COLUMBUS, Ohio — During the electoral campaign in India that has just brought the Bharatiya Janata Party to power, one regional BJP leader said anyone who voted against Narendra Modi, BJP candidate for prime minister, would have to leave India and go to Pakistan. Pakistan is the Muslim-majority state that split off from India when India gained independence from Great Britain. India is Hindu-majority. Mass killing accompanied the split, and the ethnic relationship has remained troublesome.
Rhetoric like that coming from the BJP regional leader has India’s 140 million Muslims worried now that Modi has won the election and has taken office.
In India, Muslims lead a tenuous existence. They face discrimination in jobs and in housing. Their economic status is well below that of Hindus. Yet since independence, India has had a government that, while Hindu-dominated, has made efforts to accommodate India’s Muslims. The rallying cry of the BJP in its years as an opposition party has been Hindu nationalism. That translates as promoting the well-being of Hindus over that of Muslims.
Modi was quick to distance himself from the statement of the regional BJP leader. The BJP is not totally unified on the ethnic question. The regional leader is part of a BJP faction that is more hostile than Modi to India’s Muslims.
Still, Modi’s victory has India’s Muslims on edge. They don’t know what to expect. Modi needs the BJP extremist wing, so he may have to cater to their strident anti-Muslim views.
Making the Muslims even more nervous is the fact that the Obama administration has rushed to embrace Modi. In terms of U.S. interests as conceived by the Obama administration, Modi’s election is cause for elation. Modi is more pro-business than prior governments of India. So the possibilities are greater for penetration of the Indian market by U.S. companies. Moreover, the Obama administration is trying to isolate China with Obama’s “pivot toward Asia,” and for that purpose it needs India as a second major power in the region.
But the BJP’s anti-Muslim tendency and Modi’s own less than promising record on the issue raise serious issues about the Obama approach. In 2002, Modi was chief minister of one of India’s states that experienced serious Muslim-Hindu violence. A train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked, apparently by Muslims. The attackers killed 59 of the Hindu pilgrims. In reaction, mobs of Hindus attacked Muslims in a killing spree that went on for an entire week, leaving an estimated 1,000 Muslims dead. More than 150,000 Muslims fled their homes out of fear.
Modi did not promote that anti-Muslim violence, but his police force did little to step in. Several of Modi’s subordinates were convicted criminally for promoting atrocities that included cutting Muslims to pieces with knives or burning Muslims alive.
In 2005, the administration of George W. Bush refused Modi a visitor’s visa to enter the United States. The reason was Modi’s role in the 2002 killings. But after Modi’s recent victory, President Obama called to invite him to Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry sent regards, and Kerry’s assistant for South Asia tweeted about a “wonderful celebration of democracy.” If the Obama administration becomes overly cozy with Modi, Obama will be seen as anti-Muslim. Given the bad rap America has on that score, after our wars of the past decade, we don’t need to provide Muslims another reason not to like us. We risk bringing on ourselves more violence. Moreover, embracing Modi could give him the political space to keep India’s Muslims down.
The Obama administration should step cautiously. We have to have good relations with India. It is a country of 1.2 billion. But we have to let Modi know we are watching him.
John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, Ohio 43210.