Why Narendra Modi Called India’s Muslims ‘Infiltrators’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his power at home secured and his Hindu-first vision deeply entrenched, has set his sights in recent years on a role as a global statesman, riding India’s economic and diplomatic rise. In doing so, he has distanced himself from his party’s staple work of polarizing India’s diverse population along religious lines for its own electoral gain.

His silence provided tacit backing as vigilante groups continued to target non-Hindu minority groups and as members of his party routinely used hateful and racist language, even in Parliament, against the largest of those groups, India’s 200 million Muslims. With the pot kept boiling, Mr. Modi’s subtle dog whistles — with references to Muslim dress or burial places — could go a long way domestically while providing enough deniability to ensure that red carpets remained rolled out abroad for the man leading the world’s largest democracy.

Just what drove the prime minister to break with this calculated pattern in a fiery campaign speech on Sunday — when he referred to Muslims by name as “infiltrators” with “more children” who would get India’s wealth if his opponents took power — has been hotly debated. It could be a sign of anxiety that his standing with voters is not as firm as believed, analysts said. Or it could be just a reflexive expression of the kind of divisive religious ideology that has fueled his politics from the start.

But the brazenness made clear that Mr. Modi sees few checks on his enormous power. At home, watchdog institutions have been largely bent to the will of his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. Abroad, partners increasingly turn a blind eye to what Mr. Modi is doing in India as they embrace the country as a democratic counterweight to China.

“Modi is one of the world’s most skilled and experienced politicians,” said Daniel Markey, a senior adviser in the South Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace. “He would not have made these comments unless he believed he could get away with it.”

Mr. Modi may have been trying to demonstrate this impunity, Mr. Markey said, “to intimidate the B.J.P.’s political opponents and to show them — and their supporters — just how little they can do in response.”

The prime minister sees himself as the builder of a new, modern India on the march toward development and international respect. But he also wants to leave a legacy that is distinctly different from that of the leaders who founded the country as a secular republic after British colonial rule.

Before joining its political offshoot, he spent more than a decade as a cultural foot soldier of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., a right-wing organization founded in 1925 with the mission of making India a Hindu state. The group viewed it as treason when an independent India agreed to a partition that created Pakistan as a separate nation for Muslims, embraced secularism and gave all citizens equal rights. A onetime member went so far as to assassinate Mohandas K. Gandhi in outrage.

Over his decade in national power, Mr. Modi has been deeply effective in advancing some of the central items of the Hindu-right agenda. He abolished the semi-autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. He enacted a citizenship law widely viewed as prejudiced against Muslims. And he helped see through the construction of a grand temple to the Hindu deity Ram on a plot long disputed between Hindus and Muslims.

The violent razing in 1992 of the mosque that had stood on that land — which Hindu groups said was built on the plot of a previous temple — was central to the national movement of Hindu assertiveness that ultimately swept Mr. Modi to power more than two decades later.

More profoundly, Mr. Modi has shown that the broader goals of a Hindu state can largely be achieved within the bounds of India’s constitution — by co-opting the institutions meant to protect equality.

Officials in his party have a ready rebuttal to any complaint along these lines. How could Mr. Modi discriminate against anyone, they say, if all Indian citizens benefit equally from his government’s robust welfare offerings — of toilets, of roofs over heads, of monthly rations?

That argument, analysts say, is telling in showing how Mr. Modi has redefined democratic power not as leadership within checks and balances, but as the broad generosity of a strongman, even as he has redefined citizenship in practice to make clear there is a second class.

Secularism — the idea that no religion will be favored over any other — has largely been co-opted to mean that no religion will be allowed to deny Hindus their dominance as the country’s majority, his critics say. Officials under Mr. Modi, who wear their religion on their sleeves and publicly mix prayer with politics, crack down on public expressions of other religions as breaching India’s secularism.

While right-wing officials promote conversion to Hinduism, which they describe as a “return home,” they have introduced laws within many of the states they govern that criminalize conversion from Hinduism. Egged on by such leaders, Hindu extremists have lynched Muslim men accused of transporting cows or beef and hounded them over charges of “love jihad” — or luring Hindu women. Vigilantes have frequently barged into churches and accosted priests they believe have engaged in proselytizing or conversion.

“What they have done is to create a permissive environment which encourages hate and valorizes hate,” said Harsh Mander, a former civil servant who is now a campaigner for social harmony.

In reference to Mr. Modi’s speech on Sunday, he added: “This open resort to this kind of hate speech will only encourage that hard-line Hindu right in society.”

Tom Vadakkan, a spokesman for the B.J.P., said the prime minister’s comments on Muslims had been misinterpreted. Mr. Modi, Mr. Vadakkan said, was referring to “intruders” or “illegal migrants” who the party claims are being used by the political opposition to “redefine the demography.”

Privately, Western diplomats in New Delhi do little to hide their discomfort with some of Mr. Modi actions as a democratic ally, from the targeting of minorities to his crackdowns on opposition and dissent. But they acknowledge that he is exploiting a particularly open season in the global order, with many of their own capitals providing a less positive example than they once did, and with so much focus on China and trade deals.

Mr. Markey, the Washington-based analyst, said the U.S. government was holding back from voicing concerns publicly for several reasons beyond its national interest in having India serve as an economic and geopolitical counterweight to China.

The United States, he said, realizes the growing limits of its public criticism in changing partner nations’ behavior. That was demonstrated most recently by the repeated instances in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel ignored President Biden’s demands that the Israeli military change its conduct within the war in Gaza.

Criticism of Mr. Modi, Mr. Markey added, could also backfire for U.S. politicians who “do not want to get crosswise with Indian diaspora groups.”

But Mr. Modi may not remain immune as he pursues closer partnerships with the United States in areas like joint weapons manufacturing, transfer of high technology and sharing of intelligence.

“My sense is that Washington’s increasing discomfort with Modi’s domestic politics is gradually lowering the ceiling of potential U.S. cooperation with India,” Mr. Markey said. “The question is just how far Washington is willing to trust India. Will India be treated as an ally in everything but name, or as a partner more like Vietnam or Saudi Arabia?”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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