After India were thrashed by arch-rival Pakistan in the T20 Cricket World Cup, fast bowler Mohammed Shami was vilified by furious Hindu fans who accused the team’s only Muslim player of deliberately throwing the game.
Virat Kohli, the Indian captain, fired back, citing Shami’s “passion for the country” and his other high-class performances for the team. “Attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing a human being can do,” Kohli declared, for which he was subjected to a torrent of abuse as well as threats against his toddler daughter.
India were one of the favourites to win the World Cup but have struggled to make an impact on the tournament and are on the brink of elimination after losing to New Zealand in their next game.
Shami did not bowl well against Pakistan but neither did any of his non-Muslim teammates as they failed to take a single wicket in Dubai.
“The Hindu-Muslim divide is so deep in the public sphere,” said Hilal Ahmed, a professor at New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “If India wins, the credit will go to Hindu players. But if India loses, the responsibility will be put on Muslim players.”
India’s rage over the lost cricket match is not confined to social media. Accused of celebrating Pakistan’s victory, several Indian Muslims — a school teacher, engineering students and students and staff of a Kashmiri medical college — were sacked from government jobs, expelled from their colleges and even detained on charges of terrorism and sedition.
The draconian response reflects the deepening marginalisation of India’s Muslim community, whose 200m citizens are routinely depicted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as an internal security threat.
“This shows a paranoid nationalism wherein you are looking for enemies,” said political scientist Asim Ali. “Cricket provides the acid test to prove patriotism . . . It’s all about using big events to drive home the message that Muslims’ loyalty is always in question. You cannot trust Muslims to be patriotic.”
Indian governments used to promote harmony between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority, emphasising the country’s secular polity. But analysts said the BJP was redefining India as a primarily Hindu nation, in which Muslims would be tolerated if they acknowledge Hindu supremacy and remain within well-defined boundaries.
Most BJP-ruled states have criminalised interfaith marriages, citing an alleged Muslim “love jihad” plot to erode Hindus’ numerical superiority, and restricted the meat and leather trade, from which many Muslims draw their livelihood.
Officials supportive of the Hindu agenda are also using colonial-era laws to harass and intimidate Muslims, often at the instigation of Hindu mobs.
This year, a young Muslim comedian spent 36 days in jail after Hindu vigilantes took exception to some of his irreverent jokes, and demanded his arrest under a colonial statute making it a crime to “deliberately outrage the religious feelings of any community”.
Few such cases result in criminal convictions, and lawyers said sedition charges for cheering for Pakistan were unlikely to be successful. But given the sluggish pace of the overloaded courts, prisoners awaiting trial face long incarcerations and hefty legal fees before being freed.
“It has become normal to file criminal complaints disproportionately against Muslims whose speech doesn’t conform to the Hindu supremacist narrative,” said Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer. “The process that follows is itself the punishment . . . Once you are in the system, it can take a long time to get bail.”
Ordinary Muslims are not the only Indians under legal pressure. The country has been mesmerised by last month’s jailing of Aryan Khan, the 23-year-old son of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, who has served as a brand ambassador for the opposition-ruled state of West Bengal.
The younger Khan was arrested on a cruise from Mumbai to Goa and accused of an international drug “conspiracy”. No drugs were found in his possession and the main evidence cited was a WhatsApp message about having “a blast”.
He was detained for 25 days before being freed on bail and now awaits prosecution on what many in the public see as trumped-up charges.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading academic, called the case “an expansion of the empire of fear and cruelty” intended as a powerful warning from the government to Indian society. “The point is to say, ‘we can make life miserable even for Aryan Khan,’” Mehta wrote in the Indian Express.
Analysts expect religious polarisation to intensify in the coming months as the BJP prepares for next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and a BJP stronghold.
Ali said the prosecution of Muslims had acquired an “organic” momentum, as civil servants tried to please their BJP political bosses in a “competitive radicalisation” of state machinery.
“Anti-Muslim actions get you into the favour of the top establishment,” he said.
Ahmed, from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the BJP was stoking communal tensions to draw attention away from an economy still struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The country is facing a tremendous economic crisis,” Ahmed said. “But to divert attention we are raising issues of Hindu victimhood and Muslim victimhood. You need film stars and cricket stars to create an environment where economics will not become national issues.”