Aman Madan is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian politics.

As it raced to victory in India’s general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party relied heavily on a sectarian strategy that demonized the country’s Muslim minority. It nominated Pragya Singh Thakur, who is accused of participating in a 2008 terrorist attack that killed six Muslims in western India. In April, Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, threatened to expel Muslim migrants — whom he called “infiltrators” and “termites” — if the party was reelected.

It comes as little surprise that the right-wing BJP and its ideological allies champion Hindu supremacy, given their history of pandering to such elements. What is more surprising is that the party has cultivated a Muslim wing to increase support for its Hindu nationalist agenda in Muslim communities — and with it, managed to create a modern Muslim face for Hindu nationalism.

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Founded in 2002 by a volunteer for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — a Hindu nationalist organization and BJP ally that wants to turn India into a Hindu “rashtra,” or state — the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM) is a Muslim social organization that supports Hindu nationalist objectives.

Its support for the BJP has given the Hindu right wing a politically expedient loophole to rebut criticism that the party and its affiliates are exclusively Hindu. This in turn makes the BJP and its Hindu nationalism platform appear more marketable to the Indian masses — particularly the country’s Muslim population, of which only 8 percent voted for the BJP in 2014.

While it is noteworthy to see a Muslim face affiliated with the BJP, that is all the organization is: a face. In months leading up to this year’s election, it ignored calls from Muslim communities for structural reform. A 2006 commission found that Muslims were disadvantaged in areas of formal economic opportunity and access to general education. More than a decade later, many suspect that this structural inequity not only persists but also might have worsened.

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Yet, instead of deploying its more than 10,000 members to lobby the Modi-led government for these reforms, the MRM has focused its advocacy on other areas.

This includes defending the BJP government’s decision to ban triple talaq, a form of Muslim divorce in which a man can instantly divorce his wife by saying “talaq” three times. Triple talaq was prohibited by the Supreme Court in 2017 after the BJP threw its support behind talaq opposers. Though the MRM framed this support as advocacy on behalf of Muslim women, critics believed that it could be used to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Muslims and blur the separation between government laws and personal, or religious, laws, ultimately leading to the erosion of secularism.

The MRM also supported the construction of a Hindu temple at the location where a mosque once stood. The Babri Masjid was razed by Hindu extremists in 1992 after a rally turned violent. Since then, the land has been contested, but the Modi government has petitioned the Supreme Court to allow the construction of a Hindu temple despite concerns from Muslim communities.

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And perhaps most shocking of all, the group has supported a controversial BJP bill that would provide Indian citizenship only to Hindu immigrants, even arguing that it is a Hindu “right” to seek citizenship in India.

These positions shed light on how the BJP and its ideological allies deploy a Muslim face in order to portray Hindu nationalist policies as inclusive, equitable and even secular — when they are nothing of the sort. By supporting these policies, the MRM situates itself as a “native informer,” an agent of power that serves the BJP’s ambitions while claiming Muslim identity.

Leaders from Muslim communities agree that the organization is dividing the Muslim community. Not only does the MRM provide a veneer of legitimacy to anti-Muslim policies, cloaking them in the rhetoric of nationalism and “cultural unity” instead of religious extremism, but it also has attempted to translate and market these policies to Muslims.

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For example, it launched an initiative in 2017 to “educate” Muslims about the Koran. This nationwide campaign sought to refute traditional interpretations of the text and replace them with new interpretations, including the claim that cow milk had “healing powers.” This assertion aligned with Hindu nationalist organizations’ idolization of cows and criminalization of cow slaughter — a position that has resulted in violence against Muslims as cow vigilantism surged.

While the vast majority of Muslims continue to oppose the BJP and remain skeptical of its affiliates, some Muslims have evidently decided to give the party a chance. As Modi enters his second term in office and the RSS continues to wield significant influence, the MRM’s role in Indian politics and policymaking will likely continue to expand.

But the facade of religious unity behind the BJP does not change the grim reality: that the Hindu nationalist vision for India poses a threat to religious minorities’ freedom, rights and safety — and those who support it are complicit.

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