Breaking India One Hate Speech At A Time

Representational Image (Al Jazeera English/ Creative Commons)
India's politicians spew hate and fan communal tensions for electoral gains, with utter disregard for the law.

In places where there are 10 to 20 percent minorities, stray communal incidents take place. Where there are 20 to 35 percent of them, serious communal riots take place and where they are more than 35 percent, there is no place for non-Muslims.

In the run-up to the 2014 bye-elections in Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, a Gorakhpur Member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spewed this anti-minority rhetoric, glorifying communal riots. This was not the first time he came out with such hate speech. In 2007, his bigotry was on full display when he exhorted a cheering crowd:

If they kill one Hindu, then we will kill 100 Muslims.

Adityanath has a series of FIRs (First Information Reports) and cases filed against him by the police, either directly or indirectly, for attempt to murder, rioting, carrying deadly weapons, defiling a place of worship, trespassing on a Muslim graveyard, and promoting enmity between two religious groups.

He is now the Chief Minister of India’s largest and politically most significant state – Uttar Pradesh.

Since coming to power, Adityanath has made good use of state machinery to halt the proceedings against him. The state’s prosecutors backed down from prosecuting Adityanath after being refused sanction to do so. His government refused sanction for the case to be made against its leader, and a gag order was imposed on the media by the Allahabad High Court – barring them from covering the case.

He is not alone.

In the recent Gujarat elections, Shailesh Mehta, who won on a BJP ticket from the Dabhoi constituency, has eleven criminal cases pending against him. Notwithstanding charges of murder, extortion and voluntarily causing hurt to deter a public servant from duty, Shailesh made it to the news headlines with his hate speech. During a campaign speech in Dabhoi, Shailesh can be heard advocating the reduction of the Muslim population. As NDTV reported:

“If any ‘topi, daadiwala’ [anybody wearing a cap and sporting a beard – referring to Muslims] is sitting here (in the crowd), pardon me, but there is a need to reduce their population. Many leaders asked me not to say this, as it may go against me, but if 90 percent of people are supporting me, why should I stop speaking about the 10 percent people?”

While Mr Shailesh is not a chief minister, he joins the ranks of many ministers, MPs and MLAs who grew infamous for making hate speeches – and were elected to tell the tale.

Varun Gandhi is another case in point. The grandson of Indira Gandhi, his family broke away from the Congress to join the BJP, and his claim to fame came in 2009 when he was recorded saying his followers should cut off the hands that were raised against Hindus. A case was filed and Varun went to prison briefly, but the charges did not stick. Media investigations revealed that he systematically ‘fixed’ all the witnesses and evidence laid against him. Since then, he’s won every election he has contested.

Amidst India’s communally-charged election climate, hate speech is nothing new. But the victory of candidates who spew such hate points to an ugly new trend in Indian electoral politics. In 2016, an IndiaSpend analysis of politicians and their criminal records uncovered a disturbing fact – candidates accused of hate-speech were thrice as likely to win as their non-criminal counterparts.

At the time, 28 sitting MPs and MLAs of the BJP party had hate-speech cases against them – the highest of any political party. The second place went to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), with nine cases, and the third place to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Msulimeen (AIMIM) with six. The Indian National Congress had three.

Nothing grabs media attention as much as a communal statement. And no political party is immune from the allure of the hate speech.

Decades after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, a video surfaced of Congress leader Jagdish Tytler inciting crowds to burn, smash and destroy police barricades. In the messy run-up to the 2014 general election, Imran Masood, a Congress candidate in Saharanpur exhorted people to kill Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

Akbaruddin Owasi of the MIM is also known for the frequency of his hate speeches. In one speech made in 2014, he suggested that if the police were removed for even 15 minutes, India’s 100 crore Hindus would be shown who was ‘more powerful’. Despite having called for the prime minister to be hanged, and warning of India’s destruction, Akbaruddin remains a sitting MLA from the Chandrayangutta constituency of Hyderabad. 

That the politicians get away with this and go on to win elections is a matter of concern. What is even more worrying is their contempt and utter disregard for the law, especially the police and the judicial process. The BJP’s Hyderabad MLA, T Raja Singh is a case in point. Speaking to a jeering crowd, he belittled the police and the judicial system in the midst of a speech:

…Behind me, there are lakhs of people. I stood on that Dj’s mic and openly said a dialogue. And all the policemen were showing me their hands saying – brother, please keep quiet, please keep quiet. I told them, do what you want to do. [Laughs)] What will they do? They will put a small case on me! Every Ram Navami, my brothers, five to ten cases get booked on me. Every Ram Navami. Every Ram Navami there is a case. What will happen? … No tension at all.

Raja is a frequent source of hate speeches and has eight charges of promoting enmity between different groups against him. He continues with his hate speeches, unfazed by legal consequences. At a rally in Yadgir, Karnataka, on December 12, he asked his followers to wield swords:

Whoever comes between us and Hindu Rashtra, we will erase them, and won’t spare them. Brothers, prepare yourselves and learn to wield swords.

A case of hate speech has been booked against him – adding to a large list.

Life after hate

Since the BJP’s rise to power, outright hate speeches have been replaced by a softer rhetoric – equally chilling in intent. A line from Prashant Jha’s book on the BJP’s electoral politics describes the current ‘politically-correct’ Hindutva rhetoric aptly as:

Without uttering the word Muslim, he had made it clear what he meant.

As the Karnataka elections are coming close, the BJP minister of state for Employment and Skil Development, Anantkumar Hegde used a similar tactic, claiming that secular people do not have “an identity of their parental blood.”

“I will be happy if someone identifies as Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, Lingayat or Hindu. But trouble will arise if they say they are secular,” the minister said, adding that the constitution needs to be amended. The politics of hate feed off one another. In response to Hegde’s statement, an AIMIM local leader offered a bounty of one crore rupees ($156,000) to anyone who cuts off his tongue by the end of the day.

This culture of uncivilised barbarism, ingrained in Indian politics, is fast turning hate speech into hate crimes.

In recent years, the country faces an epidemic of lynch mobs and communally-charged ‘vigilante’ killings.  More often than not, Muslims are the victims of this hatred. They are murdered, burnt alive and hacked to death on frivolous pretexts. Threatening words and hate speeches have been replaced by the act of killing. Yet, the Prime Minister is silent without condemning such acts of violence. Many interpret this to be his tacit support to such acts of vigilante violence. News channels debate these acts of violence, garner their TRPs and move on.

A 2017 study funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education shows that exposure to hate speeches desensitizes individuals to acts of prejudice. As more and more politicians explore the policy of Divide and Rule, are Indians growing numb to leaders inciting hatred?

In cognizance of the changing times, the Law Commission had recommended changes to existing hate speech laws, adding the intention of causing fear or alarm as well as inciting to violence, to the rules. But with politicians often facing immunity from the law, will a chance in legal wording be enough to tackle the politics of hate?

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