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Can Muslims get a fair shake in India?

India is back to square one, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's move Monday to scrap special political rights for a Muslim-majority state in the Hindu-dominated country. The Muslim-rights issue, which led to the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland in 1947, has now resurfaced: Can the Muslims get a fair shake in India?

By scraping Kashmir's special autonomy status, Modi has taken a dangerous step toward implementing the vision of his ultra-nationalist party's spiritual guru, the late V.D. Savarkar, who proposed more than 90 years ago to keep minorities under control in an India ruled by the Hindu majority.

Sitting in a prison cell on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, the convicted-armed-revolutionary-turned-Indian-nationalist drew up his solution to the vexing question of India's minorities. His idea: The Muslims and Christians can stay in India, but they will be subservient to the Hindus; they will be granted no rights that may infringe upon Hindu rights; and since they are minorities, they must obey the majority.

This was not his initial plan, however. He initially wanted to convert the Muslims and the Christians back into Hindu. But he faced a big obstacle. Savarkar could convert the Muslims or the Christians, but could not arbitrarily decide their caste. A Hindu must belong to a hierarchical caste, and it is acquired through birth only. Hindu religion does not permit assigning a caste.

To overcome this insurmountable barrier, he revised his idea. He decided he is a Hindu, not an Indian. His motherland is Hindustan, which encompasses the land from the Himalayas to the Indus River. Hindustan boasts a 5,000-year-old rich culture, which influenced a vast number of people from Greece to Japan. On the contrary, India is a concept championed by the nationalists who wanted an independent united country for all of its inhabitants, regardless of their religion.

Muslims and Christians Unwelcome

In Savarkar's Hindudom, the Muslims and the Christians were less than welcome. He disliked them because of their allegiance to Mecca and Rome; they worshiped foreign gods and had no cultural affinity toward Hindustan. Even though Buddhists and Sikhs were no longer pure, they were still acceptable because their religions originated in Hindustan.

Sarvarkar, an atheist who labeled his vision as non-religious and cultural, was unwilling to give the Muslims a separate homeland next to Hindustan. He feared that even though they were only 25 percent of the total population, they could still someday reconquer Hindustan if they were allowed to have their own country. The Muslims were a small band, too, when they conquered India in 712 AD and eventually built a vast empire. 

He figured that the next time around they would be in a much stronger position to repeat their past success, because they would receive support from other Muslim nations. To nip that possibility in the bud, he supported the creation of Israel. He saw the Jewish state as a barricade against the Muslim Arab world.

He feared a Muslim resurgence so much that he wanted British rule in India to continue. He sought only dominion status for Hindustan. Only Britain, he believed, was powerful enough to keep the Muslims at bay if they ever attempted to invade Hindustan again.

But to his chagrin the nationalist tide swept India, as independence stalwarts like M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Moulana Abul Kalam Azad pressed the colonial power to leave. Savarkar's idea took the back seat, but remained very much alive, even though malnourished.

After the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, the Indian National Congress party, the champion of secular India, fell on hard times; it had no comparable charismatic leader to carry forward the torch. Savarkar's followers gradually gained ground and picked Modi, who was once condemned globally as the mastermind behind Muslim massacre in his home state of Gujrat, as the reincarnation of their guru.

Modi shows anti-Muslim bias

With a huge re-election victory two months ago, Modi embarked upon implementing Savarkar's dream to appease his hardcore anti-Muslim forces. First, he nullified a Muslim marriage law that had existed for centuries. India's constitution, however, protects religious laws of other minority groups, and Modi did not touch them, showing his bias against Islam. Even the Mogul or the British did not touch India's religious laws.

On Monday, keeping Muslims leaders under house arrest and deploying tens of thousands of soldiers in Kashmir, the prime minister moved to take away the special rights — own flag, own law and property rights — granted by India's constitution to the state in a blitzkrieg exercise in a matter of hours.

Imran Khan, prime minister of nuclear-armed Pakistan, arch-rival of nuclear-armed India, has threatened war. Pakistan considers Kashmir a disputed territory. China, which occupies parts of the state, denounced India's action as “unacceptable,” but is unlikely to take any military action. Pakistan can do very little on its own, unless it wants to risk a nuclear confrontation. Washington seems less than thrilled to stick out its neck. Nonetheless, the danger level remains high, and the fallout will be felt in India and plague its neighbors.