Editor’s Note: The author of this piece is an Indian American human rights lawyer based in the United States and working internationally. They have chosen to remain anonymous due to concerns about potential adverse consequences that could impact their future ability to travel, or travel safely, as necessary to their work.
In the nearly four months since the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide released its report ranking India as being at the second-highest risk of a new mass killing, the systematic targeting of Muslims in the country has only escalated to greater extremes.
On Mar. 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld a hijab ban imposed by some educational institutions in the southern Indian state, a stronghold of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The ruling followed the High Court’s interim order prohibiting religious attire in schools, issued in February after weeks of escalating religious tensions in Karnataka. In early January, a government-run women’s college in the city of Udupi banned students from wearing hijab in classrooms; Muslim students who attempted to attend their classes while wearing hijab were denied entry. Other colleges in the state soon imposed similar bans, and the government of Karnataka subsequently issued an order in support of those bans. Protests decrying the hijab prohibition and counter-protests by male students in saffron scarves (saffron being traditionally associated with Hinduism, but today largely associated with the BJP and right-wing Hindu ideology) sparked violence, resulting in the closure of all high schools and colleges throughout the state for three days. Five Muslim women students filed a constitutional challenge to the state government’s order, calling on the High Court to restore their rights. In finding that the order did not violate Muslim women’s constitutional rights, the High Court—arguably reaching far beyond its expertise and jurisdiction—undertook, in its opinion this past Tuesday, a reading and interpretation of the Quran and books on Islam to argue that hijab is not religiously mandated.
The hijab controversy comes on the heels of what has been perhaps the most direct call yet for the genocide of Muslims, in order to transform India into a Hindu nation, at a religious convening in the northern city of Haridwar in December. Emboldened with a sense of impunity resulting from ongoing complicity by law enforcement officials and political leaders turning a blind eye to, or even participating in, attacks on Muslims, Hindutva (right-wing Hindu-nationalist) leaders called on Hindus to take decisive action towards the establishment of a Hindu nation.
During the three-day gathering in Haridwar, prominent Hindu supremacist Yati Narsinghanand Giri, told the crowds, “You need to update your weapons . . . More and more offsprings and better weapons, only they can protect you.” Another speaker said, “Even if just a hundred of us become soldiers and kill two million of them, we will be victorious . . . If you stand with this attitude only then will you able to protect ‘sanatana dharma’ […Hinduism].”
Another outspoken Hindutva leader, Swami Prabodhananda Giri, who has close connections to BJP leadership, cited the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar as an illustrative example for Hindus to follow. Two weeks later, during an appearance in the city of Ghaziabad, he followed up his remarks with the statement, “We will stand up against every jihadi in India and clean the country of their presence,” defining a jihadi as those who have read and understood the Quran.
Although Yati Narsinghanand Giri and another speaker were arrested (under Sections 153 and 298 of the Indian Penal Code) for their comments at the Haridwar event, the question has been raised as to why the explicit calls for violence against Muslims were not met with charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or the National Security Act, even while provisions of these acts have been used to target Muslims, such as in the case of journalist Siddique Kappan. Meanwhile, similar events to the Haridwar convening are slated to be held all over the country.
The hijab ban and the Hindutva convenings inciting violence are part of a broader and ongoing targeting of Muslims in India, which has manifested in numerous ways, including the creation of online apps to “auction” Muslim women; the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which offered a path to citizenship for individuals from persecuted religious minority groups, with the exception of Muslims; incitement of violence by BJP leaders against Muslims in the 2020 Delhi riots, which stemmed from protests against the CAA; vigilante attacks on Muslims in the name of protecting cows; “love jihad” laws that aim to prevent Muslim men from marrying Hindu women and ban “unlawful” religious conversions in the context of interfaith marriage (seen most recently in a bill tabled in the Haryana Assembly in early March); and the disenfranchisement and persecution of Muslims in Assam. Christians have not been spared either under the Hindutva agenda, having been subjected to increased violence and harassment—from direct attacks on churches and schools, to more insidious pursuit via anti-conversion laws and India’s controversial Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), through which even the Kolkata-based Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, was targeted (though its FCRA registration status was subsequently restored).
Though no less a cause for alarm, the targeting of Christians, in contrast to the targeting of Muslims, is perhaps more a byproduct of the quest for India to become a Hindu nation, as opposed to a specific desire for extermination stemming from decades of socio-political controversy. Indeed, Hindutva rhetoric targeting Muslims, including at the Haridwar gathering, has included the exaltation of Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi based on a perception that Gandhi was too pro-Muslim and betraying Hindus. Demonstrating similar sentiment, the Indian Ministry of Culture last year tweeted a birthday tribute to M.S. Golwarkar. From 1940 to 1973, Golwarkar led the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—of which Godse had also been a part—and was initially arrested for Gandhi’s assassination. Golwalkar in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, glorified Hitler and cited Nazi Germany as a model for eliminating minorities.
Through the steady proliferation of hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the weaponization of religious identity for political gain, and the literal call to arms against their own citizens, there has been pindrop silence from Modi and other top BJP leaders. Undoubtedly, much of the recent escalation in the fueling of religious tensions and reassertion of the narrative of a Hindu India is directly tied to the Uttar Pradesh elections—seen as a barometer for national elections to be held in 2024—which just concluded and saw a retention of BJP power under the divisive Hindu-nationalist monk and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. However, the tacit endorsement by BJP leadership of using any means necessary for political gain—including mobilizing concrete action to make India a Hindu nation—may have consequences that far outlast the elections. The Haridwar convening showcased layers within the Hindutva machinery, with what are known as the “Trads” being more extreme and direct in their calls for extermination of minorities, and the “Raitas,” who include diehard BJP supporters who engage in other forms of hate speech. The flames that are stoked now under the watch of the Raitas, by currently BJP-aligned Trads, may become impossible to extinguish later.
In addition to India’s own leadership, the United States has also been notably silent. Before U.S. relations with India began devolving as a result of India’s mulishness in refusing to join other democratic nations in condemning Russia, the Biden administration looked the other way—failing to acknowledge India’s crackdowns on free expression and dissent, persecution of religious minorities, and overall shift towards authoritarianism—and continued to bolster India as its key ally and partner in the Indo-Pacific region. In a Congressional briefing in January, the founding president of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton, urged “the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution that warns genocide should not be allowed to occur in India,” and for President Biden to warn Modi of the potential implications of a genocide on U.S.-India relations. The obligation on the United States to intervene diplomatically is not only a moral one; a genocide in India would cause political upheaval with potentially disastrous and long-lasting consequences for the security of the region.
In addition to the need for diplomatic intervention from the United States and other nations, there is also a critical need for swift and decisive action by Meta, which has over 340 million users of its Facebook platform and over 400 million users of WhatsApp in India. A video in which Yati Narsinghanand Giri stated, “I want to exterminate all Muslims and eradicate Islam from the face of the earth,” was first posted on Facebook in 2019; as of December 2021, it was still on the platform and had been viewed 32 million times. In February 2020, a BJP politician uploaded a video to Facebook in which he called on his supporters to forcibly remove Muslim protesters of the CAA from the road if the police didn’t; just hours later, the Delhi riots broke out, resulting in 53 deaths, mostly of Muslims. Myriad other reports abound of content that is not only false, hateful, or inflammatory, but that incites violence; BJP political leaders have not only capitalized on the widespread use of social media to share information, but have actively used it as a tool in their arsenal. As Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah told his volunteers in a 2018 address, “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake. We can do this work only because we have 32-lakh [3.2 million] people in our WhatsApp groups.”
According to leaked company documents obtained by the Associated Press, Meta identified India as one of the most at-risk countries for hate speech and has been aware of its platforms being used to stoke violence, but had insufficient local resources in place to stop misinformation and detect hate speech. The company claims to have since invested in content moderation resources in India, and it must prioritize this issue to avoid risking a repeat of its failures in Myanmar. Recommendations to the company have included building out AI-driven systems to detect inflammatory content, creating a repository of such content, and creating a reporting mechanism within WhatsApp. Besides prioritizing such investment, Meta must also refuse to bow to political pressure; its reluctance to do so has resulted in selective enforcement in the past.
Ultimately, the purpose of genocide risk assessments by groups like Genocide Watch and the Holocaust Memorial Museum is awareness and prevention. As the founding charter of the Holocaust Memorial Museum states, “Only a conscious, concerted attempt to learn from past errors can prevent recurrence to any racial, religious, ethnic or national group. A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past.”
With the benefit of collective hindsight comes the burden of collective action. This may take various forms, including members of the Indian public speaking out against violence and discrimination against Muslims, voters taking a stance against the Hindu-nationalist BJP agenda, corporations conditioning continued operations in the country on measures to prosecute and prevent hate speech and incitement to violence, and the United Nations and India’s global peers condemning the targeting of Muslims. At stake for India are millions of lives and its legacy of democracy and secularism.