NEW DELHI: In a work of solidarity, activists and researchers from three countries came together on January 26 to discuss a paper on the experiences of Muslims in India on digital platforms which sponsor anti-Muslim hate.

The study by Mohan Dutta of Massey University, New Zealand builds on 200 hours of social media observations and interviews with over 1,000 Muslim Indians to suggest ways to unmake the ‘broader global Islamophobic digital infrastructure’ thats working in tandem with governments and corporate media to perpetrate ‘offline violence’ on Muslims around the world.

Dutta teaches journalism and communications at Massey where he is also director of Care, the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation. Joining the discussion were scholars, doctors and activists Sapna Samant, Anjum Rahman, Ashok Swain and Haroon Kasim who shared insights about the effects of online hate on the well-being of targeted communities and their relations with others.

‘Hate content threatens social cohesion and democratic processes, and at the same time, adversely impacts the overall sense of security of those that are targeted with hate. Hate erodes trust, and thus, depletes democracies.’

Presenting his paper Dutta outlined the cascading effects of hate by drawing on research conducted with people from African-American, Indigenous and Minority Religion communities.

. Hate is known to impact the health of people targeted, with damaging effects on their mental health and increased incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure abnormalities, cancer incidence, infant mortality and morbidity.

. It also leads to physical violence, as in lynchings and attacks in public places, and sexual violence, ‘a key instrument of perpetuating gendered power and control serving the purposes of racism’ and other ideologies.

. It erodes trust between people and communities. Hate also depletes the social capital of the targets, hurting their participation in community life and everyday forms of social engagement. Hand in hand with ‘ecosystems of disinformation’ it depletes democracies, by eroding the ability of citizens to participate.

. In the extreme, hate leads to forced displacement, ethnic cleansing and genocide. ‘Myanmar is an example of digital hate being a key ingredient in genocide: the deployment of tropes to kill, murder, erase entire communities,’ said Dutta.

The researchers’ online ethnography conducted November–December 2021 found ‘unprecedented levels of hate on digital platforms’ in that period, and a ‘preponderance in the volume of content targeting Muslims’.

Roughly half the 1,056 survey respondents were women. Most were below 45 years of age and a substantial proportion were educated and in the ‘middle rung’ of incomes in India. This first round of surveys was conducted in English.

39% of respondents said they had been called violent names for Muslims in the past year. 40% said they had been targeted on social media as a result of being Muslim. 64% had seen content blaming Muslims for the pandemic. 59% had seen content claiming Muslims target Hindu women for marriage. 60% saw content inciting violence against Muslims. 55% had come across content comparing Muslims to pigs and dogs.

Dutta stressed the real effects of this deployment of online violence. In the wake of false claims that ‘Muslim security guards and deliverymen may spread corona’ - as spread by corporate media and government during the Tablighi Jamaat - ‘we witnessed hospitals denying Muslims care as a result of the spread of this trope.’

‘The stigmatization and blaming of Muslims as super-spreaders based on misinformation resulted in some neighbourhoods attacking and banning Muslims and some healthcare organizations denying treatment to Muslims. Mainstream media repeatedly circulated misinformation, claiming that Tablighi Jamaat members were coronavirus superspreaders. This disinformation fed and complemented the disinformation spread on digital platforms,’ the study found.

Tracking the spread of the #LoveJihad lie, anti-immigrant propaganda and the shared use of symbols like Pepe the Frog, the study uncovered a ‘broader global Islamophobic digital infrastructure that flows from far-right, white supremacist, anti-immigrant spaces in Europe to the Islamophobic discursive space in Myanmar, and the anti-Muslim hate in India.’

It cites a recent paper called ‘Protecting Buddhist Women from Muslim Men: ‘Love Jihad’ and the Rise of Islamophobia in Myanmar’ to argue that ‘circulation of the #LoveJihaad trope has resulted in violence directed at Muslims, including contributing to the genocide in Myanmar.’

It found that ‘threats of sexual violence targeting women are carried out alongside dehumanizing content depicting Muslims as animals.’

And in the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act, it found that ‘discourse of the Muslim migrant, and particularly the illegal Muslim migrant, has proliferated on digital platforms. 60% of the respondents reported coming across content on digital platforms stating Muslim immigrants will take over India.’

‘Hate flows across borders,’ said Dutta, pointing to this version of White Supremacist favourite Pepe the Frog, now coloured saffron, with an Om on his cap and Jai Shri Ram around his arm. It is captioned ‘Average detention camp in Hindu Rashtra’.

Dutta said that his interview respondents agreed that ‘a lot of this content is about framing everyday Muslims as illegal immigrants,’ allowing Islamophobia to piggyback on the hatred of immigrants well established in many communities.

In the Indian context of CAA–NRC, he described it as a way to ‘disenfranchise Muslims’, making ‘use of anti-immigrant hate by turning Muslims into immigrants.’

The study also found that exposure to hate content ‘directly impacts the sense of everyday well being, the sense of security’ experienced by the targets. A significant share of people who encountered such content reported increased feelings of insecurity and worry.

Besides the health and interpersonal effects, Dutta said that ‘more research is needed on the perception of security and how it impacts overarching social cohesion’ – and ‘peace.’

Mir Suhail

‘The anti-Muslim hate on digital platforms reflects the broader political ideology of Hindutva that is rooted in the othering of Muslims,’ the paper argues. ‘The organizing logics of a monolithic state (rashtra), one people (jati), and a monolithic culture (sanskriti) forms the ideological apparatus of Hindutva.’

‘Since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and subsequent electoral victory in 2019, the hate on digital platforms in India and in the Indian diaspora has proliferated exponentially.’

Online ‘narratives of hate are often centered on specific events, policy decisions made by the ruling BJP, and dissenting responses to Hindutva.’

Citing laws against interfaith marriage, it argues that lies like #LoveJihad have been ‘legitimized through the policy structures pushed by Hindutva.’

In his presentation Dutta observed that content targeting people from non-Hindu religions is often ‘intertwined with content that targets India’s oppressed caste communities, Dalits.’

At lower left, besides the Jai Bhim shirt to indicate Ambedkarite views, and flies to lower the threatened man’s caste, his statement ‘I am a moolniwasi’ (first resident) is used to suggest Indigeneity. This is unlike ‘Savarnas’ (centre) who claim descent from male Vedic speaking immigrants, or Whites in the settler colonies

Responding first to Dutta’s research was Sapna Samant, a general practitioner and activist with Hindus for Human Rights and the Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians.

Like the other speakers from New Zealand, Samant began with an invocation and introduction in the Indigenous Maori language, saying ‘this is the way we introduce ourselves over here,’ acknowledging that theirs is the land she stands on, and stating the importance of ‘learning from the struggles of the colonised, Indigenous people over here.’

Samant discussed the Islamophobia in India before 2014.

‘This is not something recent, it has been ongoing since before India became independent.. and it’s not just the overtly right wing Hindus that have caused this to happen, but also I would say the Congress party with their soft Hindutva for a really really long time.’

‘They may have deemed the RSS a terrorist organisation twice, but still the soft Hindutva that took place and was perpetuated in the everyday lives of Indians, and the stereotyping of Muslims, so many, so many instances.. The Congress is equally responsible for where we are today.. It is not just the Hindu Mahasabha or RSS or Savarkar’s teachings that have come through the generations.’

Samant argued that capitalist reform of the Indian economy had helped foster hate.

‘When Manmohan Singh liberalised the country in 1992 and we went full mode neoliberal, the middle class anxieties that grew with material wealth, there was no place to anchor those anxieties except in sort-of harking back to some mythical Bharat where things were much better and everybody was rich, etc etc.

‘When you gather, you want this Western material wealth, but there is no way where you can work with those anxieties, that come from not only accumulating all this wealth.. Western stuff is really really bad but you still want it, but you don’t know how to deal with it, and so you just dig in, and that cognitive dissonance just grows and grows.. and you take it out in hate.’

‘And then of course the Hindutva long term project, which has been going on since before independence.. It’s just really really sad but generations of Indians have been indoctrinated – Hindus have been indoctrinated – to believe in this very specific singular monolithic worldview,’ she said.

‘The neural pathways that develop in the brain of a child, of an infant have just been so hardened in one specific way that there’s no flexibility over there.’

How do we help change their minds? How are they being brought up, what are they told, how do we reach out to them and their teachers?

Samant said this bigotry was alienating Muslims from their fellow Indians, including in the New Zealand diaspora.

‘We know Muslims, particularly Indian Muslims over here who feel alienated within the community, who have no place where they can be Indian.’

Like other speakers she mentioned the Christchurch attacks, saying the New Zealand government was not acting on behalf of the targeted communities.

‘I don’t think the New Zealand government has done enough to shine a light on this. It’s all about mitigation for their own selves. It’s not about the community, it’s not about people, and so going in there and questioning the real Islamophobia at grassroots level is just not happening.

‘And so the Indian Muslims over here find themselves stuck between this alienation from their own community where they should be embraced, and this happening with the government.’

Samant thought that studies like Dutta’s should be extended to the diaspora, ‘wherever Indians are,’ and that ‘we should be researching Indian Muslims who live in Western spaces and how they are affected’ by digital hate.

This would be a more fruitful response than ‘Words. The Ministry of Ethnic Communities throwing words like social cohesion – what does that even mean when our own Indian community, there’s so much discrimination going on within the Indian community?’

In 2013 prime minister hopeful Narendra Modi was asked how he felt about the Gujarat violence in 2002. He replied that if a driver is driving the car and a son of a dog (kutte ka baccha) comes under the wheels even the passenger will feel hurt. Media reports sanitised the insult to ‘puppy’, as though to remind us that minor just means child, and if you say minority you might as well say second-class citizen

The last response discussed here was made by Anjum Rahman, human rights and anti-racist activist, founding member of the New Zealand Islamic Women’s Council and the Hamilton Ethnic Women’s Centre.

Rahman began with a personal introduction. Born in a village in Azamgarh zila Uttar Pradesh, her parents were both born in the district. A family tree her father made has several generations all from the Azamgarh area. She was 2 years old when they left the village, and 5 when they reached New Zealand Aotearoa.

‘My first trip back at age 12 was really a culture shock.’ Since then they went back frequently to the village and later to Aligarh to stay with her in-laws.

‘I was in India on 6 December 1992 when the Babri Masjid fell.. I remember it because of the fear that we felt. We had full martial law, there were black flags flying everywhere, and I remember the riots. Luckily because we were under martial law there were not riots in Aligarh, but we could see the news and we would hear the experiences of riots and violence that were happening in other parts of the country.

‘I wrote about my experience in the Spinoff website with this piece called The Saffron Sari, which was about travelling to Delhi in the immediate aftermath of those riots, the police escort to the train station, the eerie emptiness on the streets and the station.’

Of the New Zealand context Rahman recalled, ‘In the 1970s and until relatively recently there has been no tension between communities within the Indian diaspora here: we have coexisted and gotten along really well. In fact when we shifted here to Kirikiriroa Hamilton, there were so few Muslims in our region that our closest family friends were Hindu Indians. And I remember how we would always be there for each other in difficult times, in happy times, in illness and death, and you know there was so much love, so much respect - and outside of our own circle there were some comments that were concerning but they were very few and far between.

‘For the local Muslim community our environment here in general you know - there were certain things that were happening in the global space that were affecting us here: the bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the resulting War on Terror, Bali bombings, Danish cartoons, and more recently Daesh and the situation in Iraq and Syria which has been awful and horrendous.

‘Now alongside these events that were creating strong negative press, negative commentary against the Muslim community we saw the rise of online platforms, and with these platforms were the algorithms that led to the viral spread of hate messages. You have algorithms related to the likes and shares on various social media platforms, you have recommendation algorithms, whether it’s YouTube or Google or other platforms that are recommending material.’

Rahman described the hijacking of these engines by apps like Tek Fog. ‘The way that it was used to hijack Twitter and Facebook and Whatsapp with automated retweets and auto-sharing, spamming of existing hashtags to create fake trends, it allowed the generation of temporary email addresses to create fake accounts – all this was on Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Telegram, and they were targeting inactive Whatsapp accounts and using these to impersonate people.

‘The impact of these hateful messages has been so much stronger and higher, and it has created this environment where people have been taken in by this – a lot of times it’s hate material or it’s misinformation – and then that has had much more of an impact compared to previous times. I mean we still have things like talkback radio, newspaper columns and opinion pieces that had impact, but the online space has been even stronger.’

Rahman shared some examples of Facebook groups for Indians in New Zealand where members known to the community were openly posting bigotry, and group administrators were removing comments or blocking users who disagreed, ‘leaving only one sided commentary’.

‘And this was just one example. There was So Much of this kind of commentary’

She shared that many users posting hateful comments were ‘well known professionals who were happy to have their names next to this kind of posting.’

In groups meant for the Indian diaspora she described ‘the framing of Muslims and the Muslim community as opposed to Hindu communities that’s ridiculing,’ and ‘other kinds of memes that will create a negative feeling.’

‘And each one of these comments is not.. I mean each one is bad but it’s not terrible, but when there’s so much, and there was so much material.. Nonsense, horrible material, one sided, calling us cockroaches and so on, dehumanisation: we were seeing all this kind of stuff happen here.’

‘So we can see that what is happening in India is seeping into New Zealand.’

Rahman described the effects of targeting on access to public services.

‘The people posting this kind of commentary are in Auckland City Council, government and other places. When these people are making decisions about us, about our children’s education, about policy and funding decisions…’

‘We expressed some other concerns to the government about White supremacists and White nationalists, who have a documented history of trying to inflitrate law enforcement, the armed forces and the teaching profession.’

‘The other impacts are not getting access to employment: people are making decisions based on these false stereotypes.

‘I’ve done a lot of work in the area of family violence and sexual violence, and we know that emotional abuse, and the emotional impacts of all such emotional and psychological violence, because it’s still violence even though it isn’t often treated as seriously as physical violence, it can be even worse in many instances.

‘For us there’s two things: low level material, but the volume of it is so much that it creates an environment that’s very hostile, or you can have just one or two instances, but the material is so damaging that it can have a long lasting impact.

‘Other impacts are around fears for our safety. Overseas we have seen that online harm then translates into offline harm, and we’ve been talking about lynchings, beatings, killings… And the thing is that if we as community members speak in any way at all about any of these impacts, the volume of the pushback!

They will say ‘using these apps like the Tek Fog app that we’re playing the victim card, that we don’t support free speech, that we cant handle criticism… All of this pushback, the aim is actually to silence us, to marginalise us, and at the extreme end it is about ethnic cleansing. And it’s also a very effective tool for political power to create an enemy that’s perceived to have little ability to push back.

‘Another silencing tactic is claims of Hinduphobia. And I want to make absolutely clear here that we have absolutely no beef with the Hindu religion, with people that follow Hinduism. But the material we’ve seen has been… some of it explicitly violent, some of it explicitly hateful. These are not just discussions of disagreements, these are full-on attacks, and full-on attacks at volume.

‘And it’s interesting that they criticise us for not wanting free speech, when actually all of these tactics are trying to remove our free speech and our presence online, and in other spaces.

‘Obviously the impact in India is worse: in which we’re seeing entrenched poverty, exclusion, erasure of cultural and historic heritage, historical revisionism – But what we’re also seeing with the diaspora is interference with elections. And definitely I’ve seen evidence in Canada and the UK, and there is a danger that it will happen here.

‘People can bypass our electoral law by the use of encrypted messaging apps like Whatsapp or Signal and so on. And many people here from the diaspora communities don’t understand local electoral laws, so they don’t even know that they can complain to the Electoral Commission about some of this material that is going around.

‘So what we want to see is: We need our authorities and our elected representatives to take this very seriously. Just as we were warning about White Supremacist hate before the Christchurch mosque attacks, we know that this is also a significant threat that needs to be addressed.

‘We know that there is a significant proportion of resources from intelligence agencies and the police put into surveilling the Muslim community, particularly prior to May 2018, and we need to know that these issues that we have been raising for a couple of years now: We need to know that they are going to be taken equally seriously.

‘It is not an over there problem, something that’s happening in another country. It’s a problem that is here. And it’s one that needs to be addressed here.’

Part 2 follows