Abdus Sattar Ghazali
THE last decade has witnessed intensified attacks on Muslim, Christian, Sikh and ‘lower castes’ in India, according to a study released recently by the University of California, Berkeley.
This first of its kind report on the status of Islamophobia in India is meant to provide a groundbreaking collection of evidence and provide a reference point for all future work on the subject.
“Within the past decade, the level of targeted violence against Muslim, Christian, Sikh and ‘lower castes’ has intensified in India and with the arrival of the BJP into national office facilitating its deployment through all structures of the state against demonized and vulnerable groups,” the report said adding:
“This strategy is familiar to observers of the political dynamics in the US and Europe against the backdrop of the rising tide of Islamophobia that has been stoked and deployed by extreme right-wing groups to gain legitimacy and it has been monetized into votes at the ballot box.”
According to Dr. Hatem Bazian, a co-author of the report with Paula Thompson and Rhonda Itaoui, till now there has been no reliable evidence, academic engagements or scholarly reports that document this rising tide of Islamophobia in the Indian context. “This lack of documentation both complicates and hinders the ability of those advocating against and countering Islamophobia.”
Dr. Hatem Bazian, was the keynote speaker at the Annual Iftar dinner 2019, on Saturday (May 12, 2019) where he spoke about the salient features of the study.
The report, titled Islamophobia in India: Stoking Bigotry, was published through the Center for Race and Gender’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Here are the Key Findings of the study:
Leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been implicated in “communal violence” and hate. Further, the BJP has the greatest number of lawmakers in the country with declared cases of hate speech against them. The provision of tickets to those charged with hate speech has been associated with driving the conditions that lead to Islamophobia and politically-stoked violence.
Polarizing politics are lucrative at the ballot box where individuals affiliated with stoking ‘communal’ hate and violence are actually four times more likely to win than others. This report has documented several Islamophobic statements from leading BJP members from across the political spectrum beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself who says: “Congress leaders are speaking in a language that is not acceptable in a democracy…This is insulting. This is nothing but a mindset of the Mughals.”
BJP Legislator Subramanian Swamy says: “Muslims should take an oath declaring that their ancestors were Hindu if they want to prove their citizenship.”
BJP Baiiriya MLA Surendra Singh says: “There are a very few Muslims who are patriotic. Once India becomes a Hindu Rashtra, Muslims who assimilate into our culture will stay in India. Those who will not are free to take asylum in any other country.”
BJP Union Minister Giriraj Singh says: “The growing population of the country, especially Muslims, is a threat to the social fabric, social harmony, and development of the country.”
BJP Lawmaker Sanjay Patil says: “This election is not about roads, water or other issues. This election is about Hindus vs. Muslims, Ram Mandir vs. Babri Masjid.”
BJP leader, Yogi Adityanath, has praised US President Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ and stated that “similar action is needed to contain terror activities in this country (India).”
These statements by officials demonstrate in part, systematic otherization and Islamophobia. The statements clear the way for discriminatory legislation, policies, and actions toward this vulnerable population. As a result, people may face discrimination, harassment, acts of physical violence, criminalization, imprisonment, deportation, and death.
It has been reported that India is experiencing an aggressive form of McCarthyism to silence dissent against the BJP. Media personnel and reporters are being tracked by BJP headed ‘war rooms’ that gather data on both traditional and new media, rating and categorizing it in relation to its position on the ruling BJP government, which has caused concern for many.
The Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index has revealed that mainstream media and journalists are “increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.” The co-founder of India’s first private news channel NDTV Prannoy Roy claimed that “India is going through an aggressive variant of McCarthyism against the media.” The company is presently under investigation by the federal police for fraud, which the company considers “a witch-hunt.” The Wire’s Siddharth Varadarajan said that government ministers created the word “presstitute” in order to “describe journalists who are unfriendly to them or who don’t do their bidding.”
Some journalists have claimed that they face intimidation if they are critical of Modi or his administration. It was reported that “three senior editors have left their jobs at various influential media outlets in the past six months after publishing reports that angered the government or supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).” Reporters and others also face the threat of prosecution for ‘sedition’ which is punishable by life imprisonment if they are “overly critical.”
Female journalists report being threatened with gangrape against themselves and family members. Recently, the United Nations intervened and called upon the government of India to protect Muslim journalist Rana Ayyub, whose life they deemed “is at serious risk.” In 2016, Ayyub published a book entitled the ‘Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up’ which uncovers “government complicity in anti-Muslim violence during the 2002 riots when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat.” Since then, she has faced harassment and threats both online and offline by Hindu nationalists. In an Al Jazeera article entitled “The Perils of Being a Journalist in Modi’s India,” Ayyub claimed that because she is a Muslim reporting on the Hindu nationalist government, this has brought on abuse related to her Muslim identity.
Media under ruthless pressure
In 2017 four reporters were murdered and in 2018, four journalists were murdered at the time of report compilation.
A recent India Today article stated that the 2017 murder of female reporter Gauri Lankesh was planned a year in advance. Her murderer Parashuram Waghmare was affiliated with members of a “nameless underground organization that has members from Sanathan Sanstha, Hindu Janjagruthi Samithi, and many other right-wing organisations, according to the Special Investigation Team (SIT).” The article also reports that Waghmore was ordered to execute her “for the sake of saving Hindu dharam.” Additionally, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), report that three journalists were murdered in India in 2017 and four in 2018. Since 2014, when Modi took office 12 reporters have been killed.
In an effort to promote a Hindutva agenda and “polarize voters in the run-up to the 2019 election,” a recent media exposé entitled Operation 136 (named after ranking India received from the World Press Freedom Index of 2017) was undertaken by Cobrapost.” The exposé revealed that payments were offered to over two dozen various media companies to promote a Hindutva agenda in order to “polarize voters in the run-up to the 2019 election.” All but two media outlets reportedly accepted, including major media houses. A series of undercover expose revealed that “news organizations were willing to not only cause communal disharmony among the citizens but also tilt the electoral outcome in favour of a particular party.” This included “newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and websites” as well as “advertorials and events.”
India’s powerful corporate media houses were set to “mobilise the electorate on communal lines” by promoting the hate speech of Hindu extremists such as “Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and Mohan Bhagwat,” while targeting certain opposition leaders. The exposé also revealed that “the arrangement included running the campaign on all platforms – print, electronic, radio or digital including, e-news portals, websites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.” 237 Operation 136 uncovered that several media houses are actually owned or patronized by politicians, especially regional media, and that “it was natural for them to become their master’s voice.” 238 RSS and Hindutva ideology have become embedded within the “newsrooms and boardrooms of Indian media houses.”
Politically-stoked communal Violence
This report contextualizes and documents politically-stoked violence against Muslim communities in India. In doing so, the negative impact of such attacks on the general security of Muslims every day, as well as Muslim spaces are exposed. Documenting various cases of spatialized Islamophobia in 2017 onwards exposes the impacts of politically-stoked mass violence on Muslim residential patterns, internal displacement, and subsequent patterns of ghettoization and segregation. Such negative spatial outcomes are situated as a byproduct of experiences of Islamophobia, which are and sustained through discriminatory policies that further restrict the social and spatial mobility of Muslims in India.
Islamophobia is spatialized through ‘communal violence,’ attacks and contestations over the right for Muslim neighborhoods and places of worship to exist in the Indian national space. Historically, India has suffered various outbreaks of large-scale politically-stoked violence against religious minorities, particularly against Muslims that remain unresolved years later.
There is a pronounced geographic pattern where politically-stoked violence occurs, which can be traced in ten states. These states with the highest incidence of communal violence included Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Telangana, and Assam. Collectively these ten states accounted for 1,972 cases of politically-stoked violence during the period of 2015-2017.
Statistics reveal that Muslims suffer disproportionately from communal violence given the outcomes in comparison to the population overall and in each area, further diminishing the likelihood that Muslims are enacting violence against Hindus, as some have claimed
Islamophobia was spatialized from 2017 onwards in a variety of ways. These included incidents of politically-stoked communal violence, the vandalism of Muslim sites, disputes and contentions over land, and the symbolic infiltration of Muslim sites, such as spying on Muslim communities, or the distributing anti-Muslim propaganda in Muslim spaces or neighborhoods to invoke fear and exclusion.
In documenting cases from 2017 onwards, it is exemplified that the BJP victory and subsequent implementation of ultra-right-wing nationalist discourse and policies have intensified such attacks against Muslim sites, neighborhoods, and places of worship.
Most concerning is the direct impact of such violence on patterns of segregation and the ghettoization of Muslims. This decreased social and spatial mobility further limits the ability of Muslims to access the socio-economic opportunities required to participate in national economic growth. This also causes increased housing insecurity and an intensified geographical division of Muslims from the Hindu majority in an increasingly Islamophobic national space.
The spatial impacts of Islamophobia inflicted against Muslim sites, spaces and communities have restricted the residential options, choices, and preferences of Muslims in India. The actual and perceived threat of violence has resulted in the exclusion of Muslim communities from the national space. This has resulted in the increased ghettoization of Muslims to limited places of security and belonging that enables the survival of these communities an increasingly hostile socio-political environment of Islamophobia.
Politically-stoked violence has negative impacts on the spatial and social mobility of Muslims in India. Such reduced mobility results in limited socio-economic opportunities to participate in national economic growth, housing insecurity, and an intensified geographical division of Muslims from the Hindu majority in an increasingly Islamophobic national space.
Rohingya refugees that have fled genocide in nearby Myanmar and sought refuge in India are an important group when assessing Islamophobia, spatialization, and mobility of Muslims in India.
Rohingya refugees in India encounter hate and discrimination and are vulnerable, living in makeshifts camps on the periphery of society. They are victims of surveillance, violence, razing of their camps and face threats of expulsion which will potentially be deadly.
Rohingya Muslims have been created as security threats by Hindu nationalists and media narrative. Descriptions of the Rohingya as “foreigners” who enter the country ‘illegally” rather than as “refugees” are political and strategic. BJP leader Yogi Adityanath’s vocal support of the ‘Muslim ban,” which acts as a barrier and virtual border wall, barring people entering the US from seven Muslim predominant nations under the Trump Administration, followed by Adityanath’s own election rally statement that similar action is needed to contain terror activities in India, perpetuates the nationalist narrative of Muslims as invaders of India and a threat to Hindu culture, as well as the nation.
Polarizing discourse attempts to solidify the link between Rohingya refugees and criminality, militancy and terrorism, potentially removing certain guaranteed protections, clearing the way for discriminatory legislation, policies, and actions toward this vulnerable population. It also makes it a possibility that 40,000 plus people may be imprisoned, deported and possibly ethnically cleansed, under the guise of security threats.
India’s beef legislation
The report demonstrates an annual increase in beef-related attacks since Prime Minister Modi took office in 2014.
The passage of restrictive beef legislation in various states are associated with driving the attacks upon Muslims and Dalits by emboldening people to take the law into their own hands enacting violence and death extra-judiciously upon innocent Muslims.
Often the beef-related attacks upon Muslims are premeditated and led by ultra- national Hindu groups wielding weapons such as knives, sticks, and belts who act as judge and jury.
Amnesty International India has drawn a link between increasing cow legislation that predominantly targets Muslims and the growing trend of Islamophobia that must be stopped.
Reports and narratives indicate that many Muslims live in fear due to the increasing, volatile and unpredictable nature of beef lynching across various regions in India.
Officials and police are often implicated in beef-related attacks, and impunity around attacks lends a sense of permissibility to an ‘open hunting season’ upon Muslims. Not only do attackers including those who murder, go uncharged for their crimes, in some cases, they have been honored and rewarded for their crime by politicians from the BJP.
Gau rakshaks seize wealth in the form of cows from Muslims and give them to gaushalas (cow shelters) that have been found to pass them on to Hindus, thus redistributing the wealth of Muslims to Hindus in some cases.
More than half of beef related attacks were reportedly spread by rumors.
Ghar Vāpasī or forcing Muslims to become Hindu
Hindu nationalist groups have been able to operate such assertive Ghar Vāpasī campaigns targeting minorities for conversion with apparent impunity. These so-called ‘homecomings’ are justified by the RSS as ‘reconversions’ on the basis that their predecessors were themselves supposedly converted from Hinduism through proselytization or force by other ‘foreign’ religions, including Islam.
“Ghar vāpasī has been touted as the return to authentic origins, the starting point, the abode of birth. It produces and enforces notions of a primordial religious identity, whereby all and everyone are declared Hindus. Thus states Praveen Togadia of the VHP: “At one point of time, the entire world was Hindu. There were seven billion Hindus, and now there are just one billion.” The shift from the whole world to the Hindu nation is swift, as ghar vāpasī denationalizes Islam and Christianity, facilitating their “othering.”
There have been ongoing reports of Ghar Vāpasī ceremonies in 2017, although their number and nature were impossible to confirm. In 2014, following the BJP national victory, the RSS announced plans to “reconvert” thousands of Christian and Muslims families to Hinduism as part of a so-called Ghar Vāpasī (returning home) program, and began raising money to do so.
The Dharm Jagran Samiti (Religious Awakening Council) is an RSS-VHP affiliate dedicated to converting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. According to a report by India Today, this organization said it would expedite its Ghar Vāpasī campaign: “Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here [in India],” one of its leaders said in December 2014. “Our target is to make India a Hindu nation by 2021… Muslims and Christians must convert to Hinduism “if they want to stay in this country”.
This statement is connected to the organizations’ claims that they converted 57 Muslim families to Hinduism in Uttar Pradesh. Such conversion ceremonies have led to panic among Muslims and the displacement of Muslim communities from their homes. However, after a domestic and international outcry, the RSS postponed its plans. Nevertheless, in its annual report presented of 2015, the VHP claimed to have converted nearly 34,000 people to Hinduism over a year and “prevented” nearly 49,000 Hindus from converting to other religions.
These conversions and “preventions” were carried out in the states of Odisha, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Assam. The Dharm Jagran Samiti also distributed pamphlets for its fundraising drive where the cost of converting a Muslim was fixed at Rs. 500,000 ($7,500) and of converting a Christian at Rs. 200,000 ($3,000). BJP MP Satish Gautam welcomed the announcement. Smaller-scale forced conversions of religious minorities were also reported in 2016. In addition, in February 2016 the RSS reportedly placed signs in train stations throughout India that said Christians had to leave India or convert to Hinduism or they will be killed by 2021.
Four Sample Cases relating to Conversion in India
- In September 2014, in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, members of the Bajrang Dal and VHP put pressure on district officials to reject nine Hindu Dalits’ petitions to convert to Islam.
- In December 2014, in Madhunagar, Uttar Pradesh, RSS-related groups, the Dharma Jagran Samanvay Vibhag and Bajrang Dal, converted 200 Muslims to Hinduism. The new converts later stated they had been misled, told that they were receiving help to get ID cards.
- In February 2016, across India the RSS allegedly put up threatening signs across India in train stations stating Christians need to convert to Hinduism or leave the country by 2021, or risk death.
- In April 2017, in Maharajganj, Uttar Pradesh, members of the group Hindu Yuva Vahini called police to a Christian church by alleging forced conversions, causing disruption to a prayer service involving Ukrainian and US tourists. While Hindu Yuva Vahini members surrounded the church during the disruption, the police visit found no evidence of forced conversions.
Junaid Khan: Muslim teen lynched by a mob in Ramadan 2017 on train ride home:
One significant case in 2017 was that of sixteen-year-old Junaid Khan. Khan was a young student returning home from school for the Muslim religious holiday Eid. On June 23, Khan and his brother left their Khandawali village, district of Palwal, Haryana headed for Delhi by train to shop for the Eid holiday. As he was returning home with his brother and two friends, he was lynched to death by a mob of young men on a public train.
The police arrested six men shortly after the lynching who admitted to participating in the beating, but not the stabbing of Junaid. Yet the end of March 2018, less than a year after Junaid’s murder all of the accused have been released from prison except for the main person Naresh Kumar. The Indian Express reports that Junaid’s father has claimed that Haryana police helped Rameshwar Dass one of the two key perpetrators accused in the murder of Junaid, obtain bail by subverting the investigation.
Junaid’s murder resonated beyond spectacular or isolated incidents, it solidified a sense of ongoing vulnerability for Muslims engaging in everyday activities. The Quint collected tweets by young Muslims in India that reflect the fears and anxieties that they experience in the increasing climate of Islamophobia, and the tweets were read off one by one in a video.
Places of public transport such as the train in Junaid’s case and the highway in Pehlu Khan’s case indicate serious mobility issues for Muslims as they attempt to move from one space to another and engage in everyday activities such as school and work.
The attack and murder of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer
In April 2017 Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old, impoverished, Muslim dairy farmer who cared for his blind mother, wife, and sons, was lynched in Alwar by a group of gau rakshaks (ultra-nationalist cow protectors) as he transported some cattle in the back of his truck. Alwar is located in the state of Rajasthan and has a predominantly Hindu population at 82.72 per cent and is 14.90 per cent Muslim, according to India’s 2011 census data. The attack was recorded via cellphone video and it captured the confiscation of his cows. They were seized and taken to a Hindu run gaushala (cow shelter). While in the hospital Khan was able to name his attackers in an FIR before succumbing to his injuries two days later.
Criminalization of the victims of cow vigilantism through labels such as ‘beef eaters’ and ‘cow smugglers’ is common in the otherization utilized by police, officials, and vigilantes in such cases. Criminal charges are often filed against victims of lynchings either exclusively or in tandem with their attackers. Cow legislation that targets Muslims facilitates this injustice.
The Indian Express reported in a recent article that criminalization of the victims of cow lynching occurred in states across the country. Commenting on the Alwar lynching, BJP leader and Islamophobe Vinay Katiyar seemed to criminalize Muslims in general and placed responsibility for lynching at their feet when he said, “The incident of mob lynching in Alwar is highly condemnable but people from the Muslim community should abstain from touching cows and provoke aggressive Hindus. There are a lot of Muslims who are sheltering cows but are also killing them. Cow meat is also being consumed by them.” This statement encourages perpetrators and can be understood as government support for lynching.
A year after Pehlu Khan’s violent lynching by Hindutva vigilantes, the community reportedly remains under siege and justice has not been served. The six men identified by Khan before he succumbed to his injuries “all been absolved by the police of any guilt.” In fact their names have reportedly been removed from the case entirely. Khan’s case is a textbook example of the culture of impunity that exists regarding lynchings under the guise of cow protection.