On March 15, in the neighbourhood of Christchurch, New Zealand, a group of Muslim men, women, and children had gathered for their afternoon prayers at the Al Noor mosque ( al noor literally translates to ‘the light’ in Arabic). In the middle of prayers, a 28-year-old white Australian man, dressed in black and armed with a semi-automatic rifle, walked in. Haji-Daoud Nabi, a 71-year-old worshipper, saw him at the entrance and called out to him, “Hello brother, welcome.”
Nabi—who had migrated to New Zealand in 1979 to flee the war with Russia in Afghanistan—was met with three bullets instead. The man, now survived by his daughter and nine grandchildren, was the first casualty in what is being called the deadliest act of terror in New Zealand’s modern history.
The gunman has been identified as a man who has come to represent an extremist, right-wing terrorist who swears by an anti-immigrant, neo-fascist ideology. Over the last five days, 50 people have been reported to have been killed in twin attacks in two mosques. Amongst the victims, five hailed from India.
In the middle of these developments is the incident itself, and how it manifested: a far-right extremist act of violence towards a minority community, while using “new” tools of organisation of this kind of hate: the social media. In India, this attack has evoked various concerns. Let’s look at five reasons why this incident should definitely alarm us:
Because the issue of violence towards minorities is a very Indian problem too
Right-wing nationalists targeting minorities? Hmm, sounds…familiar. In India, numbers show an alarming rate with which the trope of nationalism has been used to victimise certain communities. According to p.factchecker.in’s Hate Crime Watch—reportedly the first such data on violence led by hate—India has seen up to 281 hate crimes since 2009 (up until present). About 58 percent of the victims were Muslims, while 57 percent of the perpetrators have been reported to be Hindus. The dominant alleged reason—sitting at 27 percent—for these acts of violence is gau raksha, or the cow vigilante movement that has swept across the country, predominantly in northern India.
The rise of right-wing extremism in India finds its roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which became active after Independence, and which thrives on the idea of a pure, Hindu state and society. This ideology is also the basis of the current ruling party’s mentorship and machinery. And if recent developments—from cow lynchings, to nationalist rhetoric, to disenfranchisement of the Muslim community in Assam—are anything to go by, being the minority can be more than just trouble. As Salman Khurshid, India’s former foreign minister, says: “It’s really a very, very bad moment for Muslims in India.”
Because we are a country of immigrants too
India, the world’s largest democracy, has been a country of immigrants for centuries. However, the wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric has only grown stronger in recent times. Last year, the updation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) excluded 4 million people—mostly Muslims—from its list in Assam. A recent report documents a surge in suicides because of “mental trauma” over this loss of agency. As a country that has one of the strongest Indian diaspora—Non-Residential Indians and Persons of Indian Origin—made up of around 30 million people across the world, the anti-immigrant rhetoric goes against the very grain of a diverse Indian identity.
Because we need law reforms to keep up with the fast-evolving nature of crimes
Within 72 hours of the NZ violence, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern announced an immediate need to reform its faulty gun laws—one that enables the civilians to acquire arms without registration. Deputy Prime Minister of NZ, Winston Peters, reiterated, “Our world changed forever and so will some of our laws.” This urgency to reform laws that are redundant and enable risks to a society, is a response that lacks in the Indian justice system. Take, for instance, the fast-track courts that were supposed to be set up after the December 2012 gang rape, an incident that shook the country to its core when it comes to violence against its women. A recent report calculates the current pending cases of rape and child sexual abuse to 1.67 lakh, with the proposal to set up 1,023 fast-track special courts in two years. Must we wait for several years—bogged down by our jaded trust in the justice system and our collective anger slowly fading away—to see real change?
Because we need to question if social media companies are unwitting accomplices
The New Zealand gunman did everything he could to make this incident go viral—from livestreaming the attack on Facebook to wearing a body camera to resemble a modern first-person shooter video game. It’s important to note that Facebook removed the video not because it was flagged down for its violent content but only after the NZ authorities asked it to. India—which is the biggest consumer base outside the home country for many social platforms—has also had a history of social media inciting real-life violence.
In July last year, five agricultural labourers were killed by a mob on the suspicion that they were ‘child-lifters’, whereas in April 2017, 200 ‘cow vigilantes’ beat to death a man carrying cows for dairy farming. Both of these—along with other cases including a full-scale riot—have common grounds in fake WhatsApp forwards. It’s, of course, more layered than merely pointing at fake news as the cause, with a long-standing cultural division weaponising the misinformation to target minorities. To focus on technology to obscure the civil and social work that needs to be done is not fair.
But it’s time for lawmakers to ask what it will take for these self-censoring platforms to initiate major reform. While the NZ PM stepped up her criticism of social media platforms saying that “we cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” Indian lawmakers have remained largely silent on the issue. On the contrary, with the elections around the corner, there are growing indications that fake news will play a big role over the next few weeks.
Because we need to wonder why our PM refuses to talk to us, even in times of crisis
Within the first few hours of the shooting, the New Zealand PM addressed her nation twice, and held a press conference early next day, updating journalists on the details of the massacre. After the Pulwama attack that occurred on February 14, Indian PM Narendra Modi apparently continued his schedule that included a photo shoot (which the ruling party BJP dismissed as fake news) and a political rally. Of course, none of this could be corroborated at a press conference because, you know, Modi doesn’t do press conferences or interviews. ICYMI, Modi has claimed a historical first for being the only PM in democratic India to have never addressed the media.