With Fact & Faith, A Growing Band Of Concerned Citizens Battles Hate Speech In India

25 Jul 2022 11 min read  Share

As journalists face punitive action for fact-checking and reporting hate speech by those allied with India’s ruling party and attempts to consolidate data on hate crimes are throttled, citizens are stepping into the breach, taking personal and professional risks to document rising instances of hate speech and hate crimes in the country.

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Mumbai: In coastal Karnataka, a stronghold of Hindu right-wing groups, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, 19-year-old A* has been leading a double life. Neither his Muslim family nor the Hindus in his hometown know of the secret online identity of this civil engineering student. 

Pata chala toh ammi ghar se nikal degi aur woh toh maar denge,” (My mother will throw me out of the house, and they will beat me up) he told Article 14 in an interview this month. 

When he is not studying, A* spends eight hours daily trawling news reports for violent acts or speeches by Hindutva forces against Muslims and Dalits in Karnataka. The verified information, videos, and photos, carefully culled from the 30 odd Kannada news media he subscribes to, are posted on his Twitter handle, "Hate Watch Karnataka” (HWK) in English.  A wants people across the country to witness how his native state, celebrated as an information-technology powerhouse, was now also the epicentre of communal politics down south. 

In the nine months since HWK came into existence, the account, with 7,506 followers when this story was published, has gained prominence among journalists, activists and those allied with Hindu right-wing organisations. For publicising under-the-radar communal violence, Hindutva trolls have threatened HWK with arrest, tagging handles of law enforcement agencies, and accused him of spreading "fake news".

“They call me criminal and anti-national,” A said. “If showing the facts and the rampant hate against the minorities is a crime, then yes, I am a criminal.” 

This conviction sustains A, as he endures a flood of abusive, threatening private messages and replies to his tweets. On other days, he is crippled with anxiety that tweets exposing religious extremism could land him in a similar situation as his friend and Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair, who was arrested on 28 June 2022 for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments” over an innocuous tweet from 2018.  Zubair was released on bail by the Supreme Court on 21 July.


Fact, Evidence To Counter Government Narrative

A hate crime is a form of targeted mob violence against religious minorities that differs from large-scale communal riots. The primary target of this hate-mongering in India is Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and tribals. 

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral victory in 2014,  there has been an unprecedented increase in the incidents of anti-Muslim hate speech and hate crimes by the right-wing Hindu groups, Hindutva followers, ruling government politicians, and pro-government supporters, multiple studies show (here, here, here and here). 

A University of Massachusetts Amherst 2019 research paper by Deepankar Basu based on a “novel state-level panel data set for the period 2009-18 on the incidence of hate crimes in India”, which was later pulled down, showed that where the BJP was the winner of the largest share of popular votes hate crimes against religious minorities increased, and an increase in the BJP’s vote share caused hate crimes against religious minorities to increase.

Noting that BJP’s vote share in 2019 increased 2.24% compared to the 2014 elections, Deshdeep Dhankhar, a policy researcher at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, wrote that positive electoral gains do not necessarily imply that people have been voting for BJP into power for communal reasons alone, but the trend was "alarming". 

Hate-crime monitoring platforms offer fact-based evidence to counter the government’s narrative that such incidents are stray events and are not rising. Tracking and reporting incidents of violence against the country’s minority serves not just as an essential warning, said experts, but is also a call for action against majoritarian discourse. 

Dhankhar viewed these citizen-led initiatives on the lines of what American political scientist James C Scott described as “everyday forms of resistance”.

“Common people may not fight aggressively against the current political environment, but they are resisting the hate in their small ways by speaking truth to power,” said Dhankhar.

These initiatives have materialised out of a simple but powerful civic obligation “to act to preserve our secular culture before it’s too late”, a member of Hindutva Watch—an independent research platform tracking hate crimes—speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Article 14. Their social media timelines are evidence of the alarming incidents of hate speeches and hate crimes that mainstream media channels ignore and that government agencies are reluctant to address.  


'They Don’t Want Us To Speak'

Social media activist Mohammad Asif Khan shares  A’s fears, even though the two have never met.  

“It’s a dangerous job. They—the powers that be—are waiting for people like us tracking hate crimes to make one mistake and put us behind the bar,” he said.

Khan secured anticipatory bail in one case lodged against him by Karnataka police over a video he claimed showed stone throwing by the police on a mosque (police claimed they were firing tear-gas shells) during protests against a controversial law called the Citizen's Amendment Act, which , for the first time, made religion a basis for citizenship. The second police complaint lodged by Delhi-based lawyer Amit Acharya against multiple people, including Khan, was over a video they tweeted of an elderly Muslim man being beaten and forced to chant Jai Shri Ram, but no first information report (FIR) was registered.

Last year, on 25June, Khan’s Twitter account, with over 82,000 followers, was suspended permanently by the social media platform for violating its rules. Khan said Twitter never said why his account was suspended. 

Khan believes his account was targeted because it had documented over 400 cases of violence and hate crimes against Muslims since 2017.

Among the videos first posted on his account were a lynching in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur on suspicion of cow slaughter in June 2018, Tabrez Ansari’s lynching in Jharkhand in July 2019, an attack on a Muslim family in Gurgaon, Haryana, while playing cricket in March 2019, vandalism of a Muslim eatery during the February 2020 Delhi riots, and a call by Hindus extremists for the social boycott of Muslims in January 2021.

These videos evoked national outrage and media attention, forcing law enforcement agencies to respond.

“Publicising hate crimes reports on social media and attracting global attention towards them disturbs the BJP government,” Khan said. 

The fact that most hate crimes invariably link the attackers and their motives with the extremist ideologies of Hindu organisation's allied with the government harm the BJP’s reputation as the ruling power of the world’s largest democracy, Khan said. He noted that these organisations now knew that one way of limiting damage at the national and international level about the rise in hate crime was to restrict those who tracked hate crime. 

“They don’t want us to speak…any voice of dissent against the BJP government will be shut down. By suspending my account and getting me permanently banned from Twitter, in a way, they’ve been successful in shutting down my voice,” he said. 

While he continued documenting communal atrocities on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Khan said he had lost the attention of his followers on Twitter. 


Escalating Crackdown Amid  Data Suppression 

The documentation by these individuals and groups is an important activity, said experts, especially when journalists were jailed for critical reporting about the BJP and its right-wing ecosystem, and attempts to consolidate data on hate crimes were being throttled.

National Crime Record Bureau data on hate crimes, cow vigilantism and mob lynching was discontinued in 2017 after the home ministry found it “unreliable". The same year, the Hindustan Times newspaper’s hate tracker project that recorded crimes based on religion, caste, ethnicity and gender was pulled down. An award-winning Citizen’s Religious Hate Crime Watch database by the Mumbai-based Spending and Policy Research Foundation was shut down in 2019, and so was Amnesty India’s Halt the Hate database. 

In February, Article 14 reported that two days after the Oxford University-based Reuter's Institute published her research on hate crimes in India, Forbes Middle East—based in Dubai, a monarchy with deep ties to the Indian government—terminated the services of its India correspondent. 

After new social media regulation guidelines were issued on 25 February 2022 to make big technology companies obey government "requests" to monitor data, remove “objectionable” content and accounts, hate-crime watchers said the crackdown on hate-crime monitoring platforms had intensified.


Braving Tremendous Pressure To Document Hate 

A, Khan and the five-member team of overseas Indian nationals behind the Hindutva Watch Twitter account are among a growing band of concerned citizens braving pressure from government agencies and social-media companies, relentless trolling, threats and harassment, to document the hate. 

A member of the Hindutva Watch, speaking on anonymity, said the crackdown on hate-crime trackers is because the government has made the “act of documenting hate crimes a criminal offence”. “People documenting hate crimes are at a greater risk of prosecution than those who are committing the hate crimes,” the member said.

On 22 April, the platform’s account with 25,700 followers was notified by Twitter about a complaint from the government of India on posting content violating its social media advisory. Two days later, Team Hindu United, a self-declared nationalist group (now deactivated on Twitter), claimed it had the account suspended as a clear message to those “spreading hatred against Hindu Dharma”.

The Indian Cyber Defender, a right-wing hacking group, claimed it got the original account and its backup suspended by Twitter on October 13 and 14, 2021, for posting “anti-India” content. 

A powerful party like the BJP is afraid of hate speech trackers because when singular incidents are collated into a database, it demonstrates the “sheer scale of hate crimes being committed under their watch”, said the member of Hindutva Watch, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

By pulling the plug on online portals and suspending accounts of those monitoring hate crimes, “the government uses every means to suppress this information because most of the accused are directly or indirectly linked either to the party, RSS or the Hindutva ideology,” said the Hindutva Watch member.  “It's like criminals doing everything within their power to destroy the evidence.”


A Legal Route To Fighting Hate

Hate Speech Beda (a campaign against hate speech) was created by a group of lawyers, academicians and researchers in Bengaluru in the aftermath of the anti-CAA protests, the Delhi riots and a vitriolic campaign against the orthodox Muslim sect, the Tablighi Jamaat, during the pandemic.

“The lessons from Radio Rwanda are clear evidence for us,” lawyer Shilpa Prasad from the collective told Article 14, referring to the 1994 genocide in the African country. 

Government-controlled radio stations in Rwanda transmitted hateful narratives of the ruling Hutu majority along with calls to exterminate the minority Tutsi group, eventually leading to mass killings of at least 800,000 people, mainly from the Tutsi minority, in a span of about 100 days. The reference has become synonymous with many pro-government Indian media channels that target the country's Muslim minority.

Communal issues are the top topics of prime-time news debates and discussions, a Newslaundry study on eight prominent news channels showed. In June, the Editors Guild of India, an association of news editors, slammed recent vitriolic  coverage of minorities as “seemingly inspired by the values of Radio Rwanda”.

Hate Speech Beda has adopted a legal route to holding politicians and pro-government media accountable for spreading violent propaganda against minorities. Over the past two years, the collective has filed 57 complaints with the News Broadcasting Standards Authority against media that air inflammatory programmes that target minority communities. They have also filed complaints against politicians who demonise minorities or justify or encourage violence against them. 

The NBSA, in response, reprimanded three news channels for their coverage of  theTablighi Jamaat and targeting of Muslims,  imposed penalties of Rs 100,000 on News18 Kannada, Rs 50,000 on Asianet Suvarna News and censured a program on Times Now

Hate Speech Beda also filed police complaints seeking FIRs against BJP lawmakers Shobha Karandjale, Renukacharya, Anantkumar Hegde, Basangouda Ramangouda Patil Yatnal, Chikkamagaravalli Thimme Gowda Ravi, Tejasvi Surya and Rashtriya Hindu Sena chief Pramod Muthalik, for spreading misinformation and "dangerous statements" against Muslims. 

Prasad said it was essential to make media and politicians abide by the law and deliver a message that “we as masses are not ok with them instigating hate”.

“The hate spewed online and offline has a real impact against the minorities on the ground," said Prasad. "Residential complexes are barring entries to Muslims. There is an economic and social boycott against the community.” 

Blows To The Body & Soul 

Those who combat extremist propaganda and misinformation against minorities describe the personal toll that their work takes on them. 

Journalist Alishan Jafri, reporting for The Wire’s Heartland Hatewatch Project, admitted that watching videos and photos of hate speech and crimes took a physical and mental toll. 

He described how the death of his 28-year-old friend Akhlad Khan from stress and anxiety caused by covering communally charged events in Uttar Pradesh, deeply disturbed him. 

Five days before he passed away, Khan warned Jafri in a tweet to never let his work “stress the soul”.

“This job entails blows to the body every day. You cannot remain unmoved when the violence is directed against your religious identity,” said Jafri. 

As government support to Hindu-extremist ideology grows, the task of recording hate speech and crimes from behind a keyboard grows ever perilous.

The arrest of Zubair marked an escalation of the government’s attempts to curb those who tracked fake news and hate speech. Sooner or later, hate-crime watchers said, the government was going to come for them, through censorship or imprisonment. 

A of HWK said he was reconsidering his work. 

Since he was from a low-income family, A said it was time for him to start thinking about a job, so he could do his bit.

Whether he keeps the account or not, A’s modest attempt at documenting India's majoritarian spike will remain a record of the dark times he witnessed. 

A* spoke on condition of anonymity. 

(Shweta Desai is an independent journalist and researcher living between France and India.)