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The Increasing Trend of Hate Speech and Violence Against Muslims in India

Article by Rana Sahar,


Violence has spread in India’s capital, killing dozens of people, most of them Muslim. Rioters have burned mosques, homes, businesses and cars. Witnesses accuse police of doing little to stop the violence, and of participating in some of the attacks. Ashutosh Varshney, a scholar and professor at Brown University, compared the violence to pogroms; he explained that tacit encouragement by the state of attacks on a particular community allows rioters to act with impunity and leaves targeted groups especially vulnerable. The unrest in Delhi was sparked by India’s recent citizenship law, seen by many as discriminatory. But tension between religious communities has been stewing for a large part of the decade, fueled in part by the rise of a Hindu nationalist agenda which undermines India’s secular constitution and threatens the protections to which India’s minorities are entitled. This article compares anti-muslim rhetoric in India with anti-minority sentiments expressed in pre-genocidal political climates.


Inter-religious conflict is not new in India, but there has been an uptick in attacks targeting minorities since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained political power in 2014. Hindu nationalists have emphasized the importance of preserving their Hindu identity, often in ways that threaten marginalized communities and encourage “anti-Muslim sentiment.” For example, in calling for the enforcement of the ban on cow slaughter, illegal in most of India because cows are sacred in the Hindu faith, BJP politicians have used rhetoric that fueled attacks against minority populations who traditionally consume beef. The police have failed to stop or prosecute these attacks, and BJP elected officials have made remarks which seem to condone the attacks. In addition, a Hindu nationalist politician in Uttar Pradesh founded a youth brigade whose members have accused minority groups, such as Christians and Muslims, of “luring” Hindus and converting them. Recently in an apparent effort to identify illegal immigrants in Assam, the government required citizens to apply for inclusion in a National Register of Citizens; 4 million people were excluded from the draft registry list and must prove that they entered India before Bangladesh declared its independence in order to maintain their citizenship.

BJP party leaders and politicians have used dangerous propaganda, skewing the news about the recent protests and explicitly playing into stereotypes. One BJP chief said that protesters damaging property should be “shot like dogs” and that he would remove muslims from voters lists and have them “chased out of the country.” Other BJP’s leaders called a political opponent a “terrorist,” and a government minister was taped chanting “shoot the country’s traitors.” The president of BJP called “illegal” muslim immigrants “infiltrators,” comparing them to “termites” and vowing to “throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” Just two days before the Delhi riots began, a Minister in Modi’s government implied that India would be better off without Muslims, stating that India wouldn’t be in “this situation” had Muslims been sent to Pakistan during Partition. And moments before a particular riot turned deadly, a BJP lawmaker made a speech threatening protesters opposing the citizenship law, warning that “either the cops must clear them out, or we will take things into our own hands.”

The language politicians use to gain support for their policies matter.

Scholars recognize the role hate speech plays in starting genocides. Indeed, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination identified ‘‘[s]ystematic and widespread use and acceptance of speech or propaganda promoting hatred and/or inciting violence against minority groups, particularly in the media” as an early indicator of potential genocide.

Before the genocide in Rwanda started, radio stations connected with government leadership broadcast hate speech about the Tutsi ethnic minority, describing them as “snakes” and calling on listeners to “exterminate the cockroaches.” The broadcasts, which helped encourage civilians to murders their neighbors, also disseminated misinformation, depicting Tutsis as dishonest and untrustworthy. Anti-Tutsi rhetoric also circulated in the printed press. Prior to the beginning of the Holocaust, Nazi politicians passed anti semitic laws at both the local and national level, which restricted the rights of Jewish communities. The legislation was accompanied by a state-wide propaganda program that depicted Jews as “subhuman” and as “infiltrating” society. This rhetoric was present in films and the press. Jews were described as untrustworthy, as “parasites,” and as “dangerous enemies of the German Reich.”

Not too dissimilarly, BJP politicians have justified their policies by dehumanizing and threatening political opponents, religious minorities and marginalized communities. The rhetoric is reminiscent of the hate speech circulated in pre-genocidal regimes. This language, coupled with the violence it appears to incite in the world’s largest democracy, should sound the alarm in the international community.



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