© for the artwork: Dr.Vivek Prasad and Preeti Gupta
This explosion of pandemic-related hate speech was part of a continuation of the existing anti-Muslim narratives that prevail in the country. In places like India where right-wing populist governments are in power, polarizing the population is part of the electoral and governing strategies utilized by the ruling parties.[i] Against such a backdrop, how can we understand the role of the state, media, civil society organizations as well as social media and tech companies in tackling hate speech? All four of these groups are mentioned as stake holders who can contain the spread of pandemic related hatred in the United Nations Guidance Note on Addressing and Countering COVID-19 related Hate Speech. In this article I will use the example of India to examine the engagement of such stakeholders with the infrastructure of hate which allow the rapid spread of hateful narratives; in the case of India, digital interfaces and the mobilizational structures of Hindu majoritarian groups play a significant role in spreading hate and sectarian violence.
Inventing ‘corona jihad’
In India, the emergence of a COVID-19 “hotspot” at a congregation of Muslim religious group Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi led to what can be described as a tsunami of hate directed towards the Muslim community. Muslims were accused of spreading COVID-19 in India and the term “corona jihad” soon began to trend on Twitter. A report which studied COVID-19-related misinformation in India found that following the discovery of the COVID-19 cluster associated with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi, there was a significant increase in circulation of content that linked Muslims with the pandemic. Messages which accused Muslims of being the “distributers” of the COVID-19 virus soon began to spread across social media through the efforts of right-wing “cyber warriors”; cartoons of Muslim men wearing “corona bombs” were also shared widely, and calls were made to boycott Muslim vendors. Alongside this, many mainstream news media outlets, particularly television news channels, produced sensational and divisive reporting on the subject which frequently contained misinformation. Some news channels compared the attendees at the Tablighi Jamaat gathering to suicide bombers. On the whole, a wide set of actors—including leaders of Prime Minister Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), a number of celebrities and television news anchors, as well as right-wing sympathizers and trolls on social media—contributed to the hate tsunami directed towards Muslims, and instances of mob violence against Muslims were also reported. The Indian health ministry’s daily briefing on the pandemic blamed the Tablighi Jamaat event for increasing the rate of the spread of the virus in the country; in contrast, some reports have pointed out the sampling bias behind estimates that pin the blame for the increase in overall COVID-19 cases in India on the congregation. The focus on the Tablighi Jamaat incident during the first phase of the lockdown helped divert attention away from the poorly planned lockdown which gave over 1.3 billion people barely four hours’ notice to prepare. Subsequently, a lack of adequate state support has forced impoverished interstate migrants to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their villages, and hunger and death on the road have become part of the bleak reality of a sizeable section of India’s under-privileged population during the pandemic. The cultivation of an atmosphere of polarization that redirects attention away from questions about governance has been a constant feature of the Modi government’s tenure, one which was already prevalent prior to the emergence of COVID-19. In countries like India where right-wing leaders are in power, it is perhaps unsurprising that hate speech and misinformation forms part of the official COVID-19 response, as the very existence of such leaders is predicated on the creation of rifts that “other” certain sections of the population on the basis of their race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. In fact, it has been pointed out that across the globe, pandemic-related hate has coalesced around and built upon the pre-existing architecture of infrastructures of hate. Digital messages and algorithms are central to their functioning, and work in concert with right wing organizations and right-leaning actors, including mainstream media organizations. Together, they aid the emergence and maintaining of governments led by figures such as Modi, Bolsonaro, and Trump. While such frameworks across the globe certainly share many similarities, it is important to understand their regional specificities as well.
The Hindutva infrastructure of hate
The primary framework of hate that shapes the discourse in India at present is rooted in the majoritarian Hindutva ideology. The BJP, the current ruling party headed by Prime Minister Modi, is part of the wider “family” of Sangh Parivar organizations which follow the Hindutva ideology. This ideology first emerged in colonial India, at a time in which Hindu and Muslim nationalist ideologies were making opposing claims. The Hindutva approach envisions India as a Hindu nation; consequently, this ideological vision marks Muslims and Christians as outgroups. Though Hindutva draws from the rich traditions of Hindu religion, it is an “exclusivist political ideology”, unlike Hinduism itself, which is a heterogenous mix of traditions (Kanungo 2016). Following independence, India chose the path of secularism, and Hindutva groups did not gain formal entry into the central government until the late 1970s. Subsequent mobilization efforts in the 1980s and 1990s facilitated the emergence of Hindutva groups as key players in Indian political life. The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, which sought to demolish Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, in order to construct a temple dedicated to Hindu deity Ram was the key mobilization effort which paved the way for later Hindutva success. This campaign led to pan-Indian Hindu-Muslim riots, and also helped the BJP become the single-largest party in the 1996 parliamentary elections, a far cry from the two seats it had won in 1984.
The electoral success of the BJP is strongly linked to a consolidation of a Hindutva identity and voter base. Hate speech and violence have played a crucial role in this process of consolidation. In addition, the advent of social media and mobile platforms have made hate speech and violence all the more “spreadable”. Jenkins et al (2018) have emphasized the importance of spreadability in the contemporary media environment, where media content needs to be designed in a way that users can easily interact with and circulate it across various platforms; here, the logic is that of circulation rather than a more traditional top-down dissemination of information. Even in the time of a pandemic, it is evident that misinformation and hate speech is capable of spreading at a rate that exceeds that of the virus itself. Closer inspection of the Hindutva-specific infrastructure of hate suggests that it was informed by the logic of spreadability even before the advent online platforms. The mobilization efforts which initially allowed the Hindutva groups to move from the periphery to the centre utilized the skilful deployment of various forms of disseminable media; in former times, for example , VHS tapes and audio cassettes were used to transport rabid speeches from the streets to the confines of individual homes.
In modern-day India, the Hindutva infrastructure of hate is reliant on a series of actors and interfaces. Some of these interfaces, such as the use of online and social media platforms for the spread of hate speech and misinformation, are a common feature in similar frameworks across the globe. At the same time, in an Indian context one must also consider the presence of a strong cadre base of Hindutva organizations whose lineage dates back to the colonial era. The mobilization strategies used by these organizations have also helped them to accumulate a diverse set of fellow travellers, who along with the devoted cadre base and a collection of loosely affiliated fringe groups, have proven integral to the ongoing functionality of the Hindutva infrastructure of hate. The 2014 election victory that saw the Modi-led BJP secure enough seats to govern alone for the first time, making its electoral allies insignificant in the process, was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Hindutva groups. This election victory was followed by a significant increase in hate crimes. In 2019, the Modi government was returned to power with an increased majority and subsequently passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a piece of legislation which directly discriminates against Muslims and led to widespread protests across the country. Shortly before the government announced the first phase of the lockdown designed to contain the spread of COVID-19, the country saw the outbreak of sectarian violence in Delhi, the Muslim community was mainly on the receiving end during this violence.
Situating pandemic-related hate
So, the pandemic-related uptick in hate in India is an extension of the climate of hate which was already well established in the country. As a result, any response to it will have to engage with this pre-existing atmosphere. In a piece about the COVID-19 situation, author Arundhati Roy argued that the pandemic is a portal. Roy sees the pandemic as a moment of rupture which should prompt us to acknowledge and change the structural problems that exist in our societies. If the pandemic is indeed a portal, then the dismantling of the existing infrastructures of hate needs to be a top priority. But, in countries such as India, to what extent can stakeholders mentioned in the United Nations Guidance Note on Addressing and Countering COVID-19 related Hate Speech, such as the state, media, civil society, or social media and tech companies be relied on to enact such change?
As far as the state is concerned, the current Indian government seems largely uninterested in countering instances of hate speech and related violence, even though India has a constitutional framework and laws that can be used to tackle such instances. In fact, BJP leaders—including ministers—routinely engage in hate speech themselves. Here Arjun Apparadurai’s term “aspirational hatred”, which refers to the use of hate speech and violence by those who aspire to gain social capital or political power, is of particular relevance in describing the processes taking place. The rise of aspirational hatred is a consequence of the examples set by numerous BJP members whose political careers were built on divisive speech and actions. Modi himself was accused of allowing the 2002 Gujarat pogrom which directly targeted Muslims; the pogrom took place when he was the chief minister of the state.
As things stand, many BJP leaders continue to use hate speech as a way to maintain public visibility. Instances where perpetrators of hate crimes escape punishment have meant that a culture of impunity has been allowed to develop. In an environment where those accused of lynching a Muslim man on the suspicion that he transported beef[ii] are honoured by a cabinet minister, forwarding a WhatsApp message which asks everyone to avoid meeting any Muslim for a month because of the threat of COVID-19 might seem like a comparatively mundane act[iii]. As a result, even though Modi and some key leaders of certain Hindutva organizations might make occasional statements decrying hate speech and related violence, these statements do not affect the overall functioning of the Hindutva infrastructure of hate. In actuality, hate crimes have increased in India following Modi’s rise to power; relatedly, perpetrators who are often affiliated with Hindutva groups have killed 44 people in the name of cow protection between May 2015 and December 2018. Ultimately, the example of India shows that it is futile to expect that right-wing populist governments who rose to power by fostering a climate of hate will take strong action against hate speech and hate crimes.
The way forward
Outside of the state, civil society actors and the media are two other key groups who are expected to actively mitigate hate speech and violence, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While India has many civil society groups and organizations which strongly oppose the Hindutva narratives of hate, they lack the resources required to pose a significant challenge against such narratives. The recent protests against the Modi government’s introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) shows that the possibility of a strong people’s resistance against the majoritarian Hindutva project exists. However, such resistance faces state repression; on the other hand, Hindutva organisations that work for a cultural transformation of India to turn it into a Hindu rashtra or Hindu nation receive patronage from the current government.
As far as the media is concerned, a sizeable section essentially functions as hate media, particularly when it comes to television news channels. The COVID-19 coverage produced by such outlets predictably used terms like “corona jihad” and “corona bomb” in their reporting of events. Although India’s heterogenous media landscape does include media companies which follow the standards and ethics of professional journalism, the popularity of hatred-driven media is significant. Mainstream news outlets that peddle hatred often work in concert with similar content in online platforms and social media. In terms of attempting to deal with the infrastructure of hate, the regulation of social media and technology companies is undoubtedly the elephant in the room. Great efforts are often made to point out that neither social media nor technology companies are the primary cause of the upsurge in sectarianism, hate speech, and related violence. As far as the Hindutva infrastructure of hate in India is concerned, it existed before the arrival of online and social media platforms. However, its expansion has been aided by the manner in which these platforms are designed and the lack of transparency concerning the majority of their operations. In the post-pandemic world, major technology firms will be among the corporate entities in a position to pursue further expansion. It is paramount that such expansions do not leave a trail of hate and violence. The example of India shows that stakeholders at the level of state, media or civil society may not be capable of containing the spread of hate and violence in countries where right-wing populists are in power. More pro-active international initiatives are thus necessary in order to avoid future hate-driven catastrophes. As history shows, a ubiquity of hate never bodes well for a nation’s populace, particularly its most stigmatized constituents.
Future research will be able to provide a more comprehensive picture of the extent to which COVID-19-related hate in India has had an effect on the spread of the virus itself, particularly given that social cohesion has played a key role in successful containment efforts. For example, the state of Kerala, that received international acclaim for its comprehensive efforts in dealing with the pandemic, is a region in which the right-wing BJP is struggling to gain a strong political foothold. Currently, the state is ruled by a left-wing government, BJP has not won even a single parliamentary seat from the state. Further research is required to adequately map how a society’s coping mechanisms against the pandemic are tied to the existence of relative peace between different communities. Overall, a broad view of the pandemic situation in India and elsewhere shows that while right-wing populism and its infrastructure of hate might help some leaders to gain access to power, the social rifts and structural issues created by this process can have serious long-term consequences.
Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and New York University Press. 2018. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Kanungo, Pralay. 2016. “Public Hinduism and Hindutva.”,in Hinduism in the Modern World, edited by Brian A Hatcher. New York, London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
[i] The use of misinformation by Brazilian government under Bolsonaro during the COVID-19 crisis is another example of such a strategy in action.
[ii]Cows are widely considered a sacred animal by many Hindus, and Hindutva groups use this sentiment to nurture the growth of vigilante cow protection groups which mainly target Muslims and lower caste Dalits, for whom killing cows is not considered taboo.
[iii] My current research focuses on the use of WhatsApp Messenger and I have come across this message and many similar ones in the course of data collection.