Unchecked Hate Speech Propagates Indian Islamophobia

Anti-Muslim sentiments are nothing new in an India governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his far-right Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.). Since Modi came to power in 2014, his government has done its utmost to undo India’s secular laws and espouse the alleged supremacy of India’s Hindu majority, at the cost of India’s Muslim minority, who make up around 14% of the population. Far-right Islamophobic extremism has gone unchecked by Modi’s government, and social media has allowed it to proliferate even more easily, leading to widespread discrimination and violence.

The online world is proving to be the perfect breeding ground for India’s Islamophobia. In January, a fake auction site put 100 Muslim women up for sale. Though no women were sold, the auction was extremely damaging to the lives of the women involved, many of them outspoken Muslim activists: one of the most targeted groups by the Hindu far-right.

There is ample content online radicalizing Indian Hindus, informing them that they are in danger from a perceived Muslim threat – that they must arm themselves and protect what is theirs. Powerful religious leaders and political figures from the B.J.P. have posted defamatory content online, from hate-filled cartoons to outright calls for violence and murder. This content is so commonplace that it is little wonder how many people are being indoctrinated and converted to extremist viewpoints.

Groups espousing hate speech and encouraging their members to recruit more members, especially younger people, to the forums have sprung up on every social media platform. Targeting younger people ensures that these beliefs are spread to the next generation, creating a cycle that is becoming increasingly hard to break. The scale of the issue is often beyond the scope of policing efforts: “Law enforcement doesn’t have the wherewithal to monitor and track millions of accounts on platforms that are owned by foreign companies,” explained Brijesh Singh of the Mumbai Police.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric is also being spread through ultra-nationalist music, which is widely shared online. Racist lyrics earn musicians online attention, incentivizing them to compose further inflammatory songs; in a B.J.P.-controlled India, spreading anti-Muslim content is an increasingly sure-fire way to gain fame and traction online.

Sandeep Chaturvedi is one such musician. When he found limited success with more traditional subject matter, Chaturvedi radicalized, composing nationalist songs about the dangerous Muslims in India’s midst. He is “just trying to create awareness through [his] music,” Chaturvedi says. “Nothing comes from love. We have to fight and snatch what is ours.”

Chaturvedi’s views echo those of many far-right Hindus, who feel that they have been victimized throughout history by the Muslim community. Thus, these songs are widely adopted by far-right Hindu groups, who frequently incite violence by playing them during extremist processions.

Throughout all of this, Prime Minister Modi and his government have remained silent. The judiciary system and the police have taken little to no action against the perpetrators of these hate crimes. Even if calls for more targeted hate crime legislation were heeded, “the benefit of a law to specifically identify or broaden the definition of hate speech may be marginal when what would qualify as hate speech is already criminalized,” says Supreme Court lawyer Aditya Verma. The issue is less that appropriate legislation is absent and more that the government refuses to recognize the problem at hand.

Although social media is contributing heavily to Islamophobia’s growth in India, racism and prejudice are more than a mere online issue. Islamophobia is permeating India’s very fabric. Unless Prime Minister Modi and his government take real, immediate action to stop the spread, consequences will be dire for both India’s 204 million Muslims and its society as a whole.