Bulldozer Injustice in India

Source: Outlook India

2022 Islamophobia in Review: India

Published on 20 Dec 2022

2022 marked the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, and the occasion offered an opportunity to reflect on the country and its accomplishments. Many scholars, journalists, and rights activists noted that the momentous occasion was marred by the reality of the power of Hindu nationalism, which has taken aim at the secular and democratic foundations of the country. In a piece of the New York Times, writer Debasish Roy Chowdhury reflected on the 75th independence day, noting that “Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has profaned Indian democracy, espousing an intolerant Hindu supremacist majoritarianism over the ideals of secularism, pluralism, religious tolerance and equal citizenship upon which the country was founded after gaining independence on Aug. 15, 1947.”

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Hindu majoritarianism has becomede facto state policy,” with an increase in exclusionary and violent rhetoric targeting the country’s 200 million Muslims. The discourse has also been matched with growing incidents of mob violence, harassment from authorities, discriminatory policies, and the use of bulldozers to drive fear into the hearts of India’s Muslims. 

A new tactic employed by the BJP-led government in 2022 involved the use of bulldozers to intimidate and target Muslims around the country. Following a number of episodes of violence, which many Muslims alleged were instigated by Hindu groups marching through Muslim-majority neighborhoods shouting provocative and inflammatory slogans and blaring Islamophobic music, the authorities retaliated by exclusively targeting the homes and businesses of Muslims. The government didn’t hide its anti-Muslim bias, with the BJP Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh, stating, “If Muslims carry out such attacks, then they should not expect justice.” Other authorities defended the demolitions, claiming that they were taking action on “illegal construction,” but the move always followed incidences of communal violence and the government’s action only targeted Muslim communities. Reports also highlighted how many Muslim women were impacted by the demolitions, as a number of them ran their small shops and kiosks for decades to support their families. Brinda Karat, a former parliamentarian and member of the Communist Party of India, told Foreign Policy that “for the government of Modi to target this community, which is trying to revive its livelihood after the pandemic, is unconstitutional, illegal, and inhuman.” 

In 2022, the Indian authorities used the bulldozer to intimidate, harass, and marginalize Muslims. In June 2022, the BJPs then-national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on national television resulting in an international uproar. It took condemnations and boycotts from Arab countries in the Gulf for the BJP to take action, which then removed Sharma from her post describing her as a “fringe element.” But at home, the response was different. As Indian Muslims protested against the Islamophobic remarks, the government responded again by demolishing their homes. In a powerful piece for TIME, Indian Muslim activist Afreen Fatima wrote about how following the protests against Sharma’s Islamophobic comments in her city, the authorities targeted her family, a politically active Muslim family in the area. Law enforcement arrested her father and intimidated the family, accusing them of organizing a violent protest. Later the official story changed, as the authorities claimed that the family home was illegally built, despite Fatima noting that her parents had paid all relevant property taxes for decades, and had all the property documentation in order. She described how “bulldozer justice” works in India: “the government links Muslims to grievous ‘crimes’ such as participating in protests, then blames them for violence, and destroys their homes.” 

This is also why many were shocked to see the presence of a bulldozer as a prop during an Indian independence day parade in the state of New Jersey in the United States. Over 8,000 miles away from India, the northeastern state became the center of outrage following images showing the bulldozer in the parade along with an image of Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and Hindu monk known for his anti-Muslim animus. The episode represented one of several instances in 2022 that marked the globalization of Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia and how the ideology has been absorbed by many in the diaspora.

2022 witnessed growing calls for violence against Indian Muslims, as Hindu nationalists openly called for genocide against the community, with the BJP government doing little to curb the growing hate speech. At the turn of the year, Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, warned that genocide “could very well happen in India.” Conspiracy theories dehumanizing Muslims mixed with discriminatory policies, episodes of violent persecution, and alarming efforts to erase the history and presence of Islam and Muslims has made the current landscape fertile for mass scale extermination. In June 2022, a Panel of Independent International Experts, published a report on serious human rights violations against Muslims in India since 2019, and found that “some of the violations may amount to crimes against humanity, war crimes and incitement to commit genocide.” 

The “Love Jihad” conspiracy theory, which claims that Muslim men are luring Hindu women into marrying them and converting to Islam, continued to make its impact as a number of interfaith couples were arrested with the Muslim men facing imprisonment. These far-right claims promoted by Hindu religious and political leaders are part of India’s version of the “great replacement” theory, which in majority-white countries has been used by far-right voices to claim that there is a demographic threat from non-white peoples. In India, the claim of a demographic threat is made against Muslims, who only make up about 14 percent of the population. Right-wing Hindu voices allege that the Muslim population is skyrocketing, despite evidence in 2022 noting that the Muslim fertility rate has actually dropped, and “Love Jihad” is one way that Muslims are supposedly using to alter the demographic numbers. In a May 2022 Guardian piece, the former Indian chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, noted that “fear mongering over the supposed threat to a Hindu majority in India has increased over the past eight years.”

The rapid growth and spread of these theories had largely been aided by social media. Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, along with a number of other platforms have played a role in the circulation of anti-Muslim hate speech in India, and the apps have been utilized by the BJP to mobilize, amplify hate speech, and spread political propaganda. While Meta, Facebook’s parent company, reiterated its zero-tolerance policy for hate speech, there were countless examples of the social media giant failing to swiftly remove videos calling for violence against Muslims. A January 2022 white paper by Prof Mohan J. Dutta for the Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), found that nearly 40% of the Muslims surveyed had stated they had been called offensive names online as a result of being Muslims, and  nearly 60% of the participants surveyed said they had come across content on digital platforms that encourage conflict, hatred, and violence. Professor Dutta’s research also found that “58.9% of the participants agreed that they had come across digital content stating Muslims targeted Hindu women for marriage,” demonstrating the role social media platforms have played in promotion of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

Along with conspiracy theories, Professor Dutta’s white paper found that “digital platforms are rife with content targeting Muslim women with sexual violence.” 2022 involved numerous episodes of online harassment and examples of how tech is being weaponized for abuse against Muslim women. At the turn of the year, images of over 100 prominent Muslim women (artists, journalists, activists, and lawyers) were published (without their knowledge or consent) on an app for auction as “Bull Bai” of the day. This incident was reminiscent of the June 2021 episode of “Sulli Deals,” another app that also published images of Muslim women, putting them up “for sale.” Both “Bulli” and “Sulli” are derogatory terms used against Muslim women, and the dehumanizing incidents left the targeted women feeling violated and unsafe. While authorities initially took action, following widespread outrage and arrested the individuals behind the apps, an Indian court in March 2022 granted bail to the two accused men. Ismat Ara, a journalist who’s photograph appeared on “Bulli Bai,” stated that the entire ordeal was “violent, threatening and intending to create a feeling of fear and shame in my mind, as well as in the minds of women in general and the Muslim community.” 

Gendered Islamophobia wasn’t limited to the online sphere as demonstrated by the hijab ban in the state of Karnataka. In 2022, “Hindu nationalist organizations launched a campaign against the hijab (headscarf), a visible expression of Muslim identity” in the southern state. Despite having worn hijab without any issues, all of the sudden Muslim girls attending college in Karnataka found themselves at the center of a right-wing operation that resulted in the violation of their fundamental rights, namely free expression and right to education. The drive to ban the hijab resulted in numerous consequences for the Muslim girls: it aimed to strip them of their identities by forcing them choose between their faith and their education (it was reported that 17,000 girls were unable to take their exams due to the discriminatory policy), and ultimately meant that failing to remove the hijab would mean they would be driven out of the public space. Further, the Muslim girls who protested the ban were met with harassment and intimidation from large crowds of Hindu nationalists. Legal action was taken by a number of the girls and the case eventually reached the Karnataka High Court. On March 15th, the Court ruled that a hijab ban was not illegal as hijab is not an “essential part of Islam.” As Bridge Associate Director, Mobashra Tazamal noted, “what is troubling here is that in a secular nation, it is not the role of the state to determine and issue verdicts on the essentials of a faith.” The case eventually reached the Supreme Court of India and in October, the court failed to “deliver a verdict on whether Muslim students can wear the hijab in schools and colleges, with two judges expressing opposing views.” The debate continues as the matter now rests with the chief justice of India to recommend it to a larger bench.

Perhaps one of the most shocking cases involving Indian Muslim women was the rehashing of the case of Bilkis Bano, the woman who was gang-raped during the 2002 Gujarat riots. While she survived the violent assault, 14 of her family members were murdered, including her three-year-old daughter. Bano took her case to the Supreme Court, and in 2008, 11 men (whom Bano noted were actually her neighbors growing up) were convicted of rape and murder. However, in August 2022, the men, who were serving life imprisonment, were freed after the BJP-controlled state government approved their application for remission of sentence. The convicts walked free on the same day that the country celebrated its 75th independence day. Bano responded to this development, stating, “How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice.” The case embodies many of the issues that have taken hold of India today, from the failure of the state to tackle the growing gender-based violence, to a judiciary that appears to be increasingly compromised and serving the interests of the ruling party.

Right-wing Hindu nationalists continued to make discriminatory demands, and often the Hindu nationalist government either acceded to these orders or offered silent approval by failing to tackle the polarizing and violent rhetoric. In Karnataka, as the case of the hijab ban railed on, right-wing voices expanded their campaign, with a BJP leader calling for a ban on halal meat, and right-wing groups demanding a ban on mosque loudspeakers. The polarizing campaigns gained steam as Hindu nationalists set their sights on mosques and famous landmarks, such as the Taj Mahal, claiming that these structures were Hindu in origin, with cases filed attempting to demolish mosques and essentially erase the presence of Islam in the country.

The right-wing agenda has touched every facet of Indian society, including Bollywood, the country’s hugely successful film industry. This year involved the release of The Kashmir Files, a movie about the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus, which many critics stated was simply another output of anti-Muslim propaganda. The movie was praised by PM Modi, received tax exemptions from several states, and one BJP state official even gave government employees a half-day off to see the movie. Following the release of the movie in March 2022, there were numerous videos on social media showing people in “theaters cheering, shouting hate slogans, and calling for violence against Muslims.” Indian Muslim Journalist Rana Ayyub wrote that she tried watching the movie, but was hounded by the audience and eventually left the theater to screams of “Go to Pakistan.” There were other movies in 2022 that were also accused of promoting Islamophobia, including The Kerala Files, which claimed, without providing evidence, that 32,000 women from the state had converted to Islam and joined ISIS. In addition to these movies, there was a growth in “Hindutva pop,” a genre of Hindu nationalist music that largely includes anti-Muslim and violent rhetoric.

In 2022, Islamophobia manifested itself in hate speech, discriminatory policies, campaigns to criminalize expressions of Muslim identity, and calls to demolish mosques and eliminate the physical presence of Islam in the country. Hindu nationalism asserted itself in all sectors of society, from movies accused of promoting anti-Muslim propaganda to online harassment against Muslim women. New tactics were employed by right-wing voices and figures, as the government utilized the bulldozer to punish, and drive fear into an already marginalized community. Hate speech took different forms, through music, online campaigns, and anti-Muslim films, all of which dehumanized Muslims and constructed them as a “foreign” threat within the country. Given the increase in mob harassment and violence, the growing list of right-wing campaigns to criminalize anything associated with Islam and Muslims, and the government’s near complete silence in response to these attacks, Muslims are increasingly worried about their place in India. Scholars, journalists, and activist have all called attention to dangerous climate in the country, with many noting that a genocide could be very likely. 

Islamophobia continued to fester in society and the ruling government played a leading role in the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry in the country. As India marked its 75 years of independence, right-wing voices remained firm in their campaigns to erode the country’s democratic foundations, and remake it as a Hindu-only nation, rendering the country’s 200 million Muslims, along with other minority communities, as second-class citizens.