Historical roots of hate speech and violence
Constitutionally, India is a secular state; however, Hindus are by far the largest religious group at 80 per cent of the population. Muslims are the largest minority group at 14 per cent of the population, followed by Christians (2.3%), Sikh (1.72%), Jain (0.37%), and others/none (less than 1%). Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is the most prevalent.
Although with strong ideological overtones defined by Hindu nationalism, communal violence is often exacerbated by electoral politics, including the need by Hindu nationalist groups to galvanise support across its wide caste-base along religious lines.
The Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) movement has its origins in the early 20th century independence movement against British colonialism. The high levels of impunity within the security sector and justice system, that have become hallmarks of India’s communal violence today, are also a result of the deep politicisation of communalism during the country’s immediate post-independence history.
A turn for the worst
Rather than denouncing this kind of hate rhetoric and diffusing inter-religious tensions, the current Prime Minister has cultivated an environment for such hate speech to flourish. Far from mitigating instances of inflammatory hate speech, the current BJP government has fostered an environment where hate speech is not only tolerated but also rewarded.
In parallel, the flow of information on religiously motivated incidences has been curtailed. In September 2019, the award-winning Hate Crime Watch database was removed from its website IndiaSpend. Journalists and human rights advocates have also been targets of threats and intimidation for their vocal opposition to state-sponsored communal violence and impunity.
Police in India are often complicit in communal violence, either through actively aiding the violence, committing acts of violence themselves, or abetting the violence on orders by senior officials. High levels of impunity for political leaders, at both central and state levels, and police units who engage in aiding or abetting communal violence continue to undermine the performance of the security sector in India at protecting civilians on an impartial basis from religious and other identity-based violence. The historical impunity exercised by state security forces has only deepened since 2014.
On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic morphed and superimposed itself on local prejudices in India. The spread of the virus was disproportionately and specifically associated with Muslims on the one hand, and with Chinese citizens in India – or anyone who shared the facial features of far-eastern peoples. The pandemic brought out multiple cases of profiling and bigotry aimed at racial minorities in India.
Turning a deaf ear to international bodies
Despite the large body of evidence showing the complicity of India’s political and security establishment in communal violence, India has been subjected to little accountability for the persistent levels of religious persecution and violence. India’s record has been scrutinised through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process within the Human Rights Council (HRC) where the problem of hate speech, violence against religious, tribal, and Dalit communities and restrictions on religious freedom has been routinely raised. However, India has persistently disregarded the recommendations of the HRC, and the HRC’s lack of enforcement mechanisms to ensure that India follows through on its human rights obligations under international law reinforces the absence of a meaningful recourse to accountability of the state at the international level.
By and large, India has been able to circumvent international attention and pressure, particularly as its rapid economic growth and political significance has meant that governments around the world have prioritised political relations and trade with India over its human rights record.
Given the historical precedence of intergroup conflict escalating into major riots and pogroms in India, members of the international community, including international organisations and governments, should pay greater attention to the recent spike in instances of hate speech, communal violence and the passing of numerous discriminatory laws. They should increase the level of accountability and pressure on the government of India to make relevant reforms in political rhetoric, law, security, and regulation of the media, including social media, to prevent the continued proliferation of hate speech, incitement and violence targeting minorities.
This article is a summary of the chapter on India in the report Preventing Hate Speech, Incitement, And Discrimination – Lessons On Promoting Tolerance And Respect For Diversity In The Asia Pacific.