Why you should care
The hatred displayed in these groups points to the social churn triggered by the new law.
Last week, when India’s home minister, Amit Shah, defended the country’s controversial new citizenship law, he dismissed concerns that it was targeting Muslims and asked the community not to have any fears.
Instead, he responded to an opposition leader’s comment by saying, “This country will not be free from Muslims even if you want it to be.” It’s a position Prime Minister Narendra Modi has echoed.
But away from the public glare, inside a series of India’s WhatsApp networks — many run directly or indirectly by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates — the messaging is clear and quite the opposite: that the law is a major step toward making India a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation) and ridding the country of Muslims.
Over the past week, an organized campaign has been mounted on these WhatsApp groups to stoke Islamophobia and hatred against Muslims and immigrants in the country, our investigation found. In contrast to Shah’s public utterances, a systematic flood of messages have sought to advertise the law as a tool to “kick Muslims out of India” and “halve India’s population, without any effort.”
These groups demonize the Muslim community through unverified statistics and data, call for violence against them and celebrate the prospect of Muslims losing citizenship after the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The groups are also abuzz with congratulatory messages for Modi, Shah and the BJP, even as they cast opposition parties as anti-Hindu. The citizenship law amendment expedites citizenship through naturalization for non-Muslim migrants fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The NRC aims to deport or detain all those who can’t prove they’re legal citizens.
Muslims form only 1 percent of those who chant pro-India slogans but 95 percent of those who chant anti-India slogans.
A hate message on a pro-BJP WhatsApp group
Over the past week, this author accessed 10 political WhatsApp groups run by BJP sympathizers and aides of its leaders. All these groups either have Modi’s name or photo, or are named after the BJP and its partner outfits. (The exact names are being shielded to protect the author’s access.)
In most of these groups, members forward texts, memes, photos and videos. Conversation is rare. Yet contrary to what Shah has said, a common theme echoing across a majority of the groups is that the new law and the NRC will help reduce India’s Muslim population — about 180 million.
They list a “four-step” process for India becoming a Hindu nation — starting with the new law, followed by the NRC, then another law to control population, ultimately followed by a uniform civil code that would eliminate separate civil laws for Muslims. The language employed in these posts is blatantly Islamophobic — the NRC is captioned as a “Check and Throw,” while the law for population control is captioned “No pig breeding.”
The messages justify their Islamophobia by throwing in unlikely statistics and making unverified claims. One message called Muslims a “burden” for the country, citing false statistics like the community comprises 45 patients of all patients in government hospitals (the government does not maintain such records) or that Muslims form 32 percent of all those incarcerated in India (they actually form 15 percent of all prisoners, proportionate to their population).
The “statistics” make dubious claims — “Muslims form only 1 percent of those who chant pro-India slogans but 95 percent of those who chant anti-India slogans.”
The messages and memes use this so-called data to argue that a “Muslim-free” India would only be beneficial to the country. One meme even makes calculations about the number of trees that could be planted by reclaiming all Muslim burial grounds.
Another chunk of messages fuels anger and violence against Muslims by claiming that the community’s population in India is much larger than it actually is. Messages across these groups argue that Hindus should “never forgive” the opposition Congress party, which has ruled India for most of its independent history. The BJP accuses the party of appeasing Muslims for their votes. The messages attribute fake quotes to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
They go on to castigate non-BJP voters, asking them to shun voting for the opposition parties. “Because of your vote, these [opposition] MPs are supporting jihadis openly; only the BJP is standing like a rock with Hindus,” one says. Many messages even ask voters to not consider any other issues like the economy or unemployment, but instead back the BJP for its “pro-Hindu” agenda.
What makes such systematic messaging dangerous is the enormous reach that WhatsApp has in India. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market, with more than 400 million users in the country. In 2017, the country had 468 million smartphone users, which means over 85 percent of them are using WhatsApp.
WhatsApp disinformation has often assumed dangerous and even fatal proportions — more than 25 people have been lynched in attacks driven by rumors circulated on WhatsApp of child kidnappers being on the prowl.
The BJP has been early and efficient in harnessing this growing tide of users — before the national elections earlier this year, it appointed 900,000 members for the more than 920,000 electoral booths in the country, whose role revolved around forming WhatsApp groups among local voters.
In February, soon after a suicide bomb attack on a convoy of paramilitary personnel in Pulwama, a similar flood of Islamophobic disinformation was unleashed on WhatsApp. The messages tried to stoke anger against Muslims, especially Kashmiri Muslims, and fueled warmongering. Soon after, Kashmiri students across the country were assaulted and evicted from their rental properties.
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