India Hate Lab (IHL)

Unraveling the Web: Hate Speech, Disinformation, Weaponization of History and Role of Mainstream Media

By Deeksha Udupa

Apoorvanand Jha is a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi. A well-known political commentator, he is also a columnist in leading newspapers, magazines, and news websites, writing broadly on education, culture, communalism, violence, and human rights issues. In this interview, Professor Apoorvanand shares his insights into the current landscape of hate speech and disinformation, the role of mainstream media, the weaponization of history, and its impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is as below.

Deeksha Udupa: How would you describe the nature of hate speech in India at present?

Apoorvanand: Hate speech, along with disinformation and conspiracy theories, are the essential parts of the Islamophobic politics or political ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They play a crucial role in persuading Hindus and the party’s constituencies, largely made of Hindus, that Muslims are a despicable lot. This gives rise to different forms of conspiracy theories, including the idea that “Muslims are conspiring to outnumber Hindus, loot their women,  take away their resources, etc.” These are the conspiracy theories that are driving the Hindu minds to constant campaign.

The second form is disinformation: disinformation about Muslims and their lives, Christian lives, the belief that Christians established schools for the purpose of conversion, and all missionary activities, all hospitals, and other infrastructures established to lure Hindus into Christianity. A similar pattern of disinformation is seen about Muslims. Disinformation is, however, not limited to the present. It goes back to the past, to medieval times, and even earlier times. This picture of the past is conjured to convince Hindus that the ancestors of the present-day Muslims had deprived Hindus of their cultural heritage. This includes widely circulated misinformation, such as that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu structure and was converted into a Muslim monument. This pattern of cultural claim is seen with other monuments such as Qutub Minar, Lal Qila, Jama Masjid, Babri Masjid, Gyanvapi mosque, and other Islamic structures built by Muslim rulers or Muslims. For example, the Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde had claimed that Haji Malang Dargah (a Sufi shrine) is a Hindu monument that Muslims took away. The disinformation about the present and history go hand-in-hand. Hate speech is very much linked to the disinformation campaigns. The hatred against Muslims stems from different disinformation one imbibes from these campaigns, such as: “Muslims are lesser humans and less than humans, they are dirty, they marry four women, they marry within the family, they eat non-vegetarian food, which in Hindu parlance is something which is not edible and hence forbidden, they produce lots of children, they’re sexually very promiscuous and also very lustful.” 

The image of a Muslim male construed in the Hindu minds is that they are lustful and keep eyeing Hindu women. There is also an underlying sense of envy against the Muslim malehood, which is generated or fabricated in the Hindu minds, and it leads to hatred, which leads to violence. Hence, these three concepts are connected. 

The targeting of Muslim gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic is a concrete example of misinformation. Tablighi Jamat was blamed for spreading the Coronavirus. They were treated as the hub of Coronavirus infection and were blamed for spreading it across different parts of India. This was a lie, but it was spread by government officials, ministers, media, and it was relentless. Even though it was misinformation, it led to creating suspicion and hatred against Muslims. This was because Hindus started believing that Muslims were conspiring to kill Hindus. This idea was indeed laughable because if Muslims carried this virus with them, they would also die. But Hindus were ready to believe that Muslims were doing it to harm them. This led to a series of incidents of boycotting campaigns against Muslim vendors, including vegetable sellers and fruit sellers, and continues in many areas today. So, this is misinformation, disinformation, and hatred, together leading to violence. They are interrelated, and one leads to the other. As I said earlier, it’s about the present, and it’s also about the past because then you can instill anger in Hindus based on the premise that their ancestors were violated, deceived,  cheated, or defeated by the Muslims. The idea of taking revenge for the defeat of their ancestors from the present-day living Muslims is therefore very strong.

DU: You’ve mentioned the role of history in shaping hate speech. Do you see changes in education and the teaching of history in public schools aiming to vilify Muslim ancestry?

Apoorvanand: The real battlefield is history because it evokes extreme emotions among Hindus through the narrative of projecting Muslims as destroyers of their heritage. If you talk to Hindus, they are convinced that they were taught the wrong history wherein figures like Maharana Pratap were not given their due recognition. So, history textbooks and books have been an area of concern for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh or the RSS (the ideological parent organization of the BJP) for a long time. They edited the textbooks to suit their Hindu supremacist ideological understanding of the past and the society. However, they have been in power for ten years and have been able to change the narratives in the history books.  They have resorted to removing the Mughal past of India and are trying to paint all the Indian past saffron. This, in effect, is intended to ensure that students only learn about the Hindu past as Indian past and Muslims are not shown as making any contribution or shaping the Indian past. Even when they appear they come as intruders or oppressors. Muslim past is seen as an anomaly.

DU: There’s been a rise in censorship by social media platforms. How do you view their role in perpetuating hate speech while stifling dissenting voices?

Apoorvanand: I can’t agree more with you. On all social media platforms, be it YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or X (formerly Twitter), people with secular views complain that their reach has been limited and are also losing their followers in thousands. We can see handles and people who are known for their anti-communal or anti-majoritarian views losing space. So this is a conscious censoring by all these social media platforms.

DU: What about the mainstream media’s role in spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories?

Apoorvanand: In my understanding, mainstream media, including print and television, for a very long time have been voluntarily indulging in hate campaigns against Muslims.  It was their decision and not done under the pressure of a political party. It is disappointing and disheartening to see that all these media platforms, be it Hindi, Assamese, Kannada, Gujarati, or Marathi newspapers and television channels, relish spreading hatred and disinformation against Muslims and opposition parties in India. They relish it, they love it. This can be seen from the way they present it and the way they frame it. Thus, it cannot be something that is done under pressure. It is voluntary and ideological. The mainstream media is ideologically Islamophobic and majoritarian. 

DU: Are you saying that the media’s voluntary engagement in anti-minority and majoritarian ideology predates the BJP rule?

Apoorvanand: Yes, this most definitely predates the current BJP rule. If we examine the behavior of the media in the late 1980s and 1990s during the campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid, we can observe blatant biases openly printed in newspapers. We didn’t have BJP government in power, indicating that these biases were inherent and voluntary. Similarly, prior to the 2002 pogrom or massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, both visual and print media in the state were heavily involved in spreading disinformation that led to violence. There is ample evidence which tells us that Indian media is largely Islamophobic.

DU: Regarding the ongoing Israel’s war on Gaza, what’s your perspective on the anti-Palestinian sentiment circulating on Indian social media?

Apoorvanand: India has now become the largest producer of hate speech. It exports hatred. [Following October 7] We saw gleeful hatred being spread against Palestinians, much of which was emanating from India. That was a very disappointing thing.  There was a joke, and it was a poor joke, but it said that you can find more posts and comments in Hebrew against Israel and more posts in Hindi, defending Israel’s action against Palestinians and rejoicing over their killings. In this, the Indian diaspora also participates very actively, the part of the  Hindu diaspora, which believes in Hindutva or Hindu supremacy.

DU: With elections approaching, what role do you anticipate hate speech will play?

Apoorvanand: What hate speech does is that it creates an atmosphere of impunity. When you are allowed to indulge in hate speech, when you are allowed to organize open assemblies in which leaders give hate speeches, it creates an atmosphere in which Muslims feel cornered and marginalized. For example, if you give an open call for the slaughter of Muslims, like “Slaughter them, they should be killed, their women should be taken,” play hateful songs openly on DJs, during festivals, etc., it creates an atmosphere in which Muslims feel very diminished, very humiliated, very insulted, and very cornered. They then try to hide themselves, no longer participating in public affairs. On the other hand, it emboldens the perpetrators. So, hate speech is a real threat because it can lead to and has led to violence against Muslims. Thus, if they feel cornered in their daily lives, they try to make themselves invisible, they try not to be seen, and it impacts their participation in electoral processes as well.

This, I have seen in my classrooms; the Muslims have gone silent. My conversations with my colleagues confirm the same. There are Muslims in their classes but they no longer speak up or participate. This silence is also visible when you travel on a bus or a train, their participation in the public discourse is minimal. They don’t participate, they don’t express themselves, and that is going to impact their democratic behavior.

(Deeksha Udupa is a Research Fellow at the India Hate Lab)

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