The killing of a Hindu tailor by two Muslim men in Rajasthan, India has sparked chilling calls for revenge against the country’s already marginalized Muslim population.
The gruesome death of Kanhaiya Lal on June 28 has fueled the sectarian tensions that have long been encouraged by Hindu nationalist supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Lal’s Muslim assailants recorded themselves slitting his throat, AP reported, quoting police. They then posted a second video in which they accused him of insulting the Prophet Muhammad and threatened to kill Modi, too. Lal appeared to have been targeted because he seemed to express support of derogatory remarks made about the Prophet by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma in May, which sparked international condemnation as well as a demand from India’s Supreme Court that she apologize.
The reaction was immediate. Government officials temporarily shut down the internet and banned public gatherings to contain the ensuing religious unrest; the duo were arrested on terrorism charges. Muslim politicians and Islamic preachers swiftly condemned the killing. Indian home minister Amit Shah tweeted that federal police would thoroughly investigate “the involvement of any organization and international links.”
But in the days since, ‘Hindu Lives Matter’ has emerged as a rallying cry, particularly on social media, where the slogan took the form of a hashtag and was tweeted thousands of times. South Indian actress Pranitha Subhash posted a photo of herself on Instagram with the phrase. Political experts call that dangerous, risking the amplification of a heinous but isolated crime into an assertion of systemic violence against Hindus, who make up some 80% of India’s 1.2 billion people
“Just because two members of that community commit this type of crime you cannot paint the entire community with the same brush,” says Dhirendra Jha, a political journalist in India and author of Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva. “This is not good for Indian democracy.”
Prior to Modi’s election in 2014, elected governments had taken greater care to emphasize India’s religious diversity—with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other groups—as a virtue of its secular democracy. But rhetoric, policies and violence targeting Muslims, who account for some 14% of the population, have escalated dramatically under Modi. Between May 2015 and December 2018, Human Rights Watch reported attacks on at least 44 people—36 of them Muslims—and many of them led by so-called cow protection groups that often have ties to right-wing Hindu groups. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has bulldozed Muslim homes and businesses, propagated the “love jihad” conspiracy theory that Muslim men are trying to convert Hindu women to Islam, and chipped away at the political autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir.
“The thing with a message like Hindu Lives Matter, is that it has to be read within this broader infrastructure of messages that are calling for Muslim genocide,” says Mohan Dutta, professor at Massey University in New Zealand, who has researched anti-Muslim hate in India.
Dutta worked on a 2021 report about the experiences Muslims in India have with Islamophobic content on digital platforms. It found that, since Modi’s election victory in 2014 and 2019, “the hate on digital platforms in India and in the Indian diaspora has proliferated exponentially.”
“The content of digital hate driven by Hindutva,” the report notes, referring to an ideology promoting Hindu hegemony, “has been directed at India’s religious minorities, Muslims and Christians, as well as oppressed caste communities.”
Dutta says using language mirroring the Black Lives Matter slogan, which is rooted in organizing against racist structures, falsely suggests that Hindus are systematically oppressed in India. “It’s ironic that a majoritarian structure takes that hashtag to deploy hate towards India’s Muslim minority community, which has consistently been targeted by hate,” he says.
The Hindu Lives Matter slogan emerged at a time when hardline Hindus in powerful positions have openly called for a genocide of Muslims. Last year, a leading member of a right-wing Hindu political party said “”If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million (Muslims), then we will win…protect India, and make it a Hindu nation.” BJP’s Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath has frequently made violent remarks about Muslims, saying in 2017 “if they kill even one Hindu, we will kill 100.” “If you think about the various stages of genocide—from dehumanization to the actual calls for violence—what we are seeing right now in India, is that all of those stages are playing out,” Dutta says.
Angana Chatterji, a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley notes that the Rajasthan murder is horrible in its specifics, but has to be considered in the larger context of repeated targeting of unarmed, ordinary Muslims by Hindu nationalist violence. “Systemic violence by state institutions and Hindu vigilante groups against Muslims are bound to commence cycles of violence,” she says.
‘‘Hindu Lives Matter’ presumes those lives have been overlooked. Hindu lives have not been overlooked in a Hindu majoritarian state,” Chatterji says. “This is a revisionist fabrication of history and the present.”
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