In the early months of 2023, India witnessed a deeply troubling surge in incidents of hate speech targeting its Muslim minority population. This article delves into the documented cases of these events, examines the underlying factors contributing to their rise, and considers the potential repercussions for Indian society and politics.
While India lacks an official definition of hate speech, we adopt the United Nations framework, which characterizes hate speech as “any form of communication, whether oral, written, or behavioral, that employs prejudiced or discriminatory language towards an individual or group based on attributes such as religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factors.” Our analysis encompasses various forms of hate speech, including direct calls to violence, economic boycotts, and the propagation of conspiracy theories aimed at stigmatizing and marginalizing religious minorities.
The escalation of hate speech in India has been a concerning trend since 2014, coinciding with the ascent of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. This period has not only seen a surge in hate speech but also witnessed the active participation of government officials in disseminating such rhetoric. Importantly, hate speech is not just an abstract debate about the limits of free speech; it carries tangible consequences. It disrupts daily life, destabilizes communities, incites violence, and has frequently led to deadly riots targeting marginalized groups.
The problem of hate speech in India is not isolated; it represents a systemic issue. Hate speech incidents have been steadily on the rise, and the first half of 2023 was no exception. Across 17 states, including the National Capital Territory of Delhi and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, a staggering 255 recorded instances of hate speech gatherings or rallies targeting Muslims occurred during this period. This alarming statistic equates to more than one anti-Muslim hate speech event happening daily. One particularly striking aspect of these hate speech events is their geographic distribution. A substantial majority, 80%, of these incidents unfolded in states governed by the BJP, shedding light on the party’s apparent complicity in or tolerance of such activities. States like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat bore the brunt, with Maharashtra alone accounting for 29% of such incidents. Remarkably, seven out of the top eight states with the highest number of hate speech events were under BJP rule or its coalition partners.
Approximately 52% of hate speech gatherings in BJP-ruled states and union territories were orchestrated by entities affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), including organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Sakal Hindu Samaj, and even the Bharatiya Janata Party itself. In total, 42% of all hate speech gatherings across the 17 states and union territories were organized by groups linked to the RSS.
One deeply troubling aspect of these hate speech events is their reliance on dangerous conspiracy theories targeting Muslims. Approximately 64% of events in BJP-ruled states and union territories incorporated references to popular Hindu far-right anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. These theories, including “Love Jihad,” “Land Jihad,” and “Vyapar Jihad,” further serve to stigmatize and isolate the Muslim community. Overall, 51% of all hate speech gatherings in the 17 states and union territories featured anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
Moreover, an alarming 33% of these gatherings explicitly called for violence against Muslims, intensifying the gravity of the hateful rhetoric. About 11% of events included explicit calls for Hindus to boycott Muslims, deepening societal divisions. Disturbingly, 4% of all events featured hate-filled and sexist speeches explicitly targeting Muslim women, magnifying the discrimination faced by this vulnerable group. Nearly 12% of events featured calls to arms, exacerbating the potential for violence. The timing and distribution of these hate speech events raise questions about their political motives. Notably, 33% of them occurred in states that had already conducted or were set to conduct state legislative elections in 2023. Additionally, over 36% of these events took place in states slated to hold legislative elections in 2024. In total, nearly 70% of these events occurred in states with legislative elections either in 2023 or 2024, indicating the possible exploitation of hate speech for voter mobilization.
The surge in hate speech events targeting India’s Muslim minority in the first half of 2023 paints a grim picture of the state of social cohesion and political discourse in the country. It underscores the urgent need for action to counter the spread of hate speech and its dangerous consequences. Addressing this issue demands vigilance and concerted efforts from all segments of society, including the political establishment, to promote tolerance, inclusivity, and respect for diversity. Failure to do so risks further division and unrest in India, a nation renowned for its pluralistic ethos and commitment to secularism.