India is witnessing a steep rise in ethno-religious majoritarianism, and social media is playing a significant role in empowering Hindu nationalists and exacerbating communal tensions in the country. The agenda of the Sangh Parivar (the family of Hindu nationalist organisations, to which the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is affiliated), is to shift India from being a secular country to a Hindu nation. Correspondingly, as the doctrine of the movement, Hindutva goes beyond ballot box and aims to bring about Hindu renaissance to fully transform society. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, ethnic and religious tensions have intensified both offline and online. With identity-based populism dominating the Indian political landscape, minority groups are easily vilified through the use of conspiracy theories and hate speech, especially as media literacy remains low in most parts of the country.
Online Hate, Offline Harms
The use of the Internet by Hindutva members to spread propaganda is not new. However, they are now increasingly being translated into offline harm. State-sponsored IT cells, members, and supporters of the BJP openly fan ethnoreligious tensions, and incite and participate in violence, without any fear of police retribution. Social media therefore has become a virtual playground for extremist views to be reinforced and act as an expanding echo chamber.
Social media platforms are routinely used to foment hatred and suspicion against minority groups and dissenting voices in the country to advance the party’s political narratives. Recently, in August, Amir Khan, a Muslim Bollywood star was viciously trolled by right-wing Hindutva nationalists for meeting the wife of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is considered an enemy of India for criticising the BJP government and its Kashmir policies. The film star was branded “anti-national” and “unpatriotic” for standing with the “enemy”.
Social media is also frequently used to spread rumours. For instance, many cow vigilante lynchings of Muslims and Dalits happen after rumours of cow slaughter or smuggling spread on social media. Often, videos of lynching and beatings are shared on social media platforms. This kind of performance terrorism helps perpetrators to gain legitimacy among violent Hindutva groups, brand themselves, attract more people to the cause and normalise violence against minorities. Hindu nationalists also used social media to asperse Muslims in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, amplifying Islamophobia in India. Offensive hashtags spreading hatred and seeking to portray Muslims as carriers of coronavirus trended on Twitter. Social media was also rife with fake news and conspiracy theories accusing Muslims of deliberately conducting a malevolent campaign to spread COVID-19 to the Hindu majority, resulting in demonisation, denial of medical care, boycotts, and attacks on Muslims in the country.
Social media has also been used by adherents of Hindutva to call to arms. Numerous accounts peddling hate-filled nationalist posts and calling for violence against minorities have flourished, despite being flagged and reported by many users. Most recently, it was linked to the anti-Muslim attacks in Delhi earlier this year, one of the worst communal violence India has seen in decades. Last month, the Peace and Harmony Committee of Delhi Assembly found Facebook ‘prima facie guilty of a role in the Delhi 2020 riots’ for its complicity in aiding and abetting hate speech and incitements to violence by members of the BJP and its affiliates. Radical Hindutva activists, claiming to be warriors and saviours of Hinduism, ran coordinated campaigns through posts and live video and appealed for “religious war”. Charge sheets filed by the police also revealed how rioters in a WhatsApp group called ‘Kattar Hindut Ekta’ – which loosely translates to “radical Hindu unity”, planned attacks, discussed battle tactics and logistics – where to assemble, calls for assistance, sources for weapons and ammunition. Members of the group vandalised local mosques and properties belonging to Muslims and forced them to shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’, before killing nine. The group made frequent references to leaders and affiliates of the BJP. The most prominent name that surfaced was of BJP’s Kapil Mishra, who had given an ultimatum to the police through his Twitter account to clear the protestors against the Citizenship Act, failing which he had threatened to gather his supporters and clear the roads himself. Violence had begun on the very night of Mishra’s threats. Not only were Hindutva radicals able to evade charges, Amnesty has alleged police complicity in emboldening Hindutva violence.
Majoritarian violence fuelled by the spread of right-wing populism in the digital age has posed a complex challenge to India’s social fabric which is premised on the nation’s intrinsic culture of co-existence and inter-faith harmony. Already, pluralism in India is showing signs of irreversible erosion. As such, it has become increasingly important to examine the trajectory of hate speech and how it potentially evolves into acts of violence, and establish frameworks to counter Hindutva extremism in the country. Without a clear legal framework, misinformation, hate speech, and hate crimes in India are practically unchallenged and unpunished. Not only does the Modi government remain apathetic, government officials themselves engage in the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation, often exalting those inciting ethnoreligious violence. PM Modi and some BJP ministers also endorse the virtual mob by following them on social media. All this has created a climate of impunity for Hindutva extremists. Even though intellectuals and numerous grassroots initiatives are calling for tolerance, there is little evidence that the proliferation of intolerance and hate will soon subside or be met with robust and effective counter-narrative. This has made it even more important for social media companies to ensure that their platforms are not weaponised against individuals or groups, even when violators of their policies are sanctioned by the state.