Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a doctoral scholar at the Islamic and Middle East Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh and was previously a senior analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, RSIS, Singapore.
In 2022, India has had a consecutive series of religious controversies. First, there was the Hijab ban in the state of Karnataka; several mosques have come into the limelight after many Right-wing Hindu groups claimed that they were built on the ruins of temples and thus, should be returned to Hindus; and within this maelstrom, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma, made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on national television.
These comments drew the ire of several governments of Muslim-majority countries. Qatar fired the opening salvo by demanding a public apology, and more than a dozen followed, including India’s close allies on the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. While the Indian government was silent on the issue initially, it then sprang into action, expelling Sharma, and calling the spokesman a fringe element. This controversy brings to light several trends regarding Right-wing extremism in India.
Right-Wing Extremism in India
While India is no stranger to extremism or terrorism having consistently ranked in the top-ten terrorism affected nations of the world, with jihadist groups, Left-wing terrorists, separatist militants, and Right-wing Hindu extremists operating at various times and in various places. Since the rise of the BJP, a Hindu supremacist party, in 2014, and its re-election in 2019, elements that were once considered fringe have begun acting with impunity in the nation.
Thus, over the years, instances of hate speech towards Muslims (and other minorities, such as Dalits or traditionally oppressed castes) have skyrocketed. While major instance of riots between Hindus and Muslims have decreased, India has witnessed various simmering tensions and attacks on Muslims, be it for eating beef (considered holy by some Hindus) or for wearing skull caps (a religious headdress worn by Muslims).
As the newspaper The Wire documented, in just four months in 2022, there were about 90 instances of hate speech in just six states of India’s 36 states and territories, with the ruling party’s leadership being involved in about 20% of these cases. Moreover, about 50 different instances of hate crimes, a majority towards Muslims, reflecting a high incidence of such crimes. Numerous instances of curtailing of Muslim rights, such as the right to pray in certain public spaces or the right to wear the Hijab have also cropped up. This is in addition to a general drop in Muslim representation in the political and media space, as well as increasing problems of discrimination faced by them and other minority groups in everyday life.
Such instances have led to various indices of democracy being marked down. For example, the V-Dem report that assess the state of democracy globally, have classified India as an “electoral autocracy”, highlighting that it is among the most autocratizing nations in the world. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has also classified India as a country of concern.
Two-Fold Strategies: Taking Offense and Being Silent
Two major strategies have been identified that Hindu Right-Wing extremists use to advance their cause.
First, as scholars like Pravin Prakash have written, Right-wing Hindu groups have mastered the art of taking offense at innocuous issues, creating massive mountains out of tiny molehills. With a coordinated push by a well-organized cyber network and media houses, often working for ratings, these events are often given more coverage than required, leading to a reaction from Muslims in some places. This results in media houses speaking about Muslims as barbaric and uncivilised, adding to the narrative of an anti-national section of the population. This atmosphere leads to violent actions by Hindu extremists, such as the 2020 shooting of anti-government protesters by an extremist within sight of the Delhi Police.
Second, apart from the fringe elements, the main heads of the ruling government are often silent on the violence perpetrated by Hindu extremists, despite an otherwise loquacious leadership, which comments on many issues globally and domestically. In some extreme cases, people like Shambulal Regar, who was arrested for killing a Muslim, was welcomed by a political party, the Navnirman Sena, and was fielded as a candidate for the 2019 general elections. The same party also fielded two other candidates who had committed hate crimes against Muslims. Moreover, this trend was even seen with members of the BJP, which welcomed people linked to hate speech and crimes against Muslims. Lastly, news reports have also identified various Right-wing Hindu figures on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook who were instrumental in churning out hate speech against Muslims consistently and are followed by members of the ruling party.
Thus, the prevailing message set in such contexts is clear. Not only is the ruling party cognizant of the crimes committed and organized by Right-wing Hindu extremists, and uninterested in prosecuting or discouraging such people, but such individuals receive active encouragement by, for example, being selected as candidates for elections by the BJP and other political parties in the same ideological universe. This emboldens more people to spew hatred, and this in turn leads to violence that creates further rifts in the fragile social fabric of India.
Limitations and New Trends
Despite a burgeoning trend of hate speech and anti-Muslim acts in India, it seems to have encountered its ceiling. The first few states to condemn Nupur Sharma’s words about the Prophet were the rich Gulf nations like Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. These countries’ criticism of the event seems to have galvanised India into action, demonstrating that their economic prowess and their export of vital resources, such as oil and gas, holds some sway over India. Indeed, such a swift response, acquiescing to international criticism, was not seen even when European nations criticized India for buying oil from Russia or when the US lectured India on its treatment of Muslims. Rather, Indian delegates abroad justified their stance on Russia or returned criticism to the US, displaying a certain diplomatic robustness that has been notably absent with the Arab Gulf states.
What, then, does this incident portend for the future?
Firstly, it is clear now that Right-wing Hindu extremists and Islamophobic hatred in India has an upper limit, which is in effect the limits of tolerance in Gulf nations. Indeed, this is not the first-time pushback from the Gulf has been witnessed. During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, the spread of hashtags such #CoronaJihad by Indians in the Gulf, and the public protests of the Gulf governments about this, led to India’s ministers having to smooth out this issue.
Secondly, this limitation does not mean there will be no such rhetoric. Hate speech will continue to play a role in the Indian psyche, given its entrenched nature. Most likely, though, it will be focussed on the followers of Islam and not the religion itself. In fact, as columnist Pratap Banu Mehta argues, there is a good chance that this incident will create further cycles of negativity in India.
Thirdly, for a while now, the strategy of providing space to extreme voices and mainstreaming fringe actors within the Hindu Right has been creating a new group that is more critical of the BJP. India’s sensitivities about criticism from the Gulf has created further rifts, with many supporters of the BJP criticising the party for not protecting its “own” and for “bowing to Muslims”. While this is still in a nascent stage, further incidents may create similar outcomes and may put the BJP in the delicate position of having to appease its core constituency, while maintaining its economic interests by mollifying Gulf nations in such situations.
Fourthly, it is not certain if the ruling party will be able to control this section of the society. There have been previous instances where Right-wing Hindu extremist groups have taken steps harmful to the interests of the BJP, or have attacked individuals who have previously supported the ruling party. This includes attacks on financial supporters, like Ratan Tata, and celebrity supporters, like Akshay Kumar. This follows a trend in many other countries where fringe groups do not consider their benefactors (in this case, the BJP) to be strong enough and eventually get out of control. This is an aspect of security that Indian authorities will have to look into at some point in the future.
India is witnessing a situation where sections of society who were once considered peripheral are taking centre stage in the nation. The result has been a slew of attacks—physical, verbal, and digital—on Muslims and Islamic practises in India, as well as on other minorities, such as Dalits. While many trends have also emerged to counter such extremism, it has not been enough to stem the flow.
Against this backdrop, while there has been a previous incident of the Gulf states getting involved in India’s domestic socio-political issues, this is the first time that the issue was magnified so significantly. Thus, policy makers now have the unenviable job of putting the genie of Right-wing Hindu extremist elements back into the bottle, without splitting their electoral base. It is entirely possible that many sections of this population will pull away completely from the BJP, creating other problems along the way, as has been seen in previous instances. How the government tackles this issue will decide the fate of India’s secular fabric in the future.
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