Hate speech thrives and divides

Controversies over hijab, halal and aazaan are rocking the state of Karnataka. They were made as part of a carefully crafted campaign to divide the people of Karnataka into two camps – Hindus and Muslims – ahead of the 2023 national elections.

Hijab is a dress where the girl/woman covers her head when she goes out of her house. North Indian Hindu women, Sikh women, Christian nuns and some others (including Sikh men) also cover their heads.

Halal is meat from the slaughter of animals or poultry, according to Islamic law, through a cut in the jugular vein or trachea and draining all the blood. Other religions have rules for preparing food: Judaism prescribes kosher food, and many Hindu subdivisions prepare food according to certain rules.

Aazaan is a call to prayer broadcast from mosques five times a day, often over loudspeakers. The bells of Hindu and Christian places of worship are ringing. Hindu religious festivals are usually accompanied by the recitation of scriptures or devotional music amplified through loudspeakers.

centuries of coexistence

Hijab, halal and aazaan are not new practices. They have been part of Islam since the arrival of Islam in India. The people of Karnataka (and the ancient kingdom of Mysore) had accepted these practices for centuries; no one opposed it, and no Muslim opposed Hindu religious practices. To put it briefly, Hindus, Muslims and Christians – as well as followers of other religions – have coexisted peacefully with each other.

Until the BJP entered Karnataka. The BJP ruled Karnataka for a few terms, either in coalition or alone. In recent years, he has ruled by influencing lawmakers from other parties to switch sides – the effort has been dubbed Operation Lotus. The BJP faces a state election in 2023. Its governments have not performed well and its position in Karnataka is quite fragile. Opposition parties have learned to build protective walls to counter Operation Lotus.

Hence the need to build another narrative that can polarize voters and attract the majority of Hindu votes. The BJP has enough evil geniuses who have the ability to craft state-specific strategies: one such strategy is the deliberate effort to stir up controversy around food, clothing and prayer in Karnataka.

The state government’s sudden ban on hijab in schools and colleges has been challenged in court. A full bench of the Karnataka High Court framed the question as “whether wearing the hijab is an ‘essential religious practice'”, and ruled that it was not. The question was irrelevant. The only relevant question was whether the state had the power to ban the hijab and thereby violate the Muslim student’s right to privacy (and agency) and her right to education. An appeal has been made to the Supreme Court and it is hoped that the real issues will be addressed and resolved.

Hate speech thrives

Such controversies lay the groundwork for hate speech. There has been an abundance of hate speech from both sides, although the initial provocateur in many recent cases has been the Hindu fanatic(s). Unfortunately, few prominent citizens of Karnataka spoke: notable exceptions included historian Mr. Ramchandra Guha and industrialist Ms. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Hate speech peddlers have turned their wrath on both!

Hate speech has crossed all boundaries in some states, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. A repeat offender is Yeti Narasinghanand, who works as a priest at Dasna Devi temple. Last year, at a Hindu religious congregation in Haridwar, he made derogatory remarks about Muslim women, was arrested and after a few weeks released on bail. On April 3, 2022, he delivered a speech at a self-proclaimed “Hindu Mahapanchayat” in Delhi when he said “to protect your sisters and daughters take up arms”. Among the grim predictions he made was that a Muslim would be Prime Minister of India either in 2029, or 2034, or 2039! The police registered an FIR but did not arrest him or seek the release of his bond.

Another horrifying example is the case of Mahant Bajrang Muni, a self-proclaimed religious leader. On April 2, 2022, a video showed him addressing a gathering in Hindi. He said, as the crowd cheered, “If anyone from your community harasses a girl in the area, I will get your girls from your house and rape them. The target was obvious. The National Women’s Commission demanded his arrest. He was arrested eleven days later.

Tolerate intolerance

Ironically, acts of violence, intolerance and hatred were committed on the day celebrated as the birthday of Lord Ram, who is Maryada Purushottam, the embodiment of righteousness. These actions and statements cannot be considered extreme rants by agents provocateurs. They have the support of the BJP and the RSS who are determined to consolidate and expand the Hindu core of India which is now found in the Hindi speaking states.

Hartosh Singh Bal, writing in the influential Foreign Affairs, observed: “More than 400 million people do not subscribe to Hinduism or do not practice the type of Hinduism that the RSS considers supreme. They will nonetheless be subject to what is, ultimately, an imperial scheme that attempts to homogenize the Hindu population while ensuring that India’s Muslims and Christians are relegated to second-class citizenship.

In a context of growing intolerance, the studied silence of the highest authorities of the country is not a simple slip
of governance.

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