The video starts with a question. “Kya karega Modi, aur kya karega Yogi?” (What will Modi do, and what will Yogi do?) You see a beach crowded with families. Peppered across it are Burkha-clad Muslim women. The male voice you hear is more distraught than defiant. It tells you these visuals are from Mumbai’s Juhu Beach, not Karachi. “I feel like I am in some Islamic state.” For two minutes, the man calmly walks across the beach, recording Muslim families, layering their visuals with his fears. There is a call to action at the end. “If we, those who remain, don’t unite, you can imagine what will happen to us,” he says, as children play in the sand.
Just as the year was drawing to a close, this video, faceless and ownerless, went viral in a New India where demonstrations of hate are celebrated. Millions of people viewed it, shared it, and, possibly, agreed with it. For the last decade, we have seen visible manifestations of communalism from political players—orchestrated riots, hate speeches, dog-whistling by leaders (remember when the Prime Minister asked us to identify protesters by the clothes they wear?)
But 2023 challenged this notion—hate no longer had to be delivered to us. We did not need speeches, nor did we need tactful, sublime nods. This is the year hate was crowdsourced—from ordinary, non-political citizens who had turned into lone wolves, in the service of communal disharmony, dedicated to establishing a Hindu-first nation.
From looking for signs of an Islamic takeover on Juhu beach, to a radicalised Railway Protection Force constable carefully picking out Muslims in a crowded railway coach and shooting them in cold blood; from a schoolteacher in Uttar Pradesh goading students to assault a weeping Muslim boy while making disparaging remarks about his community, to a school in Gujarat leaving out a Muslim student when felicitating school toppers, hate is now rising, bottom-up.
Unlike before, none of this is orchestrated by vigilante right-wing units or overzealous activists. In New India, executing hate is no longer their domain—instead, so pervasive is the ideology that hordes get signed on as willing foot soldiers without even being formally recruited. This will go down as the year when the mob was individualised and outsourced. Lying behind this ingenious recruitment miracle is years of work—both, overt and covert. For the overt, 2023 offered some potent evidence.
The most overt recruitment tool was hate speech. Hindutva Watch (HW), an online database that tracks the activities of the Hindu right-wing, reported that the first six months of the year, alone, saw 255 gatherings where anti-Muslim hate speeches were delivered. It would be safe to assume that most of them would have gone unpunished and, even, unrecorded, if not for initiatives like HW.
I have witnessed this up close in my State of Maharashtra. Of the 255 hate gatherings recorded nationally, more than 30 per cent came from Maharashtra. The country’s richest, most industrialised State, has become a cauldron of hate speech. Since early 2023, there have been a constant stream of “rallies” held by amorphous right-wing groups, born overnight after the BJP executed a coup to wrest power in the State. In rally after rally, thousands have gathered to listen to speakers orating in a tone as menacing as that of the faceless voice on Juhu beach—warning them of the existential threats they face from Muslims, of Muslim men luring their daughters, and of their temples being broken down and replaced by mosques. Most rallies ended with clear calls for action—increased vigil on their activities, violence against such “enemies” of Hindus, denying them homes and jobs.
Hate flowed freely in rallies across Maharashtra. The Indian Express, in a report, said at least 50 rallies had been held in just four months, across the length and breadth of Maharashtra, stoking issues like “love jehad” and “land jehad”, both imagined conspiracies of the right wing.
For times like these, the Supreme Court had in April 2023 issued clear directions on what law enforcement agencies must do. The court said such hate speech was a “serious offence” and asked all States and Union Territories to take “suo motu action... to register cases”, even without formal complaints. Yet, the Maharashtra Police, reporting to State Home Minister Devendra Fadnavis, remained tight-lipped, looking away and pretending to have not known about the rallies. After being prodded by the Supreme Court, the police shook off some of its inertia and started accepting complaints from citizens about these events. Though it booked a few speakers, no one was arrested. Buoyed and assured, the rallies continued in full spate.
The implications of such free hate, available on tap, were not too difficult to capture. The rampant communally charged rhetoric unleashed a series of visible incidents in the State, not particularly known for such hate politics. An investigation I authored for the website Article 14 found at least 41 incidents of communal tensions and violence between January and September 2023. While most incidents were linked to mobs of right-wing units engaging in violence or stoking tensions, there were some which stood out, because they were spontaneous, in places you would least expect.
In Kolhapur, a classroom session on religious discrimination was interrupted by a group of students who insisted that Muslims “were rapists who never got punished”. The teacher’s protestation was ignored by students who then went on to record and circulate on social media platforms an edited clip of her making “anti-Hindu” remarks. Right-wing outfits descended on the college and ensured the teacher was suspended. Similarly, in the same town, another student wrote “Jai Shri Ram” on his answer sheet and when faced with censure from the invigilator, went on to mobilise a mob which barged into the college to protest. In Mumbai, a Muslim delivery agent, carrying a food parcel, was assaulted and forced to chant ”Jai Shri Ram”.
None of these incidents was organised or orchestrated with in-depth planning, nor were these, necessarily, the handiwork of political activists. These were ordinary citizens, who, consumed by biases and prejudices, were driven to act on them.
Lessons from history
Unfortunately, such self-mobilisation is not new to history. One of the most striking aspects of Nazi Germany was how non-Nazis—those who were not affiliated to the Nazi party—became willing participants in the Nazi project. So consumed were they by Nazi propaganda which dehumanised Jews and painted them as evil, that ordinary Germans, of their own volition, enforced social and economic boycotts of Jews, refusing them homes and jobs, harassing them in public spaces, cutting off personal ties.
As Germans turned into Nazis, the political project helmed by Adolf Hitler found support in ways it had not anticipated. By the end of the 1930s, Nazi policies, combined with the support they received from ordinary Germans, resulted in the “near-isolation of Jews from German society”.
Everyday casual hate and bigotry performs the same role, be it in Nazi Germany or New India. It seeks to vilify and dehumanise the minority subject—be it Jews or Muslims—and stokes fear and anger around them, real or imagined, in a manner that does not really register itself as an event. Adding to this lethal mix is a special brand of popular culture, dipped in the tenets of Hindutva, that is normalising the ideology even more. Songs, poetry and books, all created with the intent to push the Hindu right-wing thought deeper into popular psyche, have used catchy tunes, rhythms and seemingly credible books to normalise some of the most hardline and rabid aspects of the ideology, making them sound logical.
Such popular culture makes hate a constant, daily affair. It works round-the-clock, making an impact each time these songs, poetry and books are consumed. It is not hate speech, nor is it a riot, or a murderous attack. That is what makes it difficult to track and capture. This ability to slip under the radar, and yet pervade everything from relations to conversations, is what makes it insidious and potent.
Underplaying one’s identity
In August, the Bharatiya Junta Podcast, a cheekily named podcast, invited ordinary Muslims to share their quotidian experiences of living in New India. The stories were heartbreaking—from someone who is scared of his family carrying non-vegetarian food on a train, to another who suppresses her views about current affairs because she is afraid of being boycotted in the workplace because of her religious identity. For all of them, the message seemed clear: their Muslim identity had to be underplayed, or made invisible. The year 2023 made such concessions more conspicuous.
This was also the year that a ruling party MP Ramesh Bidhuri, representing a chunk of New Delhi elites, rose in Parliament, abused a fellow Muslim MP, calling him communal slurs, and walked away without consequence. Days later, Bidhuri was rewarded by the party which gave him additional responsibility to head its election affairs in a Rajasthan district.
With 2024 only a few days away, dark clouds have begun to hover over the remaining vestiges of India’s secular state. In Madhya Pradesh, the first decision of the new BJP government, headed by Mohan Yadav, was to ban the sale of meat, egg and fish in the open, ostensibly because it violates food safety laws. In Uttarakhand, the BJP State government seems all set to implement a uniform civil code, which will do away with religious personal laws. As the 2024 general election is announced in the coming weeks, exercises in competitive Hindutva will only heighten. So will concerns around India’s status as a secular republic.
Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, and the author of a new book, ‘H-Pop: The World of Secretive Popstars’, published by HarperCollins. He tweets at @kunalpurohit.