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Far-Right Terrorism is Global, but Coverage is Not: Hindu Nationalist Violence in India

Far-Right Terrorism is Global, but Coverage is Not: Hindu Nationalist Violence in India
24th February 2020 Dr. Eviane Leidig
In Insights

Last week brought news of a tragic event in Germany with a right-wing terrorist attack in the city of Hanau. Much media coverage and scholarly commentary has been devoted towards focusing on the motives of the perpetrator and in particular, highlighting that the shooter uploaded a video onto YouTube shortly before the incident took place.

The role of social media in furthering online radicalization has been heavily documented in the wake of a number of horrific right-wing extremist attacks, notably with the livestreamed Christchurch and El Paso terror attacks, as well as the Bærum mosque and Halle synagogue shootings last year. From mainstream websites to fringe forums such as the Chansphere, the Internet has played a significant role in the dissemination and mobilisation of far-right extremism.

Yet, there exists a stark double standard when it comes to media representation of far-right terror attacks.

Hindu nationalist terrorism

Earlier this month, there was a far-right terrorist shooting at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University in New Delhi, India. The perpetrator broadcast the attack live on Facebook, shouting Hindu nationalist slogans whilst opening fire. Significantly, the perpetrator targeted a crowd that had gathered to the mark the 72nd anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu nationalist who believed Gandhi to be too ‘secular’ and accommodating to India’s Muslims. Gandhi’s murderer was additionally a member of the paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which advocates for an ethno-nationalist Hindu state.

Today, the governing party of India is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the RSS. Prior to the attack at JMI, BJP politicians have incited violence towards Muslims at public election rallies, with phrases such as ‘Shoot the traitors of India’. Some BJP politicians have taken even more extreme stances, for instance Yogi Adityanath, whom Amnesty International has described as espousing ‘hateful rhetoric that incites discrimination and hostility against minority groups, particularly Muslims’.

This should all be understood in context of the fact that the shooter had developed an extensive social media network, primarily through Facebook and WhatsApp groups, with Hindu nationalist organisations and individuals. Such actors have openly advocated for violence, including through popular YouTube vlogs, against Muslims and the political left, which they deem as ‘anti-national’. Indeed, shortly before carrying out the attack, the shooter posted a series of messages on Facebook, including mention of ‘Shaheen Bagh, game over’ (Shaheen Bagh refers to a Muslim-inhabited neighbourhood in Delhi that is home to a sit-in protest against the government’s new citizenship law, i.e. CAA.). The shooter was clearly inspired by gaming terminology, of which several researchers have noted the connection between gamification and the nature of right-wing extremist attacks.

Hindu nationalists, like their far-right contemporaries in the West, have been early adopters of the Internet. As early as the 1990s, Hindu nationalist organisations extensively used websites and chat forums to spread their ideology and recruit followers—including those in the diaspora living in Western countries and employed within the tech industry. Today, the BJP and its network of affiliates oversee an army of keyboard warriors, called ‘Internet Hindus’ or ‘Cyber Hindus’, who promote Hindu nationalist ideology whilst distributing Islamophobic content online.

This can have deadly offline effects, as the rise of cow vigilante violence—or Hindu nationalists that target persons, mostly Muslims, who are cow traders—has steadily increased since the BJP took office in 2014. Perpetrators of ‘cow protection’ vigilantism extensively rely on WhatsApp to communicate and spread rumours, a tool that is highly effective for its end-to-end encryption technology. Unfortunately, efforts to combat misinformation on WhatsApp groups have failed since most Indian users have dated hardware that does not support software updates, such as limits on forwarded messages.

A double standard in far-right extremism

So why are such incidents as the one above not covered in international media to the same extent as far-right terror attacks in Europe and North America?

Primarily, it is largely unknown that there is a Hindu nationalist government in India, let alone that Hindu nationalism is a far-right ideology. Yet, Hindu nationalism has its ideological origins with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, which makes it especially well suited in the far-right family. The contemporary Indian and European far right have found common ground in their shared ideological agenda steeped in xenophobia and Islamophobia.

Further, far-right violence is largely confined to India’s borders, and as such, it is predominately seen as a domestic issue. Unlike Islamist terrorism, for example, it is not prioritised as a national security concern to Western countries. Relatedly, India is considered an ally to Western countries, and this provides immunity from criticism. Prime Minister Modi—who had joined the RSS at the age of 9 and quickly rose through the ranks to become the face of the BJP in the 2014 election—is internationally recognised for his selfies with Mark Zuckerberg, not as the politician who until recently, was banned from the USA, UK, and several European countries for his administration’s complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Overall, we need to recognize that right-wing extremism is a global phenomenon and that such ideas and narratives do not operate in isolation, but rather compose of expansive transnational activity. Importantly, this means that we must broaden our definition of the far right to include cases in the Global South, or else risk the growing threat of the far right worldwide.