This week, India heard a Union minister rouse a Delhi crowd to scream “shoot the bloody traitors”, and two days later, a young man tried to do exactly that as the police looked on. In Karnataka, the police interrogated Class Four students, arrested a mother and schoolteacher on charges of sedition for a school play on the controversial citizenship law, as the tourism minister of Karnataka ranted about “anti-nationals” deserving “bullets not biryani”.

These are only the latest examples of incitement from India’s ruling dispensation. Those being incited are the Hindu majority and those being incited against are students, Muslims, liberals, other minorities and anyone opposed to government policies.

Ministers, leading lights of the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party and their media cheerleaders have directly taken charge of a task formerly reserved for what was once regarded as the lunatic fringe of Hindutva.

Triumphant majoritarianism

With unemployment rising, the economy collapsing and propaganda about rising India hard even for BJP supporters to swallow, it has been a hop, skip and jump from Hindu appeasement – previously given cover with the secular slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, everyone will progress – to incitement. All the government’s efforts to make Hindus feel triumphant, such as criminalising triple talaq, dismembering Jammu and Kashmir and paving the way for a Ram temple, have failed to divert attention from a nation in economic decline.

When there is nothing of substance to offer, the easy but irresponsible – and potentially calamitous – way to ensure the faithful keep the faith is to exploit and excite their base emotions and feelings about imaginary enemies. It does not, as we have seen with cattle-related lynching, take time for hate speech to morph into hate crime.

The modus operandi is apparent: incite the majority, draw forth their inner resentment, encourage hate speech and when foot-soldiers are primed for action, encourage and weaponise the process by getting the police to step aside or look away. If arrests must be made, handle with kid gloves. Soon, Hindutva has new heroes, to be feted, glamourised and mainstreamed.

Volunteers of a cow vigilante group gather to inspect a truck on a highway in Rajasthan. Credit: AFP

Incitement works best when dissenters are kept in check, and the incited know that the government has their back. The police have a particularly important role in enabling this process, evident in the gentle way police handle goons of Hindutva persuasion, in sharp contrast to violent and often brutal action against students and other protestors. There is also clear evidence that many police forces are as radicalised as the people they are meant to restrain, falling victim to the mass incitement flowing from the top.

That the police are intrinsically associated with the government and majoritarianism and idolised for the wrong reasons is evident in a video of a brainwashed, radicalised little girl who chants into a mike: “Lal chowk main goli maaron, desh ke gaddaron ko, bahut ho gaya bhaichara, lathon maaron saalon ko (Shoot the traitors in [Srinagar’s] Lal Chowk, enough brotherhood, kick them).” This is, sadly, unexceptional. What she says next is revealing: “When I grow up, I want to become an IPS officer, so I can pick out and shoot traitors.”

Flood of hate speech

There are so many threats to shoot, kill and otherwise do away with dissenters that a large number are ignored. Only the most egregious ones make it to national debate. But the relentless flood of hate speech slowly corrodes minds, removing all that is good and hopeful. It leaves behind a shell of the basest passions, denying those so affected of restraint, logic and compassion.

History indicates that this phase of denial has a disquieting prognosis. If appeasement to incitement was a skip away, mass violence or even genocide is a bit of a leap, but it is a leap India has previously made in fits and starts.

History and a growing body of literature documents how mass human-rights violations and genocide occur with the knowledge of or by order of the highest authorities of a country. They also argue that physical extermination is not the only form of genocide.

Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal in Chandigarh in 2008. Credit: Reuters

“Recent genocide studies have begun to embrace a wider variety of genocidal acts than mass murder and acknowledges new dynamics and meanings in such acts,” says a 2018 paper by US and Canadian researchers in Genocide Studies and Prevention, an international journal. Another paper from 2015 warns of “cold genocides”, which “can take place through subtle forms of structural violence that destroy the group through gradual measures”, such as gradual disappearances or denying access to daily necessities, such as work, housing, schooling, food and health services, or gradual. Some of these indicators are already evident in India’s minority communities.

The deliberate and violent harnessing of majority resentment by the state in India could lead the county into known or unknown escalation, however defined or categorised. The form does not matter as much as a recognition that if the ruling party itself incites Hindus to violence, the consequences may be too terrible to contemplate.

In the past, India has usually pulled back from the brink because one or more of its institutions – political, judicial, media or administrative – took the tough decision, went against the grain and did the right thing. There is, currently, no sign of that.