Communalism: The other virus in India | Opinion
Hate is an infection that is contagious when it is normalised as has happened in recent yearsUpdated: Sep 25, 2020, 05:43 IST
Covid 19 is not the only virus stalking the nation. Hate is in the air with social media acting as a super-spreader. Last week, on the death of prominent social activist, Swami Agnivesh, a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer N Nageswara Rao tweeted: “Good riddance.. You were an anti-Hindu donning saffron clothes…my grievance against Yamraj (god of death) is why did he wait so long?” After protests from several Twitter users, the social media site pulled down the offensive tweet.
Rao is no ordinary police officer. In 2018, he was appointed acting director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and also director-general, Fire Services and Home Guards, before retiring in July. That an officer holding such high posts should make such a spiteful remark is perhaps a sign of the times; those who swear allegiance to the Constitution are now wearing the ideology of hate on their khaki uniform, to the point of wishing death on someone. Worse, Rao has defended his hate speech.
Recall a similar tweet when journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in 2017. Then, a Surat-based businessman, Nikhil Dadhich tweeted: “A bitch died a dog’s death and now all the puppies are wailing in the same tune!” It was a disgusting remark that seemed to “celebrate” the assassination. It may even have passed unnoticed, but for an inconvenient truth: Dadhich was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the micro-blogging site. Once again, the individual was unapologetic.
Rao and Dadhich are not alone: There are thousands of anonymous Twitter handles, Facebook posts and WhatsApp groups that are designed to spread animosity between individuals and communities. Under the guise of being open-source platforms, the social media universe has created its own code of conduct where the lines between free speech and hate speech are often blurred.
These are, as an outstanding recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, puts it, the “digital Frankensteins” of our times, amoral beasts running amok in a social media jungle where the rules are being subverted to promote hatred and division.
This big tech-driven social media hate-machine is transitioning seamlessly into the news environment. Thus, to blame social media alone for stoking disharmony would be to run away from the nature of the virus. Hate is an infection that is contagious when it is normalised as has happened in recent years. The anti-minority dog-whistles, for example, are now so frequently espoused that their expression is almost seen as routine. The Indian Muslim as “anti-national” narrative has been deliberately and repeatedly pushed by a section of the power elite so as to acquire a potency of its own. When a rabble-rousing Union minister screams in an election meeting, “Desh ke gaddaron ko” and the crowd responds with “Goli maaron saalon ko”, there is little attempt made to rein in the minister. Or indeed when anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protesters are identified by their clothes or illegal immigrants are referred to as “termites”, there is a brazen attempt to stoke religious prejudice. It is almost as if a hyper-polarised environment is a spur for incendiary communal rhetoric.
Just how far this normalisation of a narrative of hate and bigotry has travelled is best exemplified by the recent Sudarshan TV case, involving a series of programmes done by the channel to purportedly investigate a “Muslim conspiracy” to take over the civil services. A slogan “UPSC jihad” was put out as a promotional video. Rather than acting ab initio against a programme that was prima facie intended to vilify the Muslim community, the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry allowed the telecast, saying it did not wish to pre-censor the programme. This despite the fact that the I&B programming code allows the ministry to prohibit a programme if it is “likely to promote hatred or ill-will between communities”. It required the Delhi High Court and then the Supreme Court to step in and stop the further broadcast of the programme before the ministry finally issued the channel a notice. Maybe, the ministry views Sudarshan TV with a more benevolent gaze since the channel is perceived to be in sync with the ruling party’s ideology.
But while Sudarshan TV may espouse an unapologetic militant Hindutva worldview, what of those mainstream channels which quietly push a daily drip of communal poison and fake news with the sole objective of demonising a community? Take for example the lynching of two sadhus at Palghar in Maharashtra a few months ago. Some channels projected the killings as a Hindu-Muslim conflict while lining up extremists from both communities in a slugfest that passes as prime time debate. Now, when it turns out that the claims of a communal angle are false and all those arrested are local tribals who mistook the sadhus for kidnappers based on WhatsApp rumours, will any news channel publish an apology for having misled viewers to garner television rating points? Those “news traffickers” who seek to profit from hate must be acted against swiftly. Only then can we find a vaccine to the virus that threatens to divide us.
Post-script: Since we started with a story of a police officer, let me end with a police officer too. For over a year now, I have been receiving WhatsApp messages from a senior IPS officer echoing the strident Islamophobia which is so prevalent today. The officer was once in charge of a city with a large Muslim population. Is it any surprise then that law-enforcers are often caught on the wrong side of the law when there is a communal riot?