India is a nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions and cultures – with Hindus making up about 80 percent of India’s population and the rest of the country's 240 million citizens being non-Hindus.
The world's second-largest populated country is also home to roughly 172 million Muslims who form the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
Hindu-Muslim relations have been a central part of Indian politics since the partition divided the country, leading to the creation of Pakistan. The danger of communal violence is a constant worry in the world’s biggest democracy whose history is scarred by episodes of horrific clashes between the two communities.
At least 200,000 people were killed in the months after Britain left the subcontinent in 1947.
India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised India's minorities a safe future with equal rights and opportunities. Half of the subcontinent's Muslims chose to stay back.
But in the following decades, India witnessed the slow and steady rise of Hindu nationalism which eventually translated into several deadly riots, in which minorities especially Muslims and Sikhs were targeted.
After then-prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984, nearly 3,000 people were killed in the anti-Sikh riots that followed with rights activists accusing the Congress Party of having turned a blind eye while others say some of its leaders helped orchestrate the violence.
In the early 1990s, the Hindu right-wing organisations sharpened the focus on Indian Muslims. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mobilised Hindus across India to demolish a 500-year-old mosque in Ayodhya, a city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1992, Hindu zealots engaged in rioting and brought down the historic structure.
Another deadly riot broke out in Gujarat state in 2002, claiming at least 1,044 lives, mostly Muslims, while 223 others were reported missing and another 2,500 injured.
Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat at that time, faced criticism for deliberately ignoring the rioting in the Hindu-majority state and reacting late to it. He soon earned the name "butcher of Gujarat" for not controlling the violent Hindu mobs on time.
Again in September 2013, communal riots took place in Uttar Pradesh, killing 60 people and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and seek shelter in relief camps. Since the national elections were round the corner, many Indian journalists and activists accused the BJP of orchestrating the riots in the country's most populous state for political gains.
Apart from Muslims and Sikhs, India's Christian and Hindu Dalit minority communities have also been attacked from time to time.
In most cases of communal violence, Muslims comprised the majority of the victims.
Muslims, who make up 14 percent of the country's population, are among the most economically deprived sections of Indian society and have been a marginalised community in India when it came to buying property in many areas, being stereotyped, representation in the legislature and government posts.
When Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India in 2014, many people, especially members of the country’s Muslim minority community, were not too optimistic about the development.
Four years into Modi's rule, we take a look at how those fears have played out and if there has been any change in the conditions of Muslims living in the world’s largest democracy.
Mob attacks by extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, increased after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and his government failed to take action against such attacks, according to a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalised communities, and critics of the government became an increasing threat in India, the report added.
Muslims were the target of 52 percent of violence centred on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 84 percent of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents, according to an analysis by IndiaSpend, a news portal. As many as 139 people were also injured in these attacks.
As many of 97 percent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and half the cow-related violence – 30 of 60 cases – were from states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the attacks were reported, revealed in HRW's analysis of violence recorded until June 25, 2017.
More than half (52 percent) of these attacks were based on rumours, the analysis found.
In 30 percent of the cases security forces have filed complaints against the victims under laws banning cow slaughter, the report added.
The vigilante groups, often claiming to support the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Modi are emboldened by the silence or lack of strong condemnation from officials.
Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, India’s majority religion.
The landless Dalits were once barred from public places including temples and water taps frequented by higher-caste Hindus, and restricted to jobs considered dirty or dangerous such as manual scavenging and the disposal of animal carcasses.
Dalits are at the bottom of the age-old social hierarchy, making them vulnerable to discrimination and attacks by some upper-caste Hindus, including recent ones by hardline gau rakshak vigilantes who have lynched them on suspicion of eating beef or transporting cows, which they regard as sacred.
Dalits say they earn a livelihood from skinning cows and buffalos that die naturally.
Deprived of income
Another report by Reuters had found that in addition to attacks on Muslims on the grounds that they were sending animals to the slaughterhouse, the self-styled cow vigilante groups were re-distributing the cattle seized from Muslims among Hindu farmers and cow shelters, causing a further marginalisation of the minority community.
India's meat production industry, including tanneries and leather factories are mostly run by Muslims and hence are often the target of attacks by far-right Hindu groups who also accuse Muslims of eating beef or killing cows.
Some 22 people have been killed since the beginning of this year as result of mob lynchings, often in isolated areas.
In addition to criticism for condoning religious and ethnic violence, the government of Modi also came under attack for the marginalisation of Muslims who are opposed to the BJP government.
Both stars were branded as being against India and told to relocate to Pakistan if they couldn't subscribe to the views of the mainstream right-wing groups.
“Those opposing Narendra Modi are looking at Pakistan, and such people will have a place in Pakistan and not in India,” said Giriraj Singh, a senior BJP leader.
India stripped four million people of citizenship in the northeastern state of Assam in July this year under the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list, a controversial draft citizenship list that comprises mostly Muslims and has sparked fears of deportation of the largely Bengali-speaking community.
Indian officials tried to allay concerns that the list specifically targeted the country's Muslims community and NRC head Prateek Hajela told the BBC that those left out "are people from different religions and groups."
The BJP government has added a “Hindu first” version of Indian history to school curriculum, which had long taught that people from central Asia arrived in India much more recently, some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and transformed the population.
The Mughal Empire, established and governed by a Muslim dynasty, ruled most of the sub-continent in the 16th and 17th centuries before the arrival of British colonialists.
The government of Maharashtra state revised the curriculum of state textbooks by removing the Mughals from its history altogether.
Another step taken by the Indian government in this regard was to stop funding for the iconic Taj Mahal that was constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Noor Jehan.
The names of several towns and roads have also been changed from their Mughal-era Muslim names to give India a more Hindu feel and look.
Many people across the country criticised the move aiming to change the history.
'Forced conversions' and 'love jihad'
A report sponsored by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and titled 'Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India' found in January 2017 that in the Indian model of secularism, separation between religion and the state exists neither in the laws nor in practice and that the constitutional contains discriminatory provisions, which favour the majority religion.
There have been reports, supported by videos circulating online, that show right-wingers shaving off the beard of a Muslim convert and forcing him to renounce his religion.
Adding to the controversy, RSS-linked groups have stepped up a campaign against “Love Jihad” – a term for what they consider to be a strategy to convert Hindu women through seduction, marriage and money.
Previous police investigations have found no evidence of an organised Love Jihad. But the concept has gained credence across central India, leading to sometimes-violent protests, despite being considered an absurd conspiracy and a Supreme Court verdict related to one such case where the bench ruled that "Marriage has to be separated from criminal conspiracy and criminal aspects, otherwise it would create a bad precedent."
While avoiding the term Love Jihad, Modi’s BJP adopted the subject of forced conversions as a campaign issue ahead of September 13 by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, a state prone to sectarian strife.
Written in 2011, it links the concept of Love Jihad to the rule of Muslim Mughals in India centuries ago – a popular theme with Hindu nationalists who feel Hinduism was weakened by foreign rule.
Police say sporadic cases of trickery by unscrupulous men are not evidence of a broader conspiracy. In Uttar Pradesh, police found no evidence of attempted or forced conversion in five of six reported Love Jihad cases in the past three months.
“In most cases, we found that a Hindu girl and Muslim boy were in love and had married against their parents’ will,” state police chief AL Banerjee told Reuters. “These are cases of love marriages and not Love Jihad.”
'Triple talaq ban'
Modi's government banned a law that allowed Muslim men to divorce their wives simply by uttering the word talaq three times. Muslim women say they were left destitute by husbands divorcing them through “triple talaq”, including by Skype and WhatsApp messages.
The changes in the law make the practice a non-bailable offence with a possible three-year jail term.
Many Muslim countries have banned triple talaq, including neighbouring Pakistan and conservative Saudi Arabia. India was one of the few countries where the practice of instant divorce survived in law.
It survived in India because the officially secular country allows religious communities to apply their own laws in personal matters such as marriage, divorce and property inheritance.
While some Muslim groups said the law was wrong, they believed it should be reviewed by the community itself. Triple talaq is not against women in every case; since sometimes it offered them a quick exit from a bad marriage.
The steps to ban the law saw fierce opposition, from influential Muslim elders and teachers and also saw an unconventional alliance between Modi and the Muslim women's community.
A separate survey covering 10 other states found last year that 92 percent of Muslim women supported a ban on the immediate triple talaq divorce, raising the possibility that some, in the moment of pushing a voting machine button, might defy their community and choose the space next to the BJP’s lotus flower instead.
The chairwoman of the Muslim women’s advocacy group that did the national survey, Zakia Soman, ran children’s schools in the relief camps for victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
“It is true that Muslims can’t trust him (Modi) after the Gujarat riots, but triple talaq is a separate issue,” Soman said in a telephone interview.
Some critics of Modi had also pointed out the political intentions behind the move especially after the Indian Prime Minister Modi claimed complete credit for the change in law.