Bakhtiyar Qazi, a 56-year-old fruit seller based in the Chamtila area of Tripura, a state in northeast India, first heard the hate-filled slogans against the Prophet Muhammad when he finished his evening prayers late last month.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” he told VICE World News. “I have never heard such vitriol against anyone in my life, least of all the Prophet.”
Qazi was referring to the anti-Muslim rally organised on October 27 in Tripura by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation affiliated with the central ruling party Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The rally was in response to the burning of Hindu homes in neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh during the annual Durga Puja festivities – a rampage triggered by viral images of a blasphemy incident apparently meant to incite religious hate.
“I could see them approaching me,” Qazi continued. “I knew my beard would give me away, and I just froze, paralysed in fear.”
He managed to seek cover in a Hindu neighbour’s house just in time. However, soon after the Islamophobic rally ended, the VHP went on an anti-Muslim blitzkrieg – mosques were vandalised and shops owned by Muslims were looted and charred, according to multiple media reports.
In some mosques, copies of the Qur’an were torn apart and burnt. “Because the Qur’an is usually in hardcover, they had to open it and then set the pages alight,” Supreme Court lawyer Ehtesham Hashmi told VICE World News.
Hashmi and his team of lawyers documented vandalism and arson attacks at 12 mosques, nine Muslim-owned shops and three homes occupied by Muslim families in a report titled ‘Humanity under attack in Tripura: #Muslim lives matter’. Their report stated that the latest violence was a “result of the irresponsibility of the administration, extremist organisations and the vested interests of ambitious politicians.”
Amid all this, Michigan-based civil rights, Islamophobia and national security expert Khaled A. Beydoun, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, tweeted about the spate of violent attacks in Tripura. Local media reported that the Indian government had spotted his tweet, and charged him, two lawyers on Hashmi’s fact-finding team, and another hundred journalists or activists for their social media posts under its draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) with a maximum imprisonment of seven years. This stringent “anti-terrorism” law makes it practically impossible for courts to consider bail pleas from defendants.
However, VICE World News did not spot Beydoun’s name on the final charge sheet submitted by the Tripura state police to Twitter, which had a list of 68 Twitter handles booked under UAPA. One of the handles was of CJ Werleman, an Australian with a history of hate speech and racism who now produces “journalism” by raising funds on Patreon “to expose injustices against Muslim communities.” Local media reported the Tripura state police also leveled charges under the UAPA against 32 Facebook account holders and two YouTubers.
Technically meant to be used against accused “terrorists,” the stringent law has been widely invoked against academics, journalists, and tribal activists. Last week, Indian students cheering Pakistan’s victory against India in a cricket World Cup match were also booked under the law.
According to a 2019 report tabled in the Indian parliament, UAPA cases have risen annually, with almost 6,646 cases registered since Modi came to power in 2014. However, the conviction rate under this law for alleged “terrorists” stands at only 2%, thus strengthening the view that the UAPA is used as a tool to curb dissent and has a chilling effect on free speech.
Werleman, who lives in Australia, is not an Indian citizen. Even though experts say the chances of him being convicted under the UAPA are slim due to diplomatic red tape, the charges may impede his ability to travel to India. UAPA powers were expanded by the Indian parliament in 2019 to include foreign nationals. A U.S. government report released in 2019 criticised the amendments, particularly the lack of bail provisions for foreign nationals.
“Our families are scared for us and themselves.”
Lawyers in Hashmi’s team, too, were charged under the UAPA. “The idea behind charging us is to ensure lawyers are afraid to even consider such cases,” said Hashmi. “What message does this send to young students who want to pursue law? This is humiliating. Our families are scared for us and themselves.”
When Hashmi and his colleagues visited Tripura, they encountered charred Qur’an copies, blackened walls of mosques, and Muslim establishments on fire. “A VHP mob even charged at us,” he said. “I was ready to get lynched. Thankfully, they only saw the identification cards of the two Hindu lawyers in our team.”
“Unfortunately, Muslims are newsworthy only when they are villains, not victims.”
The way Beydoun sees it, people outside India have a deeper responsibility to speak up against such systemic incidents of violence against minorities, which have now become all too commonplace in the world’s largest democracy.
“Indians are living in fear,” Beydoun told VICE World News. “There’s a lot at stake for them and their families if they openly criticise the government. But for us in the West, we have the luxury and privilege to speak up for the truth. So far, America is doing a major disservice by turning a blind eye to such incidents. It’s a classic case of American exceptionalism – as long as it’s not personally affecting them, they will not be concerned.”
He also blames the cavalier attitude of Western media in reporting such incidents. “If it was a Muslim regime persecuting a Hindu minority on this scale, it would get their attention because it then fits into the global narrative of the war against terror. Unfortunately, Muslims are newsworthy only when they are villains, not victims.”
As a rare exception, U.S. Congressman Andy Levin did recently express his concerns against the religious violence in Tripura and Bangladesh in a tweet.
Shyam Singh and Meer Faisal, both Indian journalists, were also named in a police report under the UAPA charge. Faisal, a 20-year-old multimedia journalist with Maktoob Media, popularised the hashtag #SaveTripuraMuslims on Twitter. He was later asked by local police to take down his tweets highlighting the widespread violence against Muslims. They accused him of peddling misleading information.
“It was only when mainstream news channels in India picked it up that the cops sprung into action and charged us instead of the rioters on the ground.”
The Tripura police, for its part, still maintain that the “law and order situation in the state is absolutely normal,” and that owners of social media accounts spreading “malicious propaganda” will continue to be prosecuted.
“There is no question of fake news. I’ve specified my sources everywhere,” Faisal told VICE World News. “Initially, when the violence and vandalism began, only a few of us were tweeting about it. We even tagged Tripura police in those tweets but got no response. It was only when mainstream news channels in India picked it up that the cops sprung into action and charged us instead of the rioters on the ground.”
Singh, a journalist with NewsClick, is unfazed even after the UAPA charge against him. He was fired from his last job at a pro-government news channel in July, after he called the prime minister “shameless” in his tweets.
“Even if we have a more draconian law than UAPA or a more fascist prime minister than Modi, I will still continue to do my job in sharing the truth,” Singh told VICE World News. “If a house is burning, won’t you bring attention to it? My own family wholeheartedly supports this regime and the hate it promotes. But my allegiance is only to India.”
Even though the Supreme court has agreed to hear the appeals by Singh and Hashmi, both of them echo the same sentiment: Minorities in India are living in a deep state of fear, and the West couldn’t be bothered to intervene. While Beydoun suspects that the West’s stereotyped perception of Hindus and Hinduism is partly behind this inaction.
“They believe Hinduism is the most peaceful religion, which is why they can’t fathom Hindus being extremists,” he explained. “They see Hinduism only in the light of caricature. They fail to see the Hindu ideological fanatics that are everywhere, and in power.”
This view is also echoed by Vasudha Narayanan, a professor at University of Florida, who observed that Americans have always chosen to focus on the more spiritual and philosophical aspects of Hinduism. Christophe Jaffrelot, a renowned French political scientist, has pointed out how the Hindu nationalism project has successfully used digital knowhow to adapt in this context.
Qazi, for his part, wants nothing more than to return to work. “When they burned down the mosques, I thought they'd wipe out Muslims from this country. But I don’t have a family left anyway. My only wife passed away during the pandemic. I simply want to sell fruit, say my prayers and sleep in peace. Is this too much to ask for?”
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