Religious tensions in the world’s biggest democracy are growing, as the brutal killings of two men in India who expressed support for comments insulting the Prophet Muhammad have been met with an Islamophobic backlash from Hindu nationalists.
Over the past week, police made arrests in two Indian cities in connection to the killings of a Hindu tailor who was hacked to death on June 29, and a Hindu chemist who was stabbed in the neck on June 21.
The accused attackers in both the cases are Muslim, and police confirmed that both victims were targeted for supporting recent anti-Prophet comments made by a former member of the BJP, India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party.
Nupur Sharma was suspended by the BJP after she insulted the Prophet and the Qur'an during a news debate on May 29. Her comments triggered a loud chorus of condemnation from Muslim countries, while protests erupted across India. Sharma registered a police complaint about receiving death and rape threats in the weeks following her comments, while Hindus who expressed support for the BJP politician on social media reported facing death threats.
On July 1, a Supreme Court judge blamed the violence on Sharma’s “loose tongue,” saying she had “set the country on fire.”
“This lady is single-handedly responsible for what is happening in the country,” the court said during Friday’s procedural hearings on several criminal complaints against Sharma. “She should apologise to the whole nation.”
The murders are being investigated by India’s top counterterrorism task force, the National Investigation Agency. On Monday, the BJP organised a condolence gathering for the slain chemist, Umesh Kohle, in the city of Amravati. At least 2,500 people turned up with signs demanding justice.
While the brutality of the killings has shaken the country, unfolding now is an intensification of Islamophobia in several cities where Hindu nationalists are demanding revenge. Thousands hit the streets over the weekend in Udaipur, where the tailor was murdered, as well as Jaipur and Chandigarh, demanding death sentences for the accused.
In many parts, protests were led by Hindu nationalist groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a group affiliated with the BJP and known for their Islamophobic attacks and speeches. In Gurugram, a satellite city of India’s capital New Delhi, police cracked down on those brandishing inflammatory slogans at a VHP event intended to incite further tensions. Among the slogans raised in the gathering of nearly 100 people on June 29 were: “[Slur for Muslims] have two places: Pakistan and graveyard,” and “When Muslims are killed, they will take the name [of our Hindu deity] Ram.”
Surendra Jain, the joint general secretary of the VHP, distanced himself from the hateful slogans and speeches seen at the rally. “The justice system will decide whether it was hate speech or not,” Jain told VICE World News. “We don’t approve of them. They were done by outsiders, and we’re ready to work with the police to catch them.”
On July 3, the VHP and other groups organised another meeting with at least 200 in attendance demanding an economic boycott of Muslims. India has a track record of Hindu-led boycotts of Muslim businesses, with similar efforts made in April in states that saw communal tensions. One news outlet reported that some speakers at the VHP meeting also urged people to keep weapons in their pockets, instead of mobile phones, for their safety. They also demanded that officials get rid of “illegal immigrants,” a jibe often levelled at Muslims living in India.
Jain said that the VHP are not just mobilising to get justice for the killings of Hindu men, but also highlighting a “global problem.”
“Islamic extremism is on the rise,” he said. “These [killings] are not isolated incidents. Do [these Islamic extremists] want to turn India into Afghanistan?”
“Hindus are non violent, but even laws allow us to take all measures for self-defence.”
The escalation of tensions point to the larger—and rising—trend of anti-Muslim hate speech and Islamophobia in India. The killing of the Udaipur tailor Kanhaiya Lal—in which the assailants brandished a meat cleaver and made a viral video saying they were coming for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi next—has only spurred existing hate, despite Indian Muslim organisations resoundingly condemning the crime.
“Their religion has terror genes. They will never be civilised citizens,” reads one, while another says, “Time to be together and [pick up] arms.” Inflammatory social media posts have been known to translate into real life violence in India, including lynchings.
Mahmood Madani, who heads group Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind (JUH), told VICE World News that the ongoing rallies and hate speech are a part of the long trend of Hindu nationalism in India. JUH was among the first Muslim organisations to condemn the killings, calling them “not just, un-Islamic, but also anti-Islam.”
"This kind of Islamophobia is not new and we have faced violence and hate for decades. We've been attacked and persecuted,” Madani said. “But right now, these killings have provided an excuse to target and persecute us even more."
The hashtag “Hindu Lives Matter,” in support of Sharma and the deceased men who supported her, is also gaining substantial traction online. The hashtag—co-opted from the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.—and accusations of “Hinduphobia” are often used by members of dominant castes to push back against calls for equality from minorities like Muslims and Dalits, the latter deemed “untouchables” in India.
Asim Ali, a Delhi-based political researcher, told VICE World News that central to the Hindu nationalist rhetoric is the idea of victimhood. Among the many conspiracy theories that pushes this victimhood is one that believes that Muslim dominance over Hindus is afoot through forced conversions.
“For Hindu nationalism, Hindu society is always under threat, even at the height of this BJP dominant era,” said Ali.
Hindus are India’s largest religious group, making up nearly 80 percent of the population. Although India’s 200 million Muslims represent a minority group, making up 11 percent of India’s total population of 1.4 billion, the country has the world’s third largest Muslim population.
“The 'sword/dagger-wielding fanatical Muslim' is an old trope of Hindu nationalist imagery, and thus the Udaipur execution represented a near perfect validation of the fears harboured about Muslims,” he added. “It forms the perfect messaging material for Hindu nationalists.”
VHP’s Jain said that it was a “collective responsibility to make sure there’s no violence,” but he added that Muslims were right to be concerned about the potential for backlash.
"Muslims are rightfully worried that Hindus will retaliate," he said. “They should be.”
Researcher Ali is concerned that calls for revenge could very easily translate to actual violence. Last year, similar hate speech was heard at conferences organised by Hindu right-wing extremists. In the following months, Muslims were attacked in several Indian cities by Hindu mobs.
“This level of communal temperature has become the new normal,” said Ali. “But communal tensions are now reaching a fever pitch, and the possibility of the eruption of anti-Muslim violence at a substantial scale cannot be ruled out.”
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