young boys.

Her family was born in India, but none of them ended up on the government's National Register of Citizens (NRC). Four million residents - many of them Muslims- didn't make the list either.

Image caption,
A young boy holds up his documentation papers in Assam state

Ufaan is terrified this means she might be thrown out of the only country she calls home.

Sitting close by is Mohammed Samsul, who is also living on edge. He tells me his grandfather and father were born in Assam and both appeared on the register. He says even though he has all the paperwork, he's not appeared on the NRC register.

"We're living in constant fear. I'm scared the police will come at night and take our family away to a refugee camp."

The BJP maintains their policy is only aimed at illegal immigrants, but there are real fears it could be used to throw out any Muslims.

India's strength lies in its diversity. The right for all religions to co-exist is enshrined in this country's constitution. But many fear the current political climate is compromising that basic secular principle.