As Officials Look Away, Hate Speech in India Nears Dangerous Levels
The New York Times
February 8, 2022
Activists and analysts say calls for anti-Muslim violence — even genocide — are moving from the fringes to the mainstream, while political leaders keep silent.
Pilgrims performing rituals in the Ganges river in Haridwar, one of India’s holiest cities. A group of militant monks used Haridwar as the site to call for violence against Muslims. Credit...Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times
HARIDWAR, India — The police officer arrived at the Hindu temple here with a warning to the monks: Don’t repeat your hate speech.
Ten days earlier, before a packed audience and thousands watching online, the monks had called for violence against the country’s minority Muslims. Their speeches, in one of India’s holiest cities, promoted a genocidal campaign to “kill two million of them” and urged an ethnic cleansing of the kind that targeted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
When videos of the event provoked national outrage, the police came. The saffron-clad preachers questioned whether the officer could be objective.
Yati Narsinghanand, the event’s firebrand organizer known for his violent rhetoric, assuaged their concerns.
“Biased?” Mr. Narsinghanand said, according to a video of the interaction. “He will be on our side,” he added, as the monks and the officer broke into laughter.
Once considered fringe, extremist elements are increasingly taking their militant message into the mainstream, stirring up communal hate in a push to reshape India’s constitutionally protected secular republic into a Hindu state. Activists and analysts say their agenda is being enabled, even normalized, by political leaders and law enforcement officials who offer tacit endorsements by not directly addressing such divisive issues.
A statue of the Hindu god Hanuman at Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad, India.Credit...Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times
After the monks’ call to arms went viral, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his top leaders remained silent, except for a vice president with a largely ceremonial role who warned that “inciting people against each other is a crime against the nation” without making a specific reference to Haridwar. Junior members of Mr. Modi’s party attended the event, and the monks have often posted pictures with senior leaders.
“You have persons giving hate speech, actually calling for genocide of an entire group, and we find reluctance of the authorities to book these people,” Rohinton Fali Nariman, a recently retired Indian Supreme Court judge, said in a public lecture. “Unfortunately, the other higher echelons of the ruling party are not only being silent on hate speech, but almost endorsing it.”
Mr. Narsinghanand was later arrested after he ignored the police warning and repeated calls for violence. His lawyer, Uttam Singh Chauhan, said his speeches may have been a reaction to anti-Hindu comments by Muslim clerics.
Mr. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party did not respond to requests for comment.
“Does the prime minister or home minister need to address every small, trivial issue?” said Vinod Bansal, a spokesman for the World Hindu Council, a party affiliate. “The accused have already been arrested. The secular groups will always highlight such incidents, but not when Hindus, Hindu gods and goddesses are under attack.”
The hate speech is stoking communal tensions in a country where small triggers have incited mass-death tragedies. The monks’ agenda already resonates with increasingly emboldened vigilante groups.
Vigilantes have beaten people accused of disrespecting cows, considered holy by some Hindus; dragged couples out of trains, cafes and homes on suspicion that Hindu women might be seduced by Muslim men; and barged into religious gatherings where they suspect people are being converted.
The chief priest at Dasna Devi temple, Yati Narsinghanand, has called for violence against Muslims. A sign bearing his image warns Hindus to have at least five children or see their lineage destroyed. Credit...Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times
In recent weeks, global human rights organizations and local activists, as well as India’s retired security chiefs, have warned that the violent rhetoric has reached a dangerous new pitch. With right-wing messages spreading rapidly through social media and the government hesitant to take action, they are concerned that a singular event — a local dispute, or an attack by international terror groups such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State — could lead to widespread violence that would be difficult to contain.
Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, a nonprofit group, who raised similar warnings ahead of the massacres in Rwanda in the 1990s, told a U.S. congressional briefing that the demonizing and discriminatory “processes” that lead to genocide have been well underway in India.
In an interview, he said Myanmar was an example of how the easy dissemination of misinformation and hate speech on social media prepares the ground for violence. The difference in India, he said, is that it would be the mobs taking action instead of the military.
“You have to stop it now,” he said, “because once the mobs take over it could really turn deadly.”
The Dasna Devi temple in Uttar Pradesh state, where Mr. Narsinghanand is the chief priest, is peppered with signs that call to prepare for a “dharm yudh,” or religious war. One calls on “Hindus, my lions” to value their weapons “just the way dedicated wives value their husbands.”
The temple’s main sign prohibits Muslims from entering.
At the Dasna Devi temple, a placard read: “This is a holy place for Hindus. Entry of Muslims is forbidden.”Credit...Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times
The monks’ anger is rooted in a sense of internalized victimhood that dates to the founding of India’s republic after independence from British rule in 1947. When Pakistan was carved out of India in a bloody partition that left hundreds of thousands dead, the Hindu right was incensed that the founding fathers turned what remained of India into a secular republic.
They celebrate a Hindu hard-liner’s assassination of Mohandas Gandhi — a renowned symbol of nonviolent struggle, but to them a Muslim appeaser. Pooja Shakun Pandey, a monk at the Haridwar event, has held re-enactments of Gandhi’s assassination, firing a bullet into his effigy as blood runs down.
The forces that shaped the ideology of Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, have slowly risen from the fringes to dominate India’s politics.