2021 Islamophobia in review: India

Published on 05 Jan 2022
Overall, 2021 demonstrated that Islamophobia remains a constant and growing threat around the globe. Anti-Muslim racism in 2021 remained ever present as hate crimes and individual attacks targeting Muslims persisted. Across the globe, the key players of anti-Muslim racism were again states themselves, as this year witnessed increasing discriminatory legislation and policies. China continued to deny the growing body of evidence pointing to genocide being committed against Uyghur Muslims and an international tribunal was held in the U.K. with testimony from survivors of Xinjiang’s concentration camps. In Canada, a man killed a Muslim family of four in a horrific calculated hit-and-run, leading to Canadian Muslims demanding the government take concrete measures to tackle Islamophobic violence. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s government took a page from China’s book by implementing legislation aimed at constructing a state-approved Islam, resulting in widespread discrimination targeting Muslim civil society and curtailing the rights of French Muslims, especially women. Similarly, the Austrian government took measures to intimidate and silence Austrian Muslim activists and organizations, even going so far as to publish a map detailing the locations of hundreds of mosques and associations. In the United Kingdom, the ruling Conservative party persisted in evading calls to address institutional Islamophobia within its ranks. State hostility and prejudice towards Muslims was present across the European continent, with rulings aimed at restricting Muslim identity such as halal meat and hijab bans. In India, the country’s growing Hindu nationalist forces retained last year’s theme of conspiracy theories, claiming Indian Muslims were engaging in “love jihad,” “economic jihad,” and even “narcotics jihad.” Additionally, there were large episodes of anti-Muslim violence in various parts of the country such as Tripura, Gurgaon, and Assam, all of which were supported by the rising Hindu nationalist voices. The year was also spent uncovering the role of social media platforms in larger campaigns of violence targeting Muslims as seen in India and Myanmar. In the United States, the country marked twenty years since the deadly September 11th attacks and reckoned with the impacts and consequences of two decades of the War on Terror at home and abroad.

2021 Islamophobia in review: India

Throughout 2021, Indian Muslims found themselves on the receiving end of countless mob attacks and state violence as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government continued to embolden the country’s right-wing Hindu nationalist forces. Further, conspiracy theories constructing Indian Muslims as a threat to the Hindu majoritarian population gained credibility thanks to the rhetoric and actions of politicians and the government. The right-ward shift in the subcontinent also led many commentators and experts in the region to fear that Modi’s rule was leading to a decay in the world’s largest democracy as journalists critical of the government were targeted and imprisoned and counter-terror legislation was used to silence critics. In a testament to increasing state hostility, even elite actors and actresses of India’s Bollywood were not immune to the Hindu nationalist government’s assault on free speech.  

The year began with headlines about Assam, a BJP-led state in northeastern India, which through the past few years has been the site of state-led persecution against the Muslim community. This year, the ruling government banned all public Islamic schools, with a minister defending the measure stating children should grow up to be “professionals, not “imams.” The law was initially passed at the end of 2020, with authorities vowing to convert all government-run madrassas to education facilities minus the teaching of religious scripture. Alongside this, the state pursued its eviction drive, which impacted Muslim villagers. Officials enforced a spate of forced evictions impacting thousands of Muslim families across 25,000 acres of land, which they had been living on for more than 40 years. Assam’s government aims to clear the villages to make room for a “modern farming” project to be given over to the state’s Indigenous youths. Muslim villagers protested the eviction notices, asking for more time, only to be met with armed police in riot gear. During the ensuing violence, villagers’ houses were razed to the ground and some set on fire. A video from this episode of violence went viral showing photographer Bijoy Baniya jumping on the bullet-ridden body of Mainal Haq, one of the Muslims shot and killed by the police. Commenting on the growing violence targeting Muslims in Assam, Abjalur Mehdi, general secretary of the Sipajhar unit of the All Assam Minority Students Union noted that “every Bengali-speaking person is labelled a foreigner without any proof.” Painting Indian Muslims as foreigners has been a repetitive claim of the BJP, who adhere to a Hindu nationalist viewpoint to make India a Hindu-only nation.

One aspect of this campaign to make India a Hindu-only nation has been to target interfaith couples. Hardline Hindu groups along with sectors of the Indian media, politicians, and commentators have popularized the “love jihad” conspiracy theory, claiming that Muslim men are engaged in a plot to lure and forcibly convert Hindu women in order to marry them and gain demographic domination. Proponents of this theory claim that efforts must be taken to stop “love jihad” in order to preserve the country’s Hindu majority. There has been a real world fallout from this theory as interfaith couples find themselves the targets of this growing and hostile discourse. Last year, at least two states including Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state and home to around 40 million Muslims) passed legislation banning “unlawful religious conversions” through marriage, lending credibility to the right-wing conspiracy theory. To further demonstrate the collaboration between authorities and Hindu nationalist groups, a July 2021 Intercept piece found that Hindu vigilante groups were working alongside law enforcement enforce the “love jihad” law in Uttar Pradesh. Further, the claims of villainous Muslim plots to overtake the country weren’t limited to “love jihad,” as government and religious figures put forward other buzzwords like “economic jihad,” and “narcotics jihad” to paint Indian Muslims as an imminent overarching threat. Such accusations and manufactured hysteria have deeply impacted the safety and livelihoods of Indian Muslims.

It’s not only Indian Muslims who are facing increasing hostility as there has been a drastic increase in the persecution of the country’s minority Christian population. In addition to Muslims, authorities have wielded the “forcible conversion” claims against the Christian community as well. In December, the Karnataka state assembly passed a new anti-conversion legislation, making it the 10th state in India to enact the so-called “Freedom of Religion” law, which “bars religious conversions, except when a person ‘reconverts to his immediate previous religion’ – a clause that critics say is aimed at enabling India’s many Hindu supremacist groups to convert Muslims and Christians into Hindus.” The ruling BJP has claimed the bill aims to stop “the illegal and large-scale conversion of Hindus to Christianity,” a claim that has yet to be proven. In addition to such legislation, Indian Christians have been targeted by Hindu vigilantes who’ve attacked churches, convent schools, and Christmas celebrations. From January to September 2021, the country experienced 305 attacks on the Christian community and their places of worship, with the real number being much higher given many cases go unreported. Commenting on the current situation, a political scientist noted that all of this is occurring because the ultimate aim is “to isolate and demonize minorities so that a Hindu state is established.”

Bearing some similarities to China’s campaign targeting Uyghurs, Indian authorities in the last few years have increasingly sought to criminalize, erase, or completely destroy aspects of Muslim identity in the country. In 2021, this was demonstrated by the razing of a 100 year old mosque in Uttar Pradesh in May. Campaigns to polarize nearly all aspects of life in India have continued by right-wing Hindu forces as this year witnessed a hate campaign against the Urdu language, deemed a “Muslim” language by the Hindutva project and therefore not permissible in India. The project to declare anything associated with Muslims and Islam as a marker of disloyalty or simply “anti-Indian” spilled over to sports, as the police arrested a number of Indian youth in October for celebrating Pakistan’s win in a cricket match. While this episode built on historical animosity between India and Pakistan, the 21st century Hindu nationalist campaign has increasingly made religion the central focus of attack.

Additionally, other segments of Indian society have not been immune to the growing authoritarian hue of the BJP. Indian journalists, especially those critical of the state, have also been on the receiving end of the government’s discriminatory legislation. The government has wielded the country’s counter-terror laws to silence critics and activists, leading many to note that the legislation has become a “political weapon.” Freedom of speech and academic freedom became an increasingly important issue in 2021, as Indian police opened investigations against lawyers and journalists over social media posts bringing attention to anti-Muslim violence in the country. 

Even Bollywood, India’s beloved entertainment industry, could not protect itself from the reach of Modi’s government as this year witnessed growing fervor against Indian actors and actresses, especially those who made any comments about the deepening divide and sectarian violence in the country. The arrest and month-long imprisonment of the son of Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood, was viewed by liberals as a “deliberate move intended to tarnish a Muslim idol’s image to appease the Hindu right.” The right-wing Hindu forces in the country did not take well to Khan’s previous comments speaking out against the lynchings of Muslims, in which he stated “religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.” Commentators and experts have contended that Modi’s government’s targeting of Indian Muslim Bollywood stars is part of a campaign to intimidate anyone who dares criticize the government, as not even the king of Bollywood could escape the grasp of Hindu nationalist forces in the country. 

In addition to Assam, anti-Muslim violence flared up in a number of other regions in the country, such as Tripura and Gurgaon. In the state of Tripura, right-wing groups launched attacks against the Muslim population, viewed as revenge attacks for anti-Hindu violence occurring in neighboring Bangladesh. At least ten incidents of violence were reported in four days at the end of October this year, as mobs targeted mosques and properties owned by Muslims. Reporting on Tripura riots noted that the violence occurred following a rally attended by over 3,000 individuals and led by “the hardline Hindu organization, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) – a close ally of the BJP.” In Gurgaon, a city just southwest of New Delhi, Hindu hardliners led harassment campaigns against Muslims by targeting public prayer spaces and publicly declaring Muslims would not be allowed to hold Friday prayers. The campaigns of harassment and intimidation continued for weeks as Hindu groups disrupted Muslim prayers by smearing cow dung in the public space or holding their own Hindu religious events, with one being attended by BJP’s Kapil Mishra.

Regarding much of the violence that occurred, it is important to note the role of social media in the growing polarity in the region. While social media platforms have played a role in documenting anti-Muslim violence, specifically videos of brutal violence and harassment going viral, questions have also arisen as to the role of social media in amplifying hate. For Facebook, India remains the country’s largest market but the platform is marred with hate speech, misinformation, and celebrations of violence. According to leaked internal documents this year, “Facebook did not have enough resources in India and was unable to grapple with the problems it had introduced there, including anti-Muslim posts.” Further, reports showed that “bots and fake accounts tied to the country’s ruling party and opposition figures were wreaking havoc on national elections.” While Facebook in India is aware that its platform has been used to spread conspiracy theories, including claims of “love jihad,” internal documents revealed that the social media giant has done little to act on it, and that “political sensitivities” are part of the reason that the company has chosen not to ban Hindu nationalist groups who are close to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In all of the major anti-Muslim episodes in the country this year, BJP politicians either were present or supported the individuals leading the campaigns. In India, it is the authorities themselves who remain the biggest proponents of Islamophobia as there’s a national campaign to subjugate, criminalize, and even eliminate the country’s Muslims.

The tense and hostile situation in the country has begged the question: where is India headed? Over a billion people live in India, a state where in the past ethnic and religious differences have been exploited and resulted in deadly consequences. In the last few years, it seems the situation is reaching boiling point with numerous episodes of violence and discriminatory measures aimed at marginalizing the country’s Muslims and other minority populations. PM Modi’s government has instrumentalized and weaponized differences, specifically religious differences, to gain support and in effect has emboldened and amplified a significant portion of society, leading Debasish Roy Chowdhury to draw similarities between 2021 India and 1930s Germany.

Perhaps nothing better captures the danger of a potential anti-Muslim genocide brewing in India than a video from a three day event held in mid-December and attended by influential religious leaders, right-wing Hindu activists, and even members of the BJP. The viral footage showed hundreds of attendees raising Nazi-style salutes and vowing: “We all pledge, that until our last breath, we will make India a Hindu nation. We will fight and die and, if required, kill.”

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