Breath, air, contagion
“..I’ve lived in India for over forty years, and the last ten have been a steady, brutal immersion into an ocean of hate, so constant and so all-pervasive that we no longer notice it as ‘hate speech.’ It has become just part of the environment, as choking and foul as pollution that used to sweep through India’s largest metros every year.../”
Nilanjana S. Roy, Indian writer and journalist, has written several books, among them The Wildings (2012) and a collection of short stories The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). For decades she has regularly contributed to The Financial Times and The New York Times on issues such as censorship, hate speech, and the freedom of expression. In an essay for PEN/Opp she seeks to fathom what is going on in India, a country so colored by religious controversy, myths about the Other, violence, and the misuse of power.
Democracies don’t die in silence; they crack apart to the sound of rightwing Hindutva lynch mobs calling for the blood of Muslims, to the swell of high-decibel hate against “urban naxals”, scholars, academics, activists, journalists, all accused of being enemies of the people in ranting denunciations on prime time television, to popular singers who urge their followers to “fight proudly against ungodly faiths” and “perform ceremonies with bullets”.
I’ve lived in India for over forty years, and the last ten have been a steady, brutal immersion into an ocean of hate, so constant and so all-pervasive that we no longer notice it as “hate speech”. It has become just part of the environment, as choking and foul as the pollution that used to sweep through India’s largest metros every year, spreading like a filthy fog into every corner of an ordinary citizen’s life. While many political parties use hate speech in one form or another to rally their followers, it has become the sharpest weapon in the hands of the rightwing. It is deployed deliberately as a weapon by the BJP, the ruling party led by Prime Minister Modi, and its allies, as a way to harass, threaten and shut down anyone who dissents or criticizes the regime.
In May 2018, the UN issued a statement in support of the fiery journalist Rana Ayyub, an outspoken critic of the ruling party, after she was subjected to an online hate campaign that lasted for days, at the receiving end of rape threats, calls for her murder; other journalists. In the same year, the popular and widely followed Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar reported that he had been subjected to a well-organised campaign that had “political sanction”; a typical threat might be like the one he received from a person who claimed to belong to the Bajrang Dal, and said he would kill Mr Kumar and rape the women of his family. Typically, the police might file complaints, but will take no action against the perpetrators of hate speech, if they have political protection.
For politicians, especially from the ruling party, hate speech has become something else — not just a way to harass the BJP’s opponents, but a swift, effective way to build their reputations and their follower base. Just before the riots that plunged part of North-East Delhi into five days of bloody, orchestrated pogroms that took the lives of at least 53, two-thirds of them Muslim, it was members of the ruling party who set little fires everywhere with inflammatory speeches.
In December 2019, an unexpected, spontaneous protest movement brought citizens, mostly Muslims, many of them women who raised an iconic, makeshift camp on the roads of Shaheen Bagh. It was joined by students, some activists, many ordinary non-Muslim citizens marching in solidarity. They took to the streets in wave after wave of protests that remained peaceful until they faced violence from either the ruling party’s well-organized cadres, or from the police, which is under the direct control of the Home Ministry, not the Delhi government.
The protest was against a new set of citizenship laws that raise a legitimate fear of discrimination against Indian Muslims, whose citizenship could be thrown into doubt if these laws are enforced. Protests are like swarms, though. They have their own energy, and they shift and change shape over time, and what emerged was extraordinary. As students and protestors shivered in Delhi’s freezing cold, they held aloft the tricolor, the Indian national flag, raised posters of figures from the freedom movement, from Mahatma Gandhi to the great Dalit leader Dr B R Ambedkar. The streets rang with public readings of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, which promises liberty, equality and fraternity to ‘We, the People’, and with one resonant word: Azaadi.
Azaadi means freedom. It has its own long, twisting history; it has been used as a promise for anti-caste movements, as a rallying cry for Indian feminists, and it has also been used by separatists to demand independence in some regions, notably Kashmir. But this was an old, beloved version of the Azaadi chant, used in countless movements to express one’s love for the country:
“We’ll take back that freedom,
Freedom from attempts to create differences between us,
Freedom from hate and violence,
What do we want? Freedom.
We’ll wrest it back, our freedom.
It’s our right, freedom.
That beloved freedom,
Shout it loudly: freedom.”
Speech, hate or love, is made from breath, and speech becomes the air you breathe. Protests can do that, when they choose to adopt thoughtful words as well as fiery ones, to remind citizens of another time and way of being, to try to heal religious differences instead of widening them. For a short time, the air that we breathed in Delhi and around the country, as the citizenship protests drew in thousands and hundreds of thousands, that air changed, became sweetened by hope.
In January, when the protests were at their peak, campaigning for the Delhi state elections began. BJP West Delhi member of parliament Parvesh Verma said in a public speech that the protestors would “abduct your mothers and sisters, rape them, kill them”, feeding the carefully stoked rightwing attempts to paint Indian Muslims as outsiders with a history of violence upon Hindus.
His colleague, the BJP junior finance minister Anurag Thakur, used a slogan that brought a few stray gunmen out onto the streets, pointing their revolvers at protestors and injuring one young student: “Goli maaron saalon ko, desh ke gaddaron kon/ Shoot the bastards, shoot the traitors to their country.” The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu monk by profession, said in his speech that “Those who don’t understand words will be made to understand the language of the bullet.” An essential plank of the ruling party’s political strategy is straight out of the modern authoritarian’s playbook: brand anyone who questions the Prime Minister, his government, his party or its ideology as “traitors”, and accuse them of disloyalty or worse, sedition, an old British-era law that is still used to imprison anyone who’s causing trouble for the government. Listening to these speeches, you understood the unspoken clearly: protests would be met with violence, if the protestors didn’t back off.
On 23rd February, after almost three months of protests, the city’s temper was frayed. The protestors had faced continuous violence. Students reading in the library of Jamia Milia Islamia university had been teargassed without provocation, many had also been injured during the protests in police lathi-charges, or beaten by right-wing cadres while the police stood by, taking no action to help these young people, some participating in their first protests. The riots began late evening after Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, called for the police to clear the roads of protestors in the locality of Jaffrabad, adding that if they did not, he would do so himself. For the next few days, those parts of the North-East, tightly clustered colonies, saw bloodshed, orchestrated murder, even makeshift bombs, and mass destruction of property along with lives.
"Later, when the riots had stopped and investigations began, some news websites reported that the mobs in one case, the police in another, had sneered at victims: “Le li azaadi? Got your freedom?” In one particularly disturbing video from the time of the riots, five young Muslim men lie on the ground, beaten so thoroughly and so harshly by the police that one man, 23-year-old Faizan, died of his injuries shortly after. As they beat the men, the police can be heard saying, “You want azaadi (freedom)? Take azaadi.”
Every country that has gone through or is experiencing violent transformation, from the Philippines to Bolsonaro’s Brazil, understands the consequences of engineering a climate of hate, and experiences this viscerally. In 2017, the defense expert and political editor Sushant Singh wrote a prescient editorial on the consequences of what he called “Hatriotism” in India, citing the example of Radio Rwanda.
“If radio was a powerful medium then, where you only needed a transistor and a few batteries, we have the smart phone and WhatsApp today. The plethora of hate messages we get on WhatsApp mirror the phenomenon of the RLTMC, a concerted attempt to fabricate a newer version of history. Slotted amidst entertaining GIFs, videos, memes and jokes, these crude stories of hate, vitriol and victimisation provide the justification for political action.”
The contamination and contagion of everyday speech, conversation, and thought, is less well studied than air or water pollution, but its effects are just as deadly. Many of the studies of hate speech in India focus on political speech as one category, on Facebook’s notorious and enormous problem with rightwing groups that openly allow outrageous and increasingly dangerous expressions of hate as another. A recent, snowballing controversy over Facebook India’s reluctance to shut down groups that deliberately and tactically spread hate came to the fore after an investigation by the Wall Street Journal this week. Internal monitors at Facebook flagged the BJP’s T Raja Singh for making statements urging that Rohingya immigrants be shot, for instance — but Facebook’s top policy executive, Ms Ankhi Das, blocked attempts to shut down Mr Singh’s incendiary posts.
But you feel how far this hate has spread on your skin, like a perpetual prickle of disturbance. On WhatsApp, crude memes created by well-funded political groups stream a barrage of anti-Muslim, sometimes anti-Christian hate into the minds of smartphone users. Some of the most popular videos on YouTube are by charismatic lay preachers; the hardcore Hindutva right and the hardline Muslim extremists meet on this ground, both sides spewing toxic messages of bloodshed, instigating their followers into ever more bizarre and dangerous conspiracies. In April, as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across India, a religious meeting of Muslims at the Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin in Delhi became a focus of furious, Islamophobic attacks by some television channels, notably Republic, Zee and Sudarshan News. The Tablighi Jamaat members were accused of being spreaders, but the hashtag used for them on Twitter was an ugly one — #CoronaJihad, implying that this was a deliberate, religious-war by some Indian Muslims aimed at spreading the virus.
In the months that followed, many religious gatherings of Hindus and other religious groups were also proved to have spread the virus, but none of them were targeted in this fashion. This hashtag, which was used on television, WhatsApp and Twitter, is part of a longer attempt to label Muslims: “population jihad” refers to the widespread and toxic myth that Indian Muslims have more children than Hindus, “love jihad” to the fear in many North Indian states among Hindus that Muslim men will kidnap and forcibly marry Hindu women.
The original meaning of ‘jihad’, a spiritual struggle with oneself against sin, was lost when it became a slur. In March, the hugely popular television anchor, Sudhir Chaudhury, inadvertently drew a map of the fears of rightwing Hindus driven into a kind of paranoia by the prevalence of hate speech when he pointed to a diagram of “jihads” on his nightly broadcast, identifying the many ways in which Indian Muslims are supposed to be waging war against Hindus: “economic jihad, historical jihad, media jihad”, even a jihad through films and music.
It is only when you step away from the constant onslaught of toxicity that you understand how unhinged this is, for a once-respected television anchor to tell his audience of millions, in all seriousness, to identify the different kinds of “war” waged by a group of their fellow Indians.
I’m a bookworm at heart. Among the books piled up on my desk are two sets of books. One set is about the Indian freedom struggle, conducted at a time when the British ruled over the country. It is striking, in this day, in this tense and bloody time, to see how relatively little space my forebears wasted on hatred for their apparent enemy, the British. They documented atrocities, they sometimes expressed anger and heartbreak at the treachery of Empire. But most of their speeches follow the stream of reasoned argument. Most of their speech, and their frequent, energetic discussions with friends and foes alike, were about the task of how to imagine a country like India, with its multiple religions, languages, communities, histories, into being.
The other set of books has to do with the histories of countries like Bosnia, Germany and Rwanda, about the rise of hate speech in places like the US, and Turkey, and the land that has been my only home for forty years. I can see it so clearly, and feel it too, that the spores of hate carried in speech, blared at high decibels into our homes, endorsed by the highest in the land, are spreading an unstoppable contagion, have already divided Indians into true believers and enemies. And that second set tells me that no country could prevent the slide into horror and bloodshed, once they allowed hate to poison the nation’s bloodstream. The air we breathe is contaminated, and I fear that contagion far more than I fear any virus or pandemic.