Two Rohingya refugees in India have filed a public interest litigation [PIL] case with the Delhi High Court seeking its intervention in curbing anti-Rohingya hate content on Facebook, and now members of the community have said that India’s social media users have called them "terrorists," "jihadists" and "illegal immigrants," among other derogatory terms, and sought their expulsion from the country.
The petition became public last week, and it calls for India’s regulators to monitor Facebook and remove "hate speech and harmful content that originates in India from its platform and is directed toward the Rohingya community."
"Both the internal documents from Facebook and external reports available have repeatedly shown that misinformation, fake news, hate speech and politically divisive content [on the platform, directed against the Rohingya community] have resulted in real-world violence, both in India and abroad," the petition reads.
On Tuesday, as the case came up for hearing, Colin Gonsalves, a counsel representing the Rohingya petitioners, said that an "ecosystem" of the platform "magnified hate speech through its algorithm" to enhance its business.
"The platform was a propagator of hateful content targeting the Rohingya community, he said … Hate speech is active propaganda," Gonsalves said.
Arvind Datar, appearing before the court for Facebook, opposed the petition and asserted the platform already had done a substantial amount of work to prevent its abuse, following consultations with the federal government.
"The offending posts that the PIL mentions have already been taken down [by the Facebook authority]," Datar said.
"They are saying we are propagating hate. This is not true."
Fleeing violence and persecution in Buddhist majority Myanmar, the Muslim Rohingya for decades had been crossing over to neighboring Bangladesh and other countries, including India.
Although India views all Rohingya refugees as "illegal immigrants" — having not signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention — the community mostly lived peacefully in the country for decades.
Hindu nationalist threats
The refugees began facing resistance in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, came to power in 2014. Over the past six years, a few hundred Rohingya have been arrested for illegal entry into India and dozens of them also have been deported to Myanmar.
According to a factsheet released by the U.N. refugee agency the UNHCR in November 2022, more than 21,000 Rohingya refugees are living in India.
The refugees and rights activists say that anti-Rohingya sentiment in Indian society has shot up and members of the community have been violently targeted in the past few years, mostly because of hate posts and misinformation about the community increasingly surfacing on social media. Activists also note that the anti-Rohingya hate campaign in India is largely driven by activists and supporters of Hindu right-wing groups.
"The social media hate campaign using Facebook, X [formerly Twitter] and other online platforms have criminalized the community in the eyes of many Indians, resulting in an increased number of violent threats for us. Unfortunately, the Facebook authority has failed to take down the hate content that promoted misinformation about our community," Sabber Kaw Min, an India-based Rohingya refugee and founder-director of Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, told VOA.
"Some years ago, an anti-Rohingya hate campaign by extremist Buddhists and the government in Myanmar led to a brutal military crackdown against the community, forcing over 700,000 Rohingya to flee the country in 2017," Min said. "We fear being hounded out of India again because of this ongoing social media hate campaign."
Activists point out that at least some of the outbreaks of fire in Rohingya colonies in India in recent years apparently were hate attacks.
After a blaze gutted a Rohingya colony in Delhi in 2018, a leader of the youth wing of the BJP boastfully said that his group was behind the arson. "Yes, we burnt the houses of Rohingya terrorists," the BJP youth leader tweeted.
In the petition, the two refugees filed in the High Court, 39 anti-Rohingya posts and comments were cited. Originating in India, they were in English, Hindi and Bengali.
Threats of violence
In one post, the Indian Army was requested to "wipe out all Bangladeshis and Rohingya from the Indian soil." The petition also made note of a video in which T. Raja Singh, one politician from Modi’s BJP, said that "Rohingya Muslims should be shot dead."
Legal experts and activists say the petition is especially relevant because the abhorrent posts on Facebook have perpetuated hate against not only the Rohingya, but also other minorities in the country.
Delhi-based lawyer Kawalpreet Kaur, representing the Rohingya petitioners, said that the petition was filed "keeping in view the role Facebook has been playing in India promoting divisive content against minorities, especially the Rohingya community."
"These posts are originating in India and have tremendous potential for causing real-time violence," Kaur told VOA.
"We aim to hold entities like Facebook responsible so that they don't selectively apply their community standards and not omit their responsibility when it comes to the protection of minority communities."
Executive Director of Australia-based Victim Advocates International Eva Buzo, supporting the Rohingya community’s legal fight against Facebook, said certain features of Facebook like feed ranking and "virality" promote "misinformation and harmful content, by Facebook’s own admission."
"The petitioners are bravely standing up to a powerful American company that has caused immeasurable damage around the world …" Buzo said, citing the virulent content proliferating online against the Rohingya leading up to the 2017 violence.
"The petitioners have seen what Facebook is capable of when it is left unchecked," she said.
"This petition is not seeking protection only for the Rohingya, but asking the court to order Facebook to cease using these features that are harmful to all minorities," Buzo said.