‘Serious job’: How a collective in election-bound India fights hate speech

Hate Speech Beda trains volunteers from across the southern state of Karnataka on using the law to combat hate crimes. It’s an uphill battle, but they’re not giving up.

Indian Muslim women shout slogans against banning Muslim girls wearing hijab from attending classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka during a protest in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Indian women shout slogans during a protest in Mumbai against banning Muslim girls from wearing hijab in classrooms at some schools in the southern state of Karnataka [File: Rafiq Maqbool/AP]

Bengaluru, India – As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a grand Hindu temple in the northern Uttar Pradesh state on January 22, a crowd of about 100,000 devotees gathered at a mausoleum nearly 2,000km (1,242 miles) away.

The sombre congregation at Mulabagilu, a small town in the Kolar district of the southern state of Karnataka, was called to mark the Urs (death anniversary) of the 12th-century Sufi saint Hazrat Baba Haider Ali, revered mainly by Muslims but also by other communities in the area. A procession taken through the town, about 100km (62 miles) from the state capital Bengaluru, is the highlight of the annual five-day event.

Shaikh Jaffer Sadiq, who runs a hotel in Mulabagilu, and his friends were preparing for the procession this year when they learned about a photo of the mausoleum – called a dargah in Urdu and Persian – morphed with images of the Hindu god Ram and a saffron flag doing the rounds on social media.

“One of my friends told me about the social media post which had angered the Muslim community. It was a deliberate attempt to hurt the sentiments of Muslims,” Sadiq, 39, told Al Jazeera. A young Hindu man was accused of being behind the incident.

To defuse mounting tensions, Sadiq and his friends met the members of the mausoleum’s management and advised them to file a police complaint against the accused man. “After a police complaint was filed by the dargah members, the Hindu boy was called to the police station and given a strict warning before being let off,” he said. The police made the accused delete the social media post.

The incident made Sadiq, born and raised in Mulabagilu, remember a different, more peaceful time in his hometown, when Hindus and Muslims lived together in apparent harmony. That spirit of coexistence, he says, has cracked in recent years with the rise of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially after the right-wing party returned to power nationally in 2019.

As India votes again in a long drawn-out general election, Sadiq wanted to do what he could to combat hate speech and attempts to polarise the society. Parts of Karnataka voted on April 26, and the rest of the state goes to the polls on Tuesday.

In February, Sadiq went to Bengaluru to attend a workshop of Hate Speech Beda, or Campaign Against Hate Speech, a collective founded in 2020 by a group of lawyers, academics and activists to track, identify, catalogue and fight incidents of hate speech.

Hate Speech Beda India
A poster pointing out the main points to counter hate speech [Courtesy of Hate Speech Beda]

The collective approaches authorities, urging them to act on their complaints. It also does advocacy and conducts workshops to train people in identifying and reporting hate speech.

Its members know they face an uphill battle – especially in a state that has witnessed a spike in inter-religious tension, and where the BJP has been accused of pushing Islamophobic tropes during the country’s ongoing election.

How the collective works

When Sadiq reached the workshop held in a decrepit Bengaluru building, he saw about 50 other attendees huddled on plastic chairs in a hall. A large screen on one of the walls read: “How to fight hate speech?”

Hate Speech Beda representatives kicked off the day with a brief tutorial and panel discussion on what hate speech is, who spreads it and why, how it drives religious tensions and its social, political and economic impact on Muslims as well as other marginalised communities.

Among the audience were members of various rights and Muslim organisations in Karnataka and other Indian states, including Gujarat, where official records say more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in a days-long massacre when Modi was the state chief minister in 2002. Estimates by independent groups suggest close to 2,000 people were killed in the riots. Modi has denied any responsibility for the killings and India’s Supreme Court has exonerated him.

“If not stopped, hate will disintegrate the country,” said Mohammed Yusuf Kanni of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind Karnataka, a prominent Muslim organisation, as he addressed the workshop.

Hate Speech Beda India
A poster at the Bengaluru workshop [Courtesy of Hate Speech Beda]

Mujahid Nafees, the convener of the Gujarat-based Minority Coordination Committee, said that as hate spreads, so does ghettoisation. He cited the example of Juhapura, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s biggest city, where the community became further ghettoised after the 2002 violence.

Nafees lives in Juhapura. “People prefer to stay in ghettos for their safety. It has its advantages but it pushes for a further marginalisation of Muslims,” he said.

Mamatha Yajaman, a women’s rights activist in Karnataka, said hate speech disproportionately affects women, especially from vulnerable Muslim and Dalit communities. Dalits fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have faced centuries of discrimination.

The collective insisted that the best way to fight hate was to approach the police and register criminal cases against accused individuals. Participants were briefed about various sections of the penal code under which cases related to hate speech could be filed.

An hour before they broke for lunch – a simple meal of rice, sambar and mixed vegetable curry – the participants split into groups to brainstorm ideas and processes to combat hate speech.

Hate Speech Beda India
Participants at a workshop in Bengaluru conducted by Hate Speech Beda [Courtesy of Hate Speech Beda]

Sadiq told Al Jazeera he joined the workshop to understand the laws involving hate crimes better.

“We are ordinary people. Our life revolves around earning a decent livelihood and looking after our families. The authorities should fight hate speech and hate crimes. But I can’t sit quiet and see my community being victimised only because we are a minority,” he said.

Activist Karibisappa M from Davanagere, the city headquarters of the district by the same name, about 260km (161 miles) from Bengaluru, said the rise in religious polarisation in his district had “astonished” him.

At least 18 incidents of communal violence were recorded there between 2019 and 2022, according to state government data. Overall, the state recorded 163 cases of such violence in the same period, when the BJP governed it. The Congress Party, nationally in the opposition, returned to power in Karnataka in 2023.

“Davanagere has become a communal hotbed. As a conscientious citizen, I have often joined protest rallies denouncing Hindu-Muslim tensions. I didn’t know what else to do until I came to know about the Hate Speech Beda. I came here to find better ways to deal with the menace,” he told Al Jazeera.

Why was the collective formed?

Hate Speech Beda member Vinay Sreenivasa said the collective came into being in the aftermath of nationwide protests against a controversial citizenship law passed towards the end of 2019 by the Modi government, and a hate campaign against Muslims during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Tens of thousands of people hit the streets to oppose the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which fast-tracks Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees who came to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh before 2015 due to “religious persecution” in those Muslim-majority countries.

Despite critics saying the law, by keeping Muslims out of its purview, violated India’s secular constitution, it was enforced in March 2024, ahead of the election. Many Muslims fear the law, coupled with a National Register of Citizens proposed by the BJP, could be used to further marginalise them.

In February 2020, Hindu mobs in the capital New Delhi attacked the anti-CAA protesters, leading to clashes in which more than 50 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. Dozens of mosques and homes were torched in one of the worst religious riots in the city in decades.

Days after the riots, the world was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tablighi Jamaat, a prominent Muslim missionary movement, was accused by Hindu groups and a section of mainstream Indian media of deliberately spreading the virus, leading to the arrest of several members of its members. Muslim vendors selling vegetables and fruits on roadsides were attacked for allegedly spitting on their produce to spread the virus.

It was against this backdrop that the Bengaluru residents formed a collective that challenged hate. Today, Hate Speech Beda has nearly 120 members in its WhatsApp group, at least 15 of them volunteering on a daily basis. It also coordinates with other progressive organisations and grassroots groups across Karnataka.

Hate Speech Beda India
The members of Hate Speech Beda [Courtesy of Hate Speech Beda]

Lawyer Manavi Atri, a member of Hate Speech Beda, said the initial days were challenging.

“We were new to the task and didn’t know what to expect. Despite being lawyers, we had not engaged in such cases before. There was a degree of uncertainty about the kind of relief we would get. We had to be patient with the process,” she said.

Among the first cases the collective took up was the media vilification campaign against Tablighi Jamaat. At least three news channels were reprimanded and fined by the authorities following the Beda’s complaints against them.

“Such cases take months. Once we file a complaint, we doggedly follow them up with authorities over phone calls and emails,” said Shilpa Prasad, also a lawyer and Hate Speech Beda member. She added that they give elaborate submissions for arguments and objections when the cases reach the court.

Atri said the collective has filed about a dozen complaints with the police and other regulatory bodies this year. Among them was a case involving Hindu right-wing groups and a local news channel.

In February, the Hindu groups alleged that a nurse in a government hospital in Karnataka’s Kalburgi district had forcefully converted a Hindu patient to Christianity. A mob barged into the house of the woman, assaulted her and hurled casteist slurs at her. Videos of the attack were run on a local channel, which also accused the nurse of religious conversion.

“The channel did not bother to verify facts. It did not speak to the woman or her neighbours. The channel merely echoed the voice of the right-wing groups. By doing so, it fanned communal tensions between Hindus and Christians,” Atri told Al Jazeera.

Atri said the “biggest struggle” for the collective is to convince the police to file a formal report (called first information report or FIR) in cases involving hate speech. “We have to convince the police to take up the cases, which is unfortunate,” she said.

Hate Speech Beda India
A member of the collective addressing participants at the workshop [Courtesy of Hate Speech Beda]

‘Victims of hate’

Karnataka is the only southern Indian state where the Hindu nationalist BJP has been able to make significant inroads, forming its first-ever government there in 2007. The party’s critics say that since then, the state – otherwise an economic powerhouse that is the capital of India’s information technology, biotech and startup ecosystems – has witnessed a surge in hate speech and attacks.

Towards the end of 2021, the then BJP government in Karnataka banned female Muslim students from wearing the hijab inside classrooms. Several Hindu students staged rallies to support the ban, which remains in place even under the current Congress government, despite new Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah announcing that it would be revoked.

Addressing the Beda workshop in Bengaluru, a 50-year-old Christian lawyer from coastal Karnataka – a BJP stronghold – said hate campaigns by Hindu groups have ” created an atmosphere of fear” in the region. He did not want to reveal his name for fear of reprisal.

“I have been physically attacked by right-wing goons and trolled on social media for my opinions. I prefer to work quietly,” said the lawyer who works for a child rights organisation, which he says will be “unfairly targeted if I speak openly and unabashedly against the BJP’s communal politics”.

But, he added, “we can’t let our children become victims of hate”.

BJP spokesman Narendra Rangappa, an orthopaedic surgeon by profession, rejected allegations that the party provided tacit support to hate speech for political gains. “It is a political narrative shaped by the Congress against us,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We never support hate speech or crime against any community, religion, caste or gender. Calling us hatemongers is an insult to Indian voters who have elected the BJP to power twice since 2014,” he said.

Rangappa added that if any BJP leader was charged with fanning religious hatred, “the law should take its course as we don’t support such behaviour”.

“In fact, our party’s motto is encapsulated in PM Modi’s popular slogan: Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas [unity for all, development for all, trust of all],” he said.

But as recently as May 4, the state BJP posted an animated video on X claiming that Muslims, backed by the Congress, were plotting to take over government benefits provided to traditionally marginalised caste groups.

And a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in January said at least 84 instances of religious conflict occurred in Karnataka’s coastal districts last year, 44 of them listed under hate speech.

In February, a report by the India Hate Lab, a United States-based research group, documented about 700 hate speeches in the country in 2023.

None of this is surprising, political analyst and author N K Mohan Ram told Al Jazeera. He blamed the BJP and its politics for deepening “hatred and division”.

“A sustained negative campaign against any community, like the one against Muslims by right-wing groups, is disastrous for the country as it leads to marginalisation, dehumanisation and violence against the targeted group,” said Ram, who is also the author of Alienation of Muslims in the 21st Century.

The members of Hate Speech Beda say they will not give up. During the Bengaluru workshop, Atri was nursing a leg injury from a road accident. She needed a walker to move around. But the pain, she stressed, was worth enduring.

“Fighting hate is a serious job and it can’t stop,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera