The gaggle of children marching down the road in a South Indian district attracted the attention of the local police chief, who happened to be passing by. The officer liked children and often stopped to take photos. “When I slowed, I was shocked,” the officer, a superintendent of police, told me. “All of them were shouting ‘Pakistan down down, we want war.’”
The district is known for its Hindu-Muslim tensions – what in officialese is called “communally sensitive” – which is why the officer didn’t want me to identify it. “I got off and gave it to the teachers,” said the officer. “To my surprise more than half the teachers were Muslim.” This is not surprising.
After a suicide bomber killed 42 paramilitary troopers in Pulwama, many Indian Muslims felt compelled to wear their patriotism on their sleeves, turning out conspicuously for protest marches, or being vocal like Shayad Khan, a Navi Mumbai restaurant owner who offers a discount to customers who yell “Pakistan Murdabad”.
But the southern police officer would have none of the sloganeering, ostensibly aimed at Pakistan, which is often used as a proxy for Muslims. “I served a notice to the [school] management,” said the officer, “and warned them that they will be booked for incitement to violence…because in this district these slogans have the potential to incite huge communal violence, we have seen it in the past.”
Indeed, elsewhere in the district, in a “very, very small village”, the officer ran into a neatly drawn flag and “Pakistan Murdabad” sign painted on the road. It was the work of a grocery store owner, who said he was enraged after seeing a spate of – mostly fake and doctored – videos following the Pulwama bombing and wanted to attack Muslims. Since there were no Muslims in his village, he decided to draw the sign.
The power of social media and the cellphone to radicalise is not new. A slew of studies explains how extremist ideologies use social media, most notably the Islamic State.
Adil Ahmed Dar, the young school dropout suicide bomber who struck the Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama was clearly radicalised; we do not yet know the process but it is likely social media played a key role. The southern grocery store owner wanted to attack Muslims, but Dar had the motivation and means to do much worse. “The online environment is a critical mechanism used by terrorists to change thoughts and behaviours, with the specific aim of increasing radicalisation,” writes Robyn Torok, an Australian academic who studies online radicalisation.
In South Kashmir, where Dar lived, ethnicity and faith has led to mass radicalisation, driven by the heavy hand of the government, covert and overt encouragement from Pakistan, but aided greatly by the spread of social media and the cellphone.
A cellphone-borne radicalisation is also evident across swathes of Hindu India. Fake news and videos that spread on social media have drawn out submerged or hidden bigotry since Narendra Modi became prime minister. Many of these videos and fake news have routinely incited and mobilised violent Hindu groups to lynch and attack minorities.
Growing capacity for intolerance
What the Pulwama attack did was to widen the cracks in the dam of pent-up hate and release waves of violence against the softest targets available – Kashmiri traders, students and professionals, many of whom had left the Valley to carve out a more peaceful life elsewhere. Over the past week, parts of India – particularly Uttarakhand but also Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal – witnessed shameful scenes of Kashmiris being abused, hounded and attacked.
The hounding of Kashmiris was made worse by the fact that only a few came out to protect and help them. The strongest signal that Kashmiris as a people could not be held responsible for the act of one man came from the CRPF, a day after the attack, even as the force grieved for its dead troopers and shocked officers fanned out to try and comfort traumatised families.
It was not enough. The country’s political leadership failed the Kashmiris, and India itself. As many argued, the Hindutva groups that played a key role in the attacks on Kashmiris were only playing into Pakistan’s hands, but this was not as much about our neighbour’s scheming as about the fading of our own ideals. The prime minister – who recently received a peace prize from the South Koreans and accepted it on behalf of “130 crore Indians” – was conspicuously silent about the safety of some of those Indians. He refrained from asking for a crackdown on those who attacked Kashmiris, speaking up only when it did not matter. His party colleagues followed suit. The opposition Congress party was no better, as it maintained a strategic silence. Only the Left and the Trinamool Congress spoke up.
The growing national capacity for intolerance, lack of moderation and dialogue is subtly or openly encouraged by governments, politicians and administrators. Tens of Kashmiris and others were freely charged with sedition – or inciting rebellion against state authority – this past week, despite repeated Supreme Court rulings that sedition must be applied only if there is a clear incitement to violence. No one protested. Another tactic is to deny wrongdoing, as Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar did this week, falsely declaring that no Kashmiri students were targets of violence. Meghalaya Governor Tathagatha Roy – with no fear of sedition charges, of course – even advocated an economic boycott of Kashmiris.
It was left to the Supreme Court to order “prompt action” from the Centre and 11 states in safeguarding Kashmiris, something that should have been a routine task. With such state reluctance to step in and uphold law and order, it is little wonder that more and more Indians accept the legitimisation or mainstreaming of bigotry, as encouraged on social media and given violent expression by Hindutva’s footsoldiers.
This easy acceptance of all that is wrong explains the hate-filled WhatsApp forwards and retweets among sundry middle class families. The aftermath of the Pulwama attack has made clear that this radicalisation, in league with the spread of cellphones and WhatsApp, has spread to even the poorest Indians and areas, as the experiences of the police officer I mentioned previously reveal. My own conversations with taxi drivers, waiters and workers over this decade reveal they are now more informed about politics than ever before, which is good. But they also consume fake news or radicalising content in equal or greater measure.
With India’s institutional failure to deal with growing radicalisation, it is left to individual state or district administrations to keep alive key national ideals such as the rule of law, secularism and freedom from violence (let’s leave out free speech, a particularly endangered ideal). For instance, what this officer said, India should have heard from its leaders:
In South India, a small group of police officers and bureaucrats have formed a group to assist Kashmiris in need and keep the peace. If you have not heard of this initiative, that is because it is been done “quietly” – an apt reminder that doing the right thing in New India is not something to advertise.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest journalism non-profit.