India Hate Lab (IHL)

India Hate Lab Brief: Dangerous Rise of Anti-Muslim Hate Speech in India’s Elections

As Indians take to the polling booths for the world’s largest elections, the India Hate Lab has noted a discernable rise in anti-Muslim hate speeches at election rallies. This was most concerningly and illustratively showcased in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign speech in Rajasthan state on April 21. 

“When they (the Congress) were in power, they said Muslims have first right over resources. They will gather all your wealth and distribute it among those who have more children. They will distribute among infiltrators. Do you think your hard-earned money should be given to infiltrators? Would you accept this?”

Labeling Muslims as “infiltrators” and “child breeders,” this speech openly attacks a target group in an offensive and devaluing way while promoting hatred among an in-group. Another common theme is the “vote jihad” conspiracy theory. 

“They (Congress) will take away reservations from OBC (Other Backward Castes), SC (Scheduled Caste), ST (Scheduled Tribe) and give it to Muslims…..To please their ‘vote bank’ they are ready to rob hindus…” ~ Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his campaign speech at Chatra, Jharkhand on May 11.

His active othering of Muslims exemplified a strategy of hate-spin employed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to frame public discourse by characterizing the majority as victims under threat while actively vilifying Muslims as a civilizational threat. Modi and other BJP politicians have repeated similar statements promoting fear and hate against Muslims in speeches throughout this election cycle.  

Hate speech can be a powerful tool to poison public discourse, normalizing and legitimizing conspiracy theories that allege civilizational threats to the majority community. The Prime Minister’s assertions lean heavily into the globally virulent “great replacement” theory as well as locally derived conspiracy theories like “population jihad” which allege a vast conspiracy to usurp India from its Hindu majority. Hate speech and the conspiracy theories they propagate thus often serve as part of a broader master frame profoundly altering the perception of minority communities, presenting them as outsiders who threaten societal well-being. 

This strategic framing thus goes beyond mere electioneering; it serves to polarize communities and erode the secular and democratic foundations of India. The critical threat of proliferating hate speech lies in its capacity to not just disrupt societal harmony but to also mobilize support for acts of violence against minorities. The rhetoric used by Modi and endorsed by many BJP leaders escalates tensions and actively encourages discriminatory actions, which are often manifested in vigilante violence.

The rise of openly hateful and dangerous speech highlights a growing concern that the BJP’s narrative is not only about gaining electoral advantage but also about entrenching Hindu nationalism at the expense of constitutional values. Our findings in “Hate Speech Events in India- Report 2023″ corroborated a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly in BJP-ruled states, reflecting a broader acceptance and institutionalization of such divisive strategies. 

We opined that a spike in hate speech was likely during election season and our observations thus far have largely aligned with our predictions. The Dangerous Speech Project has also pointed out the consequences of the resurgent Hindu nationalism. 

Moreover, the legal framework in India, which ostensibly prohibits hate speech, appears inadequate and paralyzed in curbing the escalation of these narratives. Despite legal provisions against inciting sectarian disharmony, the enforcement remains lax at best and openly biased at worse, allowing BJP leaders and Hindu nationalist political figures to exploit hate speech for electoral gains and securing BJP’s persistence in power without immediate repercussions. In this recent case, the Election Commission of India surrendered and failed to take action against Modi’s hate speech, even though the Representation of the People Act (RPA) of 1951 prohibits candidates or their agents from appealing to voters based on factors like religion, race, caste, community,or language or using religious or national symbols to influence election outcomes.

This strategy of undermining institutions, processes and principles is commonly used to hollow out democracy. During this election season, it is crucial for the Election Commission of India to enforce its code of conduct, which prohibits appealing to communal sentiments to mobilize votes. Strict enforcement is necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of hate speech on India’s social fabric. The current trend of normalizing hate speech must be mitigated to prevent a further erosion of communal relationships, India’s commitment to secularism and to ensure a peaceful and inclusive future for all Indian citizens, regardless of creed.

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