Fear and cautious hope for India's Muslims in Modi era

Updated 18 May 2014

Fear and cautious hope for India's Muslims in Modi era

AHMEDABAD, India: Millions of India's Muslims fear Narendra Modi's landslide election will fuel religious discrimination, intolerance and even bring bloodshed, but some are also prepared to give him a chance.
Modi stormed to victory at the polls, throwing the left-leaning secular Congress from office and handing his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a powerful mandate for promised sweeping reforms.
Critics warn the size of the victory will empower Modi, steeped in nationalist ideology and tainted by riots, to run roughshod over religious minorities, particularly India's 150 million Muslims.
But some, at least, are hopeful that Modi's promise during the campaign of jobs and development to revive the stalled economy will benefit all classes, castes and religions, not just the Hindu majority.
"My hopes have been rekindled, I am looking forward to better days under his rule," said Abdul Salaam, 29, a Muslim tailor in Varanasi, a Hindu holy city which has a sizeable Muslim community.
Salaam pointed to the prosperity of western Gujarat state, where Modi was chief minister for 13 years, saying he hoped these policies could be reproduced nationally.
Muslim widow Parveen Banu, whose family was killed in communal riots in Gujarat, said the BJP leader would not dare turn against Muslims after weeks on the campaign trail preaching national unity.
Banu remembers running through the blood-splattered alleys of Gujarat's main city of Ahmedabad to escape the Hindu mobs that killed her husband and four children.
Banu, 40, has since rebuilt her life and now runs a shop selling mutton minutes from her home in a slum — 12 years after the riots that killed at least 1,000 people.
As chief minister at the time, Modi is dogged by allegations he failed to stop the bloodshed, although he has been cleared by a court investigation.
"Of course Modi hates Muslims, but as prime minister can he really afford to show it?" Banu said.
"Plus, he has spoken of cultural unity and he has to live up to our expectations and I believe he will. He's not crazy.
"I just hope Allah shows him the right way."
Despite the optimism that some Muslims have, many fear life under a Modi-led government and voted in large numbers against him. According to a nationwide post-poll survey, only nine percent of Muslims voted for the BJP while 43 percent opted for Congress.
"Muslims are the only community to vote in big numbers for Congress," Sanjay Kumar, whose Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies conducted the poll, said.
Congress, India's national secular force that has ruled for all but 13 years since independence, was obliterated, winning just 44 seats in the 543-member parliament.
Modi secured the strongest mandate of any Indian leader for 30 years, after the BJP won 282 seats, dominating even in states with large Muslim populations such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The number of Muslim lawmakers dropped from 30 in the outgoing parliament to a record low of 24, limiting their clout for the next five years, The Times of India said.
Nazma Begum, who runs a small cloth-dyeing business in Varanasi, said she feared few could now stop Modi and the hardline groups that are allied to the incoming prime minister.
"I find Modi scary. I never imagined he would have such a big win. It's sad because now he will have a free rein, he will do as he pleases. Who would dare to question him?" the 40-year-old Muslim widow said.
Modi himself struck a note of unity in his first comments after his win, saying: "I want to take all of you with me to take this country forward."
But while Modi has stressed inclusiveness and development, his top aide Amit Shah was briefly banned from campaigning for inflammatory comments seen as a bid to polarise voters along religious lines.
Modi also fought and won the seat of the sacred city Varanasi, viewed as an effective way of burnishing his nationalist credentials.
In the only Muslim-majority state, where an insurgency has long raged against Indian rule in favor of independence or merger with Pakistan, some Muslims are hopeful for Modi for different reasons.
Chief Muslim cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said he wanted the new government to take "bold steps" to solve the dispute over Kashmir.
Modi told media during the campaign that he would pursue the policies followed by former BJP premier Atal Behari Vajpayee, who sought several times to make permanent peace with Pakistan over Kashmir.
"Modi has won on the promise of development and progress which can happen when there is peace, but an unresolved Kashmir issue is a hindrance to peace," Farooq said.


Smoke haze settles over Australian capital as bushfires burn

Updated 19 min 37 sec ago

Smoke haze settles over Australian capital as bushfires burn

  • Residents of Canberra in the country’s southeast woke up to see the capital shrouded in haze Sunday
  • The state’s Bureau of Meteorology warned that the massive fires are 'in some cases just too big to put out at the moment.'

SYDNEY: Smoke haze from bushfires raging in Australia spread to the capital Sunday, as firefighters raced to contain more than 140 blazes ahead of a heatwave forecast early this week.

Australia is experiencing a horrific start to its fire season, which scientists say began earlier and is more extreme this year due to a prolonged drought and the effects of climate change.

Residents of Canberra in the country’s southeast woke up to see the capital shrouded in haze Sunday, joining those in Sydney who have endured weeks of toxic air pollution caused by bushfire smoke.

Officials said favorable weather conditions had given them a chance to bring several blazes under control before the forecast return of strong winds and high temperatures Tuesday.

Among those is a “mega fire” burning across 250,000 hectares within an hour’s drive of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, where ash from the fires has occasionally fallen.

Firefighters are now bracing for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to reach above 40 Celsius in parts of New South Wales state — worst-hit by the bushfires — and gusting westerly winds are likely to fan the flames.

“Today (fire) crews will be doing what they can to consolidate and strengthen containment lines, which in some areas will include backburning,” NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman Greg Allan told AFP.

But the state’s Bureau of Meteorology warned that the massive fires are “in some cases just too big to put out at the moment.”

“They’re pumping out vast amounts of smoke which is filling the air, turning the sky orange & even appearing like significant rain on our radars,” the department tweeted.

Nearly 50 reinforcements from the United States and Canada have been flown in to support fatigued firefighters in recent days, with the international contingent tasked with providing logistical assistance.

In neighboring Queensland, the focus was also on managing fatigue among frontline firefighters — who in both states are almost all volunteers — as weather there provided a brief reprieve from weeks of battling blazes.

“We’re just looking to wind down and recover and prepare for the next round, whenever that may be,” a Queensland Fire and Emergency Service spokesman told AFP.

Since the crisis began in September, six people have been killed, more than 700 homes destroyed and an estimated two million hectares (almost five million acres) scorched.

Though the human toll has been far lower than the deadliest fire season in 2009 — when almost 200 people died — the scale of this year’s devastation has been widely described as unprecedented, as Australians grapple with the impacts of a changing climate.

Official data shows 2019 is on track to be one of the hottest and driest years on record in Australia.