An Indian nationalist shouts against Muslims.
India is using Islamophobia as a tool to degrade democracy.
Some two hundred million Muslims live in India, making Islam the country’s largest minority group. Hindus make up about 80 percent of the population.
The Muslim population is only 20% of India’s total, but registered a marginal growth of 0.8%, whiled the Hindu population showed a declining trend, down 0.7%.
A tidal wave of anti-Palestinianism and Islamophobia is being spread on social media by right-leaning accounts based out of India. The ruling BJP Party under Prime Minister Modi has been called “an Indian version of fascism,” and is using anti-Muslim hatred to advance its move towards autocracy.
Very little stands in the way of violence against Muslims. The India-based nongovernmental organization Common Cause found that half of police surveyed showed anti-Muslim bias, making them less likely to intervene to stop crimes against Muslims. Analysts have also noted widespread impunity for those who attack Muslims.
Early Hindu nationalist leaders endorsed violence against Indian Muslims. For example, in December 1938—mere weeks after Kristallnacht—the Hindu nationalist leader V. D. Savarkar declared that Muslims who oppose Hindu interests “will have to play the part of German-Jews.”
Hindu nationalists have in turn attacked the history of the Mughal dynasty and by extension the Muslims, even to the extreme of omitting the Taj Mahal – a Mughal-built monument – from tourist books and textbooks. This renders many Indian children ignorant of key parts of their own history, including that the Mughals built a multicultural empire, patronized Hindu and Muslim religious groups, and relied on Hindu elites known as Rajputs to rule.
States have increasingly passed laws restricting Muslims’ religious freedoms, including anti-conversion laws and bans on wearing headscarves in school.
A report by the Australia-based Islamic Council of Victoria found that the majority of all Islamophobic tweets can be traced back to India.
A fake video alleged for example that young girls were being taken as ‘sex slaves’ by Palestinians; it swept up 6 million viewers, most from accounts based in India. Seven of the top 10 most-shared tweets about a fake Hamas baby-napping were based in India. One Indian account, purporting to belong to a retired Indian soldier, stated, “Israel must finish off Palestine from the planet.”
Western support of Israel, Big Tech’s renewed indifference to content moderation triggered by Elon Musk’s scale-back on efforts to curb lies and the digital reach of right-wing Islamophobic accounts from India are turning the Gaza crisis into a springboard of hate targeted at Palestinians and Muslims.
Pratik Sinha, a co-founder and editor of the Indian non-profit fact-checking website AltNews, tweeted: “With India now exporting its disinformation actors in the Indian mainstream media and on social media in support of Israel, hopefully the world will now realise how the Indian right-wing has made India the disinformation capital of the world”.
Islamophobia has risen since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling party have moved to limit Muslims’ rights, particularly through the Citizenship Amendment Act. Since his re-election in 2019, the government has pushed controversial policies that critics say explicitly ignore Muslims’ rights and are intended to disenfranchise millions of Muslims.
According to the open-source investigative platform Bellingcat, YouTube is now autogenerating videos for songs advocating the expulsion of Muslims from India. Part of a genre known as “Hindutva Pop”, named after a nationalist ideology, typical lyrics go “We will write Jai Shri Ram – ‘Glory to Lord Rama’ – in rivers of blood.” Hindutva distorts the gentle image of the god Ram from a symbol of righteousness, duty, compassion and devotion, into a wrathful combative warrior raging against the politically constructed “enemy” called Islam. In recent years, Hindu mobs have used the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” while carrying out violent attacks on minority communities.
The Hindu right-wing has appropriated the colour saffron, which is often prevalent in demonstrations against Muslims, and used it in videos with the lines “Leave India if you are scared of saffron.”
Bellingcat identified 114 videos across 54 channels generated for songs that promote discrimination — and in some cases outright violence — against Muslims in India, posted from May 2019 to September 2023.
Hateful messages about minority groups get spread through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp and have led to targeted violence against them. That was seen in March when violence erupted across India during Ram Navami, which marks the birth of Ram. Over 20 people were injured in different parts after groups of Hindus marched through Muslim neighbourhoods.
Modi has meanwhile diminished the political standing of what was India’s only Muslim-majority state: Jammu and Kashmir. In August 2019, the government split the state, which lies in the mountainous border region in dispute with Pakistan, into two territories and stripped away its special constitutional autonomy. Since then, Indian authorities have cracked down on the rights of people in the region, oftentimes under the guise of maintaining security. They shut down the internet eighty-five times in 2021, harassed and arrested journalists, and detained prominent political figures and activists. Dozens of civilians have been killed.
Christophe Jaffrelot, a leading India scholar at France’s Sciences Po, said that the BJP “[really] believes in … the sense of superiority of the Hindu people, in this dehumanization of the other.” Modi is chief among these true believers.
In 2002, when he was serving as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, a Muslim-dominated part of the state, went up in flames, killing 59 people. The fire was blamed on Muslims, setting off mass communal rioting, primarily pogroms by Hindu mobs against the Muslim minority. (An Indian government investigation later concluded that the fire had been an accident.) Human rights groups put the total death toll at more than 2,000. The raw brutality of the assault was chilling. Amnesty International reports that between 250 and 330 Muslim girls and women were raped and tortured during the violence; most of them were subsequently executed by the mob.
Modi allegedly intervened personally on the side of these anti-Muslim rioters, ordering police to stand aside and allow Hindu mobs to rampage across Muslim-majority areas.
Modi wants India to become a Hindu nation. In 2020, he laid the foundation stone for a modern temple to the Hindu god Ram atop the ruins of an historic mosque, which had been destroyed by Hindu crowds a few years before.
In just the past four months, Mumbai and adjoining cities in the state of Maharashtra witnessed 50 anti-Muslim hate rallies attended by thousands of Hindus, often led and participated in by leaders of the BJP.
Indian Hindu fundamentalists attack the wall of the 16th century Babri Masjid Mosque.
Partly as a result of such activity, international groups, such as Freedom House and V-Dem, consider India only “partly free” and an “electoral autocracy” owing to the sharp decline of human and civil rights.
According to Vox: “Modi has systematically taken a hammer to the core institutions of Indian democracy. The prime minister’s government has undermined the independence of the election supervision authority, manipulated judges into ruling in his favor, used law enforcement against his enemies, and increased its control over the Indian press.”
Several civil society groups are still standing up for a pluralistic India and Muslim rights, and India’s Supreme Court has been a powerful check on the BJP. But abuses continue to be encouraged; around the time that Modi welcomed the Australian, Japanese and Italian prime ministers and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to an international conference, three Muslims were reportedly lynched.
Modi’s stance is that he is an irreplaceable global leader who holds the key to world peace. He is relying on the power of India to ensure that no country stands against his doctrine.
This is very bad long-term news for the inhabitants of Gaza – or in fact any Muslim country.
Having the world’s most populous country line up against the Muslim world is not going to be a positive force for world peace. In the short term, having it oppose the Palestinian cause at a time when it is most vulnerable could be deadly. India has a fast-growing economy and is poised to take over some of the activities that global firms once relied on China to perform. It would be an imposing opponent for Palestine and its allies (such as they might be), especially at the time when it has few other influential friends.
Nevertheless, there are signs that a Hindu-Muslim rapprochement might be possible. The BJP party quickly suspended and expelled two of its spokespersons for statements about the Prophet Mohammad that had gone viral online. The BJP put out an official statement to insist it “respects all religions” and is “strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion.” The problem that the BJP had to address was that the offending statements were attracting unwanted attention from abroad.
That the BJP can still lose elections has been demonstrated by recent state-level defeats, like in the fiercely contested 2021 West Bengal election. India’s federal system means that state governments have a reasonable amount of power.
India needs energy and finances from the West. While it has some local investment, global investors are always welcome.
Given India’s size and rising influence, we can only hope that these factors turn the tide against dictatorship – for the sake of the Muslims as well as democracy around the world.
There is an election in India in May of 2024 – watch the news and hope that parties endorsing democracy sweep the field!