At a public rally on January 22, BJP president Amit Shah claimed that the Opposition’s mahagathbandhan rally in Kolkata did not have slogans of “Vande Mataram” or “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” The implication was that the Opposition is anti-national. But the only hitch was that Mr. Shah’s claim was fake. The bugle for the general election has been sounded.
Since the Congress’s victory in December in three Assembly elections, there has been a flurry of communally laced fake news from the Sangh Parivar on social media. One claim was that Muslims in Rajasthan carried Pakistani flags as they celebrated the Congress’s win. Another was that Congress president Rahul Gandhi praised Islam as the source of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence. And yet another was that Mr. Gandhi prayed for a Muslim kingdom in India at a dargah. All these claims were exposed by Alt News .
While there is a gradual mainstreaming of hatred, elections especially push the envelope regarding what can be uttered in the public sphere. But this normalisation of hate is not just verbal. According to Hate Crime Watch, a multi-organisation effort steered by FactChecker.in, last year saw the highest number of religiously motivated hate crimes in a decade, and in 75% of those incidents, the victims were minorities.
The Congress’s recent victories cannot be read as a triumph of secularism over communalism, or of economic issues like rural distress and urban middle class angst about development. This is because the ground beneath our feet has almost irrevocably shifted to accommodate the extreme right-wing agenda of virulent masculinity, anti-minority and anti-Dalit hate. For instance, the state response to the brutal killing of a policeman by a mob in Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh was to make villages take a pledge against cow slaughter! Further, the National Security Act was invoked against the alleged cow slaughterers, but not the killers. Even the language we use has changed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a December election campaign speech, said: “The Congress has come up with a ‘fatwa’ that I should not begin my rallies with ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.” It says a lot that the Prime Minister’s pitting of a much-demonised term from Islamic jurisprudence against ‘Bharat Mata’ does not shock us. If there are images of an angry Hanuman everywhere, it is because there is a miasma of hate; Hanuman cannot any more be a gentle devotee of Lord Ram. And if U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath uses religiously inflammatory words like “Congress can keep Ali, Bajrangbali is enough for us” with impunity in campaign speeches, it is because his hate speeches have become commonplace.
Muslims bear the brunt of this new normal (witness the BJP’s dangerous anti-Muslim rhetoric on the Citizenship Amendment Bill), for hate further marginalises the already politically marginalised. This is also facilitated by Muslim leaders themselves. For example, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen leader Akbaruddin Owaisi responded to Mr. Adityanath’s venomous speeches with the same religious rabble-rousing, chanting Naara-e-Takbeers in political gatherings completely populated by men.
In this thrall of a hate-filled false binary of a monolithic Hindu versus a monolithic Muslim, the building of solidarities on the basis of caste, class and gender oppressions is postponed. The real beneficiaries are not the most oppressed Hindus and Muslims, but only the demagogues, the “fishers for eels” that Aristophanes recognised 2,500 years ago. When many distressed farmers and a section of the urban unemployed vote for the Congress or secular parties, it is not that they do not share the same ideological universe as the right-wing. The so-called victories of secularism will still be on a ground ploughed by the cancer of hate and mountain of fake news. It is no surprise then that the Congress too puts out fake news, albeit of a non-communal kind.
India is not unique in this respect. Hateful messages on social media propelled the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to victory in Brazil, they were used by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya, and they led to violence against immigrants in the U.K. and the refugees in Germany. Transformational democratic solidarities can scarcely emerge out of a toxic public sphere and social media. In India, the vastly disproportionate culpability of Hindutva conjoined with state power is clear. According to a BBC study, calls for nation-building are trumping truth and there is an “overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks for the ruling party”.
Social media portal ShareChat, used in 14 Indian languages, said very presciently about increasing hate speech on its platform: “When you have politicians going on TV and saying these things every night, [we] can’t start limiting people’s freedom of speech… We can’t take a call on what is hateful or not.” Social media can rejuvenate democracy by giving a voice to the voiceless, but that space for debate has been hijacked by IT cells of political parties and the masses following them.
It is difficult to roll back something that acquires normalcy. “Uninstalling” hate from social media platforms and the larger public sphere cannot be achieved through mere electoral victories, or stronger laws, even if they are important. While electoral alliances, like that of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party, can dent Hindutva-fuelled hate, they cannot eliminate it. This can happen only through a multi-faceted cultural and political struggle to realise that democracy is not majoritarianism; rather, its core tenets are equality, liberty and fraternity, all of which incontrovertibly stand against hate and demagoguery. And that there can be no democracy if there is no sanctity of speech, and no intention to speak the truth.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies Department, Dalhousie University, Canada and tweets @nmannathukkaren