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Why India's Hindu nationalist party has the support of some Muslims in the country


India's Prime Minister Modi and his party, the BJP, have long been accused of being hostile to Muslims, who make up about a seventh of the country's population. Just a week - just this week, the Modi government said it would implement a law that fast-tracks citizenship for certain immigrants, but not Muslim migrants. And as the country heads into election season, the BJP commands support from a surprising quarter, Muslim Shiites. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the northern Indian city of Lucknow.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Down an alley in Lucknow's Muslim Old City, Shahnawaz (ph) says his vote in upcoming elections is locked in.

SHAHNAWAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: The store owner says around here we support the BJP. Most Muslims in India largely vote against the BJP, but this minority also includes about 25 million Shiites. They're a minority that has long seen the place that we now know as India as a refuge from persecution at the hands of Sunni Muslims. Nadeem Hasnain is a prominent academic who has written extensively on Shiites in India.

NADEEM HASNAIN: Many of them believe that had India not been there then the Shiism ideology and Shiism community, they would have faded away.

HADID: Most recently, some Shiites also credit the Hindu nationalist BJP with lifting a 20-year ban on a ritual key to their faith.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: The Azadari. That's where Shiites march in processions to mourn the seventh century killing of the Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. They chant, beat their chests. Some whip themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: The Azadari was banned in the late '70s after clashes between Shiites and Sunnis. It was also when the Indian Congress Party dominated politics. Ali Zaidi is the son-in-law of one of India's most prominent Shiite clerics.

ALI ZAIDI: It was clear they did not need us. They had our big brothers to vote for them.

HADID: Zaidi believes the Congress Party stretched out the ban to pander to their big brothers, Sunni Muslims. The Azadari processions only resumed in the late '90s after a BJP coalition government came into power. And even now, some Shiites say they'll always credit the BJP for giving them back their Azadari, like shopkeeper Aslam Abbas (ph) in Lucknow's Old City.

ASLAM ABBAS: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Abbas says the BJP let us practice our faith without fear. More men echo his point. The support we hear for the BJP is important because Lucknow is the center of Shiite faith and culture in South Asia. And those supporters include India's most prominent Shiite cleric. But that support isn't universal by any means. Down the road, medical student Samad (ph) says there's no chance he'd support the BJP.

SAMAD: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says the party is against Muslims. And after a decade of BJP rule, it seems that sentiment is increasingly felt even in this old BJP stronghold. Analysts point to protest four years ago by Shiites after the government initiated policies which they feared could strip Muslims of their citizenship.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Just this week, the government announced that law would be implemented. So perhaps to bolster support, the defense minister, who was elected from Lucknow, dispatched a Shiite businessman, Wafa Abbas, to drum up support for elections. Abbas is running medical clinics. He distributes scholarships, helps locals access services. And Abbas says he tells Muslims the defense minister will be reelected, so if they vote for him, they'll get better services.

WAFA ABBAS: We will be the part of his winning team. We hope that he can give us more support from the government.

HADID: And that's the thing. Experts say the BJP doesn't need Shiite votes to win seats because of the strong support it commands among Hindus. Yet the party courts Shiites. Sometimes it courts Muslim women, sometimes impoverished Muslims. Hassan Afsar (ph) is the editor of Lucknow Daily. He says the BJP wants Muslims for the propaganda value.

HASSAN AFSAR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says when BJP officials can be seen with Shiites and other Muslims, it signals they aren't against the community. It's a message to the BJP's critics locally and internationally. The BJP's minority affairs leader, Jamal Siddiqui, says the party welcomes all Indians.

JAMAL SIDDIQUI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And he insists Shiites know they're safe with the BJP. Back in Lucknow's Old City, Wahid Hussain (ph) says yeah, he thinks the BJP is broadly against Muslims.

WAHID HUSSAIN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: But he'll vote for them anyway. What matters to him is that the BJP gave Shiites back their Azadari, so key to their faith and identity, and he says that trumps everything.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lucknow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.