Where once it was surreptitious, hate is now being unleashed in India to blatantly demonise, denigrate, discriminate against and dehumanise vulnerable groups. The prime target, in today’s scheme of things, is the country’s Muslim community. But Adivasis, Dalits and Christians are not immune from the venom either. This campaign of hate is clearly intended to bulldoze the democratic, pluralistic fabric of Indian society.

As United Nations observes the first International Day for Countering Hate Speech on June 18, it is worth recalling how the latest controversy relating to the phenomenon started in India – and to try to draw lessons from it.

On May 26, Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, made disparaging comments about Prophet Mohammed during a TV discussion about the Gyanvapi Mosque dispute in Varanasi. Her remarks were deemed unacceptable not just by Muslims but by large sections of civil society too. As a video clip of her comments went viral on social media platforms, they were condemned not just in India but by several international governments.

It must be noted that Sharma was on the debate not in a personal capacity but as the spokesperson of the ruling party. It must be assumed that her statements were in line with the thinking of the BJP’s senior leadership.

Cover of impunity

At first, Sharma denied making those comments, claiming that the clip had been “heavily edited”. But in the face of irrefutable evidence that it had not been, the TimesNow TV channel deleted the entire show from YouTube. Shortly after, Sharma complained that she had started receiving rape and death threats, prompting the Delhi Police to provide her with security cover.

On June 5, the BJP suspended Sharma from the party and expelled Jindal. Sharma said that she was “unconditionally” withdrawing her statement but also made an attempt to justify it, claiming that it was in response to the “continuous insult and disregard” towards the Hindu deity Shiva. In an attempt to quell the international fallout of these comments, Indian diplomats decided to describe Sharma and Jindal as “fringe elements”, claiming “their views do not reflect the views of the Government of India”.

Though a series of FIRs were filed against Sharma in various parts of the country, for more than three weeks now, she has remained under apparent cover of impunity. So has Naveen Jindal, media head of the party’s Delhi unit, who had also posted a provocative tweet about the Prophet.

As was to be expected, these derogatory remarks about the Prophet were protested by Muslims in several parts of the country. A few demonstrations resulted in violence, leading to police retaliation and widespread arrests. The homes of some of the people accused of organising or participating in the protests have been arbitrarily demolished by bulldozers, ostensibly because they were constructed illegally.

It seemed like a double standard was being applied. Even as claimed Muslim protesters have been punished without due process, Sharma and Jindal are still at large.

The destructive consequences of this hate speech by Sharma and Jindal are what the UN General Assembly intended to warn against when it last July highlighted global concerns about “the exponential spread and proliferation of hate speech” around the world and adopted a resolution on “promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in countering hate speech”.

The resolution recognises the need to counter discrimination, xenophobia and hate speech and calls on all relevant actors, including states, to increase their efforts to address this phenomenon, in line with international human rights law.

More than words

Mere words however, are not enough. As the case of Sharma and Jindal demonstrates, many of those who are involved in hate speech seem to be guaranteed official impunity. They know full well that they are saying what the regime wants them to. It seems obvious that there is no political will to stop the agenda of hate that is being mainstreamed in India.

On the contrary, there is every effort from the highest levels of power to instigate and foment hate and divisiveness. They know it pays rich political dividends at election time. With polarisation, majoritarianism naturally gets more intense.

Indian civil society has not given up the battle. Among the campaigns against hate speech is “Break The Silence”, launched in April by a country-wide coalition of movements, collectives and individuals committed to plurality and social harmony.

“We feel that in the face of the escalating hatred and violence that has been selectively targeting sections of our people, it is necessary to concertedly evolve strategies that build and nurture fraternity in a framework of justice,” they said in a draft statement

They added: “The pattern of socially divisive politics, often abetted by the state, and fomented and amplified by the mainstream media, clearly needs collective understanding, as well as a united synergetic nationwide response from all sections of society that is rooted in and draws strength from the values of our Constitution.”

The resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly last year designates June 18 as the International Day for Countering Hate Speech, which will be marked for the first time this year. The United Nations has invited governments, international organisations, civil society groups and individuals to hold events and initiatives on this day, in order to promote strategies to identify, address and counter hate speech.

It will be interesting to see how India’s Bharatiya Janata Party government marks the occasion.

Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is an internationally recognised human rights, justice, reconciliation and peace activist.