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Indian Prime Minister Modi Accused of ‘Hate Speech’ Toward Muslims in Campaign Rally

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under fire for invoking anti-Muslim tropes in a speech on Sunday as he campaigns in the nation’s ongoing general election.

Speaking to a large crowd at a rally in the western state of Rajasthan, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader made controversial remarks describing Muslims as “infiltrators.” Modi said that if the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, is voted into power at the end of the weeks’ long election, they would unfairly distribute wealth. 

“When they were in power, they said Muslims have first right over resources. They will gather all your wealth and distribute it among those who have more children,” Modi told a crowd of supporters. “Do you think your hard-earned money should be given to infiltrators? Would you accept this?” he said of India’s Muslim population, which consists of around 230 million people. 

The remarks appeared to be a reference to harmful tropes that accuse Muslims of displacing Hindus by building large families. The comments have been widely criticized by opposition leaders and prominent Muslim figures and triggered anger worldwide. Local polls officials confirmed to Al Jazeera that they had received two complaints calling for Modi’s campaign suspension and arrest. 

As the world’s most populous nation, India is home to some 1.44 billion citizens. Modi’s BJP party has been criticized for viewing the Muslim community, which includes asylum seekers and refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar, as outsiders. 

Critics say Modi’s comments build on a divisive campaign of Hindu nationalism has been associated with the ruling BJP, which is expected to claim a third consecutive term.

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“Modi today called Muslims infiltrators and people with many children. Since 2002 till this day, the only Modi guarantee has been to abuse Muslims and get votes,” Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim lawmaker and president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen said in a post on social media platform X.

Meanwhile, congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge said Modi’s comments constitute “hate speech” and form “a well thought-out ploy to divert attention.” In a post on X, he added that Modi has been influenced by “the values of the Sangh,” referencing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu paramilitary organization that Modi was affiliated with in his youth. “In the history of India, no prime minister has lowered the dignity of his post as much as Modi has,” Kharge said. 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—the United States’ largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization—also condemned Modi’s speech in a statement shared with TIME on Monday. 

“It is unconscionable, but not surprising, that far-right Hindutva leader Narendra Modi would target Indian Muslims with a hateful and dangerous diatribe despite his role as the leader of a nation with such a diverse religious heritage,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.

CAIR also called on U.S. President Joe Biden to declare India a “Country of Particular Concern" over its systematic treatment of Indian Muslims and other minority groups. Modi was previously denied entry into the U.S. in 2005, due to his proximity to the 2002 Gujarat massacres during his term as chief minister of the state from 2001 to 2014. The religiously charged riots saw more than 1,000 people killed, with most of them Muslims.

Modi claimed the nation’s top political role in 2014, with a focus on development and anti-corruption. He was re-elected with a landslide victory in 2019 with a more Hindu nationalist agenda. 

Anti-Muslim hate speech has been soaring in India, with a recent report by the Washington-based research group India Hate Lab recording 668 cases in 2023. While 255 events took place in the first half of 2023, the figure rose to 413 in the second half of the year, marking a 63% increase.. The report documented that 75% of the total instances that year took place in BJP-ruled states. 

In light of Sunday’s remarks, opposition leaders are calling for the Election Commission of India  (ECI) to investigate whether Modi’s speech breaches its code of conduct. The code stipulates that politicians cannot appeal to voters on the basis of  “caste” and “communal feelings,” nor can they run campaigns that “aggravate differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension” between communities.

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