By Krishna N. Das, Zeba Siddiqui and Aftab Ahmed
NAYABANS, India (Reuters) – Muslims in Nayabans, an unremarkable village in northern India, say they remember a time when their children played with Hindu youths, and people from either faith chatted when they frequented each other’s shops and went to festivals together.
Such interactions no longer happen, many say, because of how polarized the two communities have become in the past two years, and some are frightened and thinking of moving away – if they can afford it.
Muslim residents who spoke to Reuters said they thought tensions would only worsen if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins a second term in the current general election, as exit polls released on Sunday indicate is likely. Votes will be counted Thursday.
“Things were very good earlier. Muslims and Hindus were together in good and bad times, weddings to deaths. Now we live our separate ways despite living in the same village,” said Gulfam Ali, who runs a small shop selling bread and tobacco.
Modi came to power in 2014 and the BJP took control of Uttar Pradesh state, which includes Nayabans, in 2017, partly on the back of a Hindu-first message. The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is a hardline Hindu priest and senior BJP figure.
“Modi and Yogi have messed it up,” said Ali. “Dividing Hindus and Muslims is their main agenda, only agenda. It was never like this earlier. We want to leave this place but can’t really do that.”
He says about a dozen Muslim families have left in the past two years, including his uncle.
The BJP denies its policies have stoked community divisions.
At the end of last year, Nayabans, a village of wheatfields, narrow cemented streets, bullock carts and loitering cows, became a symbol of India’s deepening divide as some Hindu men from the area complained they had seen a group of Muslims slaughtering cows, which Hindus regard as sacred.
Angry Hindus accused police of failing to stop an illegal practice, and a Hindu mob blocked a highway, threw stones and burned vehicles. Two people were shot and killed – including a police officer.
Five months later many Muslims, who only number about 400 of the village’s population of more than 4,000, say the wounds haven’t healed.
And in a country where 14 percent of the population are Muslim and 80 percent Hindu, Nayabans reflects wider tensions in places where Muslim residents are heavily outnumbered by Hindu neighbours.
The BJP denies it is seeking to make Muslims second-class citizens or is anti-Muslim.
“There have been no riots in the country under this government. It’s wrong to label criminal incidents, which we denounce, as Hindu-Muslim issues,” BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said.
“The opposition has been playing communal politics but we believe in neutrality of governance. Neither appeasement of any, nor denouncement of any. Some people may be finding that they are not being appeased anymore.”
CALL TO PRAYER
To be sure, villagers say Nayabans was not free of conflict in the past – attempts to build a mosque in 1977 led to communal riots in which two people were killed. But for the 40 years after that there had been relative harmony, villagers say.
Some Muslim residents said Hindu hardliners started asserting themselves more in the village after Yogi took office in March 2017.
The atmosphere worsened around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2017 – Hindu activists demanded Muslims stop using a microphone in their madrasa, which also acts as a mosque, to call people to prayer, arguing it disturbed the whole community.
The Muslims reluctantly agreed to stop using the mike and speaker – even though they say it had been operating for many years – to keep the peace, but the move created deep resentment.
Some Hindus were unsympathetic.
“God knows what they are moaning about,” said Hindu elder Om Prakash, a 63-year-old tailor. “There’s peace here but we won’t tolerate any mike there. That’s a madrasa, not a mosque.”
Islam requires the faithful to pray five times a day. Without the reminder of hearing the call, some Muslim residents say they risk missing prayer times.
“We can’t express our religion in any way here, but they are free to do whatever they want,” said Muslim law student Aisha, 21.
She said that Hindu men from the village often shouted anti-Muslim slogans during festival processions. At least a dozen Hindus in the village denied that was the case.
Aisha remembers when relations were better.
“Earlier they would speak very nicely to us, but now they don’t,” said Aisha. “If there was any problem at all, or someone was sick in the family, all the neighbours would come over and help – whether Hindus or Muslims. Now that doesn’t happen.”
Sharfuddin Saifi, 38, who runs a cloth shop at a nearby market, was named in a complaint filed with the police by local Hindus over the cow incident last year.
After 16 days in jail, he was released as the police found he had nothing to do with the suspected slaughter, but said he found much had changed.
Hindus now shun his business. The money he spent on lawyers meant he had to stop going to Delhi to buy stock for the shop, which is largely empty. And he withdrew his 13-year-old son from a private school because he could no longer afford it.
“For someone who had never seen the inside of a police station or even dreamt of committing a crime, it’s a big thing,” he said of the trauma of his detention.
He often thinks about leaving the village, he says, but tells himself: “I have not done anything wrong, why should I leave?”
Carpenter Jabbar Ali, 55, moved to a Muslim-dominated area in Masuri, closer to Delhi, buying a house with money he saved from working in Saudi Arabia.
“If Hindus could kill a Hindu police inspector, in front of a police outpost, with armed guards alongside him, then who are we Muslims?” Ali said, recalling the December incident.
He still keeps his house in Nayabans and visits occasionally but said he feels much safer in his new home, where all his immediate neighbours are Muslims.
“I’m fearful here,” he said. “Muslims may have to empty out this place if Modi gets another term, and Yogi continues here.”
Junaid, a round-faced 22-year-old with a goatee, comes from one of the most affluent Muslim families in the village. His father runs a gold shop in a town nearby.
Seated outside his home, he recalled playing sport together with Hindus.
“When we were young all the Hindus and Muslims used to play together, especially cricket – I played it a lot,” he said. “Now we haven’t played in at least a year.”
He said he wanted to move to New Delhi soon to study at a university there. “Things are not good here,” he said.
Some Muslims, however, say they are committed to remaining. Aas Mohammed, 42, the owner of a flourishing tiles and bathroom fixtures business in a nearby town, has decided to stay in the village, though he has a house on Delhi’s outskirts.
Mohammed helped arrange a lawyer for Saifi after his arrest over the cow incident. He is now lobbying to have the microphone brought back and fighting a legal battle to get a new mosque built.
“I will fight on,” he said. “I am not scared, but another term for Modi will make it very difficult for many other people to live here.”
(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui, Krishna N. Das and Aftab Ahmed; Additional reporting by Munsif Vengattil; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)