2024 ‘critical year’ for hate speech in India, warns new report

A report by Washington-based India Hate Lab discloses an attempt of normalisation of hate speech as central to the Hindu right-wing’s project of transformation of India into a de facto Hindu nation.

A recent report has termed 2024 a “critical year” for hate speech in India.

This analysis by India Hate Lab gains significance in the backdrop of the 2024 general elections in India, which are only months away.

India Hate Lab is a Washington DC-based research group run by a dedicated team of journalists, academicians and researchers. The objective of the research group is to document, study and analyse hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories that target India’s religious minorities, both in the digital realm and in offline spaces.

In its report, the lab has documented 668 instances of hate speech events targeting India’s religious minorities, particularly Muslims, in 18 states and three Union territories in 2023.

The report states that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states are more prone to hate speech events. It documents that of a total of 668 instances of hate speech, 453 (68 percent) occurred in BJP-ruled states.

Most instances of hate speech occurred in Maharashtra (118), followed by Uttar Pradesh (108), Haryana (48), Uttarakhand (41), Karnataka (40), Gujarat (31), Chhattisgarh (21) and Bihar (10).

The report indicates increasing evidence suggesting a link between hate speech events, a spike in communal tension and violence, a phenomenon more sophisticatedly manifested through the widespread use of social media.

The report concludes that there is an “alarming trend” that suggests a persistent and potential escalation of hate speech.

What is hate speech?

The report specifies that to categorise an event as a hate speech event, the United Nations framework has been applied.

The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on hate speech defines it as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender and other identify factors”.

It should be noted that there is no universal definition of hate speech under international human rights law.

The report finds that in India, using the definition provided by the UN, hate speech can manifest itself in many forms. This includes direct calls to violence, calls for a social and economic boycott of religious minorities, support and justification for violent cow vigilantism, and calls to exclude Muslims from bureaucracy.

The report contains references to speeches targeting Rohingya refugees living in India, speeches delivered by BJP leaders, speeches by Hindu religious leaders and the mention of Israel’s war on Gaza to demonise Indian Muslims.

The report also finds events including the propagation of various anti-Muslim conspiracy theories like love jihad, land jihad, halal jihad, population jihad and others.

Jihad’ is a concept of Islam that means to ‘struggle against injustice’. In recent years, the term has been used by the Hindu right wing in India to insinuate clandestine organised actions by the Muslim minority to undermine the Hindu majority.

The research group has classified certain categories as ‘dangerous speech’ as a sub-type of hate speech. The report considers dangerous speech as involving a definite call for violence.

The Dangerous Speech project defines dangerous speech as a form of expression “that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or participate in violence against members of another group”.

Is there a legal framework to tackle hate speech in India?

Calls to violence are outlawed under various statutes in India, including the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.

The report finds that hate speech instances could be tackled through certain provisions provided in Indian laws such as Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc) and 295A (outraging religious feelings) of the IPC and under the Information Technology Act, 2000.

The report, however, notes that these provisions do not define hate speech.

Findings of the report

The report breaks down the events according to state and Union territory.

In Maharashtra, it has been found that with the upcoming state elections in 2024, there appears to be an intentional effort to create religious polarisation.

In Uttar Pradesh, the report claims that hate speech instances have been instigated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has peddled several anti-Muslim conspiracy theories including ‘love jihad’.

This is followed by Haryana, where Hindu right-wing groups have stoked tensions, which have often culminated in a mass outbreak of violence, the report suggests.

For instance, in Nuh, a Muslim-majority district, violence ensued apparently after a procession by the Hindu right-wing group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The violence resulted in seven deaths and injuries to more than 70 people. The violence was a result of the concerted efforts by Hindu nationalist groups over several months to instigate violence.

The report finds Uttarakhand, specifically Dehradun, to be a particular target for Hindu right-wing groups. The instances of hate speech include a religious event where a religious preacher, Dhirendra Kumar Shashtri, stated that the construction of mosques would not be allowed in Uttarakhand.

He also stated that Hindus should not accept the presence of another religion in India. The speech was delivered in the presence of Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami.

In terms of the organisations responsible for hate speech events, 216 of the events were organised by the VHP, including its youth wing Bajrang Dal. The report considers the VHP and Bajrang Dal a single entity.

The report describes the VHP as a militant religious organisation with an extensive history of involvement in anti-minority violence in India. Both organisations are a part of the so-called Sangh Parivar, an umbrella term for several Hindu nationalist groups led by the paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The report notes that both organisations have taken part in some of the most horrific violent episodes including attacks against Christians in the late 1990s, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, and cow vigilante lynchings of marginalised groups.

Apart from the VHP–Bajrang Dal, 77 events of hate speech are attributed to Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP)–Rashtriya Bajrang Dal. This organisation is led by the former head of the VHP, Pravin Togadia.

In January 2023, Togadia held an event in Uttarakhand where he called for a change to the Indian Constitution to exclude Muslims from bureaucracy, the police and the judiciary.

Notably, 50 events of hate speech are attributed to the BJP itself, often in the context of election rallies. While significant hate speech events took place in BJP-ruled states, in non-BJP-ruled states, the instances involved BJP leaders and the events happened in the context of BJP losing its legislative seat.

This could be explained by the fact that in BJP-ruled states, BJP leaders were involved in 10.6 percent of the total hate speech events, whereas in non-BJP-ruled states, 27.6 percent of BJP leaders were involved in hate speech events.

The report underlines the individuals responsible for hate speech events. This includes a pervasive network of Hindu right-wing influencers, leaders of Hindu right-wing groups and members of the BJP.

Just five speakers, including Hindu right-wing influencer Kajal Shingala alias Kajal Hindustani; Togadia; chief of Hindu Rashtra Sena Dhananjay Desai, chairman of Sudarshan News, Suresh Chavhanke; and BJP legislator from Telangana T. Raja Singh were responsible for 146 hate speech events.

These people have also been responsible for delivering ‘dangerous speeches’ which is a direct call for violence as per the report.

In particular, since October 7, 2023, when Israel launched a full-scale genocidal operation in Gaza in response to an attack by Hamas, 193 hate speech events have occurred in India. The Israel–Gaza flare-up was used to peddle anti-Muslim hate in India.

The report states that the predominant narrative surrounding the war aimed to stoke fear about Indian Muslims, with Hindu right-wing leaders insinuating that Muslims were inherently violent and therefore posed a threat to Hindus.

For instance, on October 29, 2023, religious leader Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati delivered a hate speech in Patna, where he spread disinformation that Hamas fighters had played “football” with the heads of Israeli victims.

He used reports of alleged sexual violence to imply that similar atrocities would befall Hindus in India unless they took up arms against Muslims.