As Modi and his associates look away, hate speech in India reaching dangerous levels: NYT report

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An alarming report in The New York Times said on Tuesday that calls across India for anti-Muslim violence – even genocide – are moving from the fringes to the mainstream, while Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his top leaders keep silent.

The hate speech is stoking communal tensions in India where small triggers have incited mass-death tragedies, the report written by a team of Times’ reporters said, pointing out that Hindu monks’ agenda already resonates with increasingly emboldened vigilante groups.

Vigilantes have beaten people accused of disrespecting cows, 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, Times’ correspondents – Mujib Mashal, Suhasini Raj and Hari Kumar – wrote.

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 US congressional briefing that the demonizing and discriminatory “processes” that lead to genocide have been well underway in India.

In an interview with the Times, 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, was 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 Yati Narsinghanand is the chief priest, is peppered with signs that call to prepare for a “dharm yudh,” or religious war, the Times report said. 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, it was pointed out.

The monks’ anger, according to the report, 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 Karamchand Gandhi – a renowned symbol of nonviolent struggle, but to them a Muslim appeaser, the report said adding that 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, had slowly risen from the fringes to dominate India’s politics, it said. Modi, the prime minister, spent decades as a mobilizer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the century-old right-wing organization to which Godse belonged, and his party saw the group as the fountainhead of its political ideology and had relied heavily on its vast network of volunteers to mobilize voters and secure victories.

When he was chief minister of Gujarat, Modi saw firsthand how unchecked communal tensions could turn into bloodletting, the Times report said.

In 2002, a train fire killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. Although the cause was disputed, violent mobs, in response, targeted the Muslim community, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, many burned alive.

After he rose to the country’s highest office in 2014 on a message of economic growth, there was hope that Modi could rein in the fury, but he reverted to a Hindu-first agenda that inflames communal divides, the report said.

In 2017, Modi picked Saffron-robe clad monk Yogi Adityanath to lead Uttar Pradesh and he has legislated a ban on religious conversion by marriage, an idea that he calls “love jihad,” in which Muslim men lure Hindu women to convert them.

As Adityanath campaigned for re-election, his group of young activist held a meeting in New Delhi around the same time as the monks’ event. With a picture of Adityanath behind them, attendees took an oath to turn India into a Hindu state, even if it meant killing for it.

Dhirendra Jha, a writer who has studied the rise of Hindu nationalism, said he worried that extremists now dominate India’s politics in such a way that those who call for violence feel protected.

“Unless this is dealt with, the kind of consequences that may happen – I can’t even imagine, I don’t dare to imagine,” Jha was quoted as saying.

The choice of Haridwar as the venue for a bold call to violence was strategic – the city attracts millions of visitors annually, often for religious festivals and pilgrimages, it was pointed out.

Pradeep Jha, the main organizer of the city’s largest pilgrimage festival, said he shared the vision of a Hindu state, not through violence but by urging India’s Muslims to convert back; in such a view, everyone in India was Hindu at one point.

“I believe we need to pursue our goals with patience, with peace,” he said. “Otherwise, what is our difference with others?”

Narsinghanand, the event’s firebrand organizer known for his violent rhetoric, has made a name for himself doing the exact opposite.

As he sees it, India’s Muslims – who account for 15 percent of the population – will turn the country into a Muslim state within a decade, according to the report. To prevent such an outcome, he has told followers that they must “be willing to die,” pointing to the Taliban and Islamic State as a “role model.”

In 2020, Narsinghanand was among the hard-liners stoking tensions during months-long protests over a citizenship amendment seen as discriminatory toward Muslims. He called for violence, using the language of a “final battle.” “They are jihadis, and we will have to finish them off,” he said.

Riots followed in New Delhi, with 50 people killed, a majority of them Muslims.

Despite the police warning, Mr. Narsinghanand and his fellow monks repeated their messages of hate, including on national television and social media, the report said.

“This Constitution will be the end of the Hindus, all one billion Hindus,” Narsinghanand said at a virtual event.

“Whoever believes in this system, in this Supreme Court, in these politicians, in this Constitution, in this army and police – they will die a dog’s death.”

The police arrested Mr. Narsinghanand on Jan. 15, and he was charged in court with hate speech.

“He said nothing wrong,” said Swami Amritanand, an organizer of the Haridwar event was quoted as saying in the report. “We are doing what America is doing, we are doing what Britain is doing.”

Amritanand said the call for arms was justified because “within the next 10 to 12 years there will be a horrible war that will play out in India.”

Late last month, the monks again sounded a violent call to create a Hindu state, this time at an event hundreds of miles away from Haridwar in Uttar Pradesh. They threatened violence – referencing a bombing of India’s assembly – if Narsinghanand was not released.

Pooja Shakun Pandey, the monk, described their actions as defensive. “We must prepare to protect ourselves,” she was quoted as saying.

To the Haridwar police, the event in Uttar Pradesh did not count as a repeat offence, the Times report said. Rakendra Singh Kathait, the senior police officer in Haridwar, said Narsinghanand was in jail because he had acted again in the city; others like Ms. Pandey got a warning.

Courtesy: APP

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