AMIDST the jubilation as India celebrated its 71st anniversary of freedom from the British Raj last week, an atmosphere of fear that has been looming over the country has intensified. Linguistically violent social media trolls are rapidly defining not just the digital but the physical realm, with their vile words being replaced by batons and bullets. A sense of fear is shaping India today.
On Aug 13, two days before India’s independence day, outside the highly securitised zone of central Delhi, an unknown gunman attacked Umar Khalid who is a prominent student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Bullets were fired by the unknown person before he ran away from the spot. Khalid escaped unhurt, but the attack made his fears a reality. He had been speaking about this fear for a long time now, and for that reason jingoistic TV news channels turned him into their evening punching bag, calling him a ‘terrorist’ and telling him to ‘go to Pakistan’, all of this while the hateful social media campaign and threats against him continue.
“There is an atmosphere of fear in the country, and anybody who speaks against the government is threatened,” said Khalid, minutes after the attack, speaking at an event called Khauf Se Azaadi (freedom from fear) at the Constitution Club. Also at the event were the family members of those who had been lynched in the country’s recent years of mob violence. Later, in one of the interviews, Khalid said that the “real culprits are those who from their seats of power have been breeding an atmosphere of hatred, of bloodlust and fear. The real culprits are those who have provided an atmosphere of complete impunity for assassins and mob lynchers”. It was this fear he was going to speak about, as he had been, when he was attacked.
Hate-mongering in India threatens to silence all dissent.
There is certainly an atmosphere where no one can speak out against those who lynch people in the name of religion. Many like Khalid are today living under this fear and the intensity has only grown. Unsurprisingly, it was clearer when two people shared a video message claiming to have attacked Khalid for being ‘anti-national’. There was no longer any doubt over why someone had attempted to kill him. They wanted, as they claimed, to send an ‘independence day gift’.
In the Hindu faith, the cow is considered holy, and in recent years cow-related violence has been escalating. As per data compiled by IndiaSpend, over 34 people have been killed by mobs since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, in strikingly violent incidents in which minority communities are threatened or harmed in the name of respecting cows or proving nationalism. When a section of society comes out to speak against such hate crimes, their voices are muzzled.
One such silencing was of that Gauri Lankesh, a brave journalist who was shot dead at her residence in Bengaluru in September 2017 by unknown gunmen. She had been critical of the ongoing politics of hate and radical Hindutva agenda led by political parties. Her death was followed by threats to many others who openly speak against the changing social dynamics. “I was reminded of what happened to Gauri Lankesh. I thought that moment has arrived,” said Khalid, while speaking about the moment when the gun was pointed at him.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, where smartphones, fuelled by fast speed internet packages, are becoming increasingly handy to spread messages, what also gets shared is hate. WhatsApp has become a major tool for spreading fake news — disinformation that has resulted in many lynchings. Social media has become an intolerable space, with tech-savvy trolls ready to bring you down. Journalist Rana Ayyub was trolled to an extent that the United Nations’ human rights body said they were “highly concerned” that she was “at serious risk” over a deluge of hate messages she had received, including calls for her to be gang-raped and murdered.
Given the intensity with which mobs are taking over the streets, as the government stays silent, the same mobs will likely appear tomorrow with guns — like one person did for Khalid, even though he missed his target. But how long can a person escape unhurt from vigilante assassins who believe that anyone who is critical of India’s many institutionalised wrongs deserves death?
Many have called for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act against how the country is changing for the worse. But for him, as he said from the podium during his independence day address, “We are breaking chains, we are changing pictures; this is a new era, new India, we will write our own destiny.”
For Khalid and the many like him, the question (in his words) is: “Why is it that those who are hell-bent on polarising the country by hate-mongering against minorities and by felicitating mob lynchers are respected, revered and garlanded — and we who speak against hatred are villainised?”
The writer is a journalist and editor of The Kashmir Walla.
Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2018