India's top Muslim cleric wants govt to change its ways

PM Modi's party seeks to mend fences with the Islamic community ahead of national elections next May
India's top Muslim cleric wants govt to change its ways

Indian Muslims leave after attending prayers on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan at the Jama Masjid in the old quarters of New Delhi on June 8. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national government has been accused of not doing enough to help the nation’s Muslim population who have been "targeted and abused." (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

The chief cleric of India's Muslims, who comprise more than 14 percent of the nation's 1.2 billion people, has accused the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national government of abusing practitioners of Islam.

Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, popularly known as Shahi Imam, issued a public statement after a June 9 meeting with the federal minister for parliamentary affairs, Vijay Goel, held ahead of elections due next May.

Bukhari, who leads prayers at India's largest mosque, New Delhi's Jamia Masjid, had previously spoken out against the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had a landslide election win in 2014.

BJP leaders are now trying to improve their image with Muslims in the majority-Hindu nation, but Bukhari underscored the challenge they face. While more positive treatment of India's 172 million Muslims would be welcome, Bukhari stressed that the BJP had lost considerable support.

"They (BJP) leaders have come to us but Muslims are targeted and abused. There is one year left for election if they do something, it's welcome but we have a lot of complaints," Bukhari said in his statement.

Observers note that Bukhari's renewed criticism of the government could, in itself, damage the BJP's election prospects.

The BJP in 2014 won 282 of 543 seats in the national parliament, but Modi's popularity has since waned.

A survey conducted by India Today television in May showed that only 34 percent of those polled expressed a preference for Modi as prime minister, a two percent drop.

His Congress Party rival, Rahul Gandhi, improved his popularity by 10 percent to 26 percent as measured by those who want him to be the next prime minister.

During the 2014 elections, eight percent of Muslims voted for the BJP, nearly double the 2009 share, according to the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

However, this time would be different, stressed Iqbal Ahmad, a New Delhi based political commentator.

Muslims under BJP rule felt more vulnerable and insecure than ever before, he said.

"There are several cases of failed justice for crimes committed against Muslims and this has disheartened the community," Ahmad added.

He cited the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl from Jammu and Kashmir state by hard-line Hindus and allegedly open support for the accused by elements of the BJP.

"In April, an Indian court overturned the conviction of senior BJP member Maya Kodnani who was sentenced to 28 years in jail for her part in the murder of 97 people in 2002 in the state of Gujarat," Ahmad said.

"These things are clear examples of the BJP's vindictive mindset against Muslims."

Babur Jan, a lawyer based in Jammu and Kashmir, accused the national government of openly patronizing anti-Muslim groups.

Jan said many people believed that political interference resulted in a court in April acquitting 11 people accused over a 2007 mosque explosion in the south-eastern city of Hyderabad that killed nine people.

He said this year BJP ruled Uttar Pradesh state began the process of withdrawing more than 130 communal violence-related prosecution cases, including against Hindu politicians allegedly involved in instigating 2013 clashes that cost the lives of 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus.

Ankita Das, a civil society activist based in New Delhi, told that Muslims had reason to feel they received "step-motherly treatment" from the BJP.

This had included numerous references to Muslims being foreigners who should leave India.

Such things would not be forgotten when Muslims vote, Das predicted.

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