On a recent reporting assignment, I observed a group of men and women chatting on the lawns of a university in north India. They were discussing their multiple identities and the fears that arise from these. They were all in their late teens or early 20s, all English speaking, all politically aware, all Muslims. A 21-year-old woman quipped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unified Muslims like no one before. They all laughed, but ruefully agreed that she was right.

From Kashmir to Kerala, the same fears, insecurities and hopelessness pervade. There is no single Muslim identity in the country, but today, there is an unequivocal sense of being identified as “the other".

Before the 2014 elections, my reporting trips revealed a diversity of opinion among Muslims—how they viewed the right-wing BJP, how they saw themselves in the larger growth story of India.

One middle-aged woman I met in Saharanpur a few months before the last general election said she believed Modi would bring “achhe din" (good days) for Muslims too. A young man in a remote village in Bihar said that for the vikaas (development) of the country, Muslims should give Modi a chance.

Five years later, there is near-consensus that Muslims will always be treated as the enemy or the “internal threat". It is strongly believed that there is no space for Muslims in the political narrative, and Muslims are not even a votebank anymore.

Muslims across classes have told me that recently they have noticed how political parties are doing everything to not be labelled as a Muslim party.

Last October, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said Hindu candidates had stopped asking him to campaign for them because “it might have an adverse effect on the vote".

Muslims are realizing that there is barely any condemnation of blatant violence like lynching and fake encounters, let alone subtle forms of harassment like banning congregational Friday prayers. This lack of leadership and the realization of being political orphans is among the reasons why Muslims have decided it is better to be silent spectators.

There is a 53-year-old elite Muslim businessman in a cosmopolitan city I spoke with last December whose house doesn’t have a name plate because he is worried that 18 years on, his marriage to a Hindu woman will be termed "love jihad", even though his wife and children practice the faiths they want to.

There are villages, far away from Aligarh, where Muslim families have been serving poori-sabzi at weddings for over a year because they are afraid a repeat of Dadri could happen to them.

There is a 24-year-old PhD scholar I met last month who always carries bindis when she travels in a train because she never knows when her immediate identity would endanger her life.

A professor of history at a central university said the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will decide whether India will become an “openly Hindu state" or a “secular Hindu state"—whichever way it goes, it will become a Hindu state.

After the Pulwama attack, many Muslims I met and spoke with across classes and regions were worried of possible retaliation from the majority.

Many discussed how they were called Pakistanis, both on social media and in real life. Some said the common Hindu doesn’t hate Muslims, and when the emotions calmed down, things would be fine again.

But even the most optimistic avoided certain public areas, their usual means of transportation, expression of their identities, even their patriotism.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks is for time to decide, but what is sure is that the future of Muslims in India will be decided by the choices that the majority of the country makes now.

Ashwaq Masoodi is national writer, Mint.

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