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US watchdog documents hundreds of India election rallies targeting Muslims

People queue up to vote outside a polling booth during the fifth round of multi-phase national election in Howrah, India, May 20, 2024.
People queue up to vote outside a polling booth during the fifth round of multi-phase national election in Howrah, India, May 20, 2024.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stirred controversy with his anti-Muslim remarks since Indians began casting ballots in the country's parliamentary elections last month.

But it's not just Modi trafficking in controversial rhetoric about Muslims; top members of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been echoing similar sentiment as the party seeks a historic third term in power.

In the four weeks since the polls opened on April 19, Hindutva Watch, a U.S.-based watchdog, has documented hundreds of campaign rallies featuring the BJP's "star campaigners" and candidates delivering incendiary speeches targeting Muslims.

Hindutva Watch founder Raqib Hameed Naik said that in addition to Modi, the party's list of prominent campaigners includes Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, BJP National President Jagat Prakash Nadda and the chief ministers of several large states. Hindutva refers to the BJP's Hindu nationalist ideology.

"They're the ones at the core of the entire thing," Naik said in an interview with VOA.

Largest election in world

India's six-week election, considered the largest of its kind in the world, pits the BJP against a broad coalition of opposition parties. Voting runs until June 1, and the results will be announced on June 4.

Modi sparked a firestorm on April 21 when he warned supporters that if the opposition Indian National Congress came to power, it would redistribute India's wealth among "infiltrators" and "those who have more children."

The word "infiltrator," once used for Bengali refugees, is often employed by right-wing Hindu nationalists to label all of India's 200 million Muslims as outsiders. Muslims are sometimes called "child breeders," a baseless stereotype used to fan demographic fears.

Understood in this context, Modi's comments were panned by opposition parties and civil rights groups. But in the weeks since, they've been picked up and echoed by other BJP politicians in what experts call the "elite effect."

Naik, an exiled Kashmiri Muslim journalist, founded Hindutva Watch in 2021. In the years since, it has emerged as a respected repository of hate speech and hate crime in India, its work cited by mainstream news outlets.

Though Hindutva has documented nearly 3,000 instances of hate speech and hate crime, Naik said the election-related vitriol seen this year is without precedent.

"I have never seen this kind of inflammatory, hateful election campaign at the national level targeting Muslim minorities," Naik said.

Spokespeople for the BJP in New Delhi and the Indian Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated email requests for comment. VOA has reached out to the BJP's U.S. lobbying arm for comment.

Last week, Modi sought to address the controversy over his "infiltrators" remark. Speaking with a local broadcaster, he denied saying "Muslims have more children."

"I won't do Hindu Muslim," he told News18. "This is my pledge."

To critics, the pledge rang hollow. The day he disavowed playing the Hindu-Muslim card, Modi warned supporters in the eastern state of Jharkhand, "Infiltrators with jihadi mindset are getting support from [the] opposition and putting our sisters in danger."

In the days since, Hindutva Watch has documented at least 10 rallies where Modi has by turn warned voters about alleged plans by Congress to redistribute national wealth among Muslims, award minority quotas to them and shut down a revered Hindu temple built on his watch.

Not all anti-Muslim statements documented by Hindutva Watch amount to hate speech, which is not a crime in India. Some are classified as inflammatory, dangerous or communal.

What Indians call "communalism" has long colored the contentious electoral politics of India, a country of 1.4 billion people, eight major religions and 22 official languages.

In 1984, the Congress Party, now in opposition, swept the polls, riding a wave of anti-Sikh furor created by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said anti-Muslim rhetoric is "part and parcel" of the BJP's voter mobilization strategy.

A woman carrying her daughter leaves after casting vote in a polling station during the fifth round of multi-phase national elections in Mumbai, India, May 20, 2024.
A woman carrying her daughter leaves after casting vote in a polling station during the fifth round of multi-phase national elections in Mumbai, India, May 20, 2024.

Founded in 1980 and in power since 2014, the BJP has long pursued two core objectives, Vaishnav said: improving the economic lot of the poor and creating a Hindu state.

"I don't think that this rhetoric we've seen on the campaign [trail] particularly surprises me, because it is in a sense attached to every BJP campaign," Vaishnav said.

As far back as 2002 when he served as Gujarat's chief minister, Modi didn't shy away from inflammatory rhetoric during violent Hindu-Muslim riots, Vaishnav said. More recently, the country's 2019 elections witnessed a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric, he added.

"In a sense, [the current rhetoric] is unprecedented in part because of the way this gets magnified. But this kind of mobilization is certainly not new," he said.

'Love jihad,' 'land jihad,' 'vote jihad'

To mobilize voters, BJP candidates, along with other proponents of right-wing Hindu nationalists, have made frequent use of well-worn tropes and conspiracy theories about Muslims.

One is known as "land jihad," a conspiracy theory that alleges Muslims are taking over public lands with unauthorized religious buildings. Another, called "love jihad," accuses Muslim men of marrying Hindu women to convert them, with the ultimate goal of transforming India into a Muslim country. Hindutva Watch has recorded dozens of instances of both conspiracy theories during the campaign.

Earlier this month, a new variant of the phrase emerged: "vote jihad." After a local opposition leader called on Muslims to carry out a "jihad" of "votes" to oust Modi from power, the prime minister accused the Congress Party of announcing a "vote jihad" against the BJP.

"I hope you all know what the meaning of jihad is and against whom it is waged," Modi said.

The topic of jihad has routinely surfaced in campaign rallies. In a May 15 speech, independent candidate Sanjay Sharma warned supporters that "this jihadi mentality will keep spreading" if they "don't wake up now."

"Vote for me if you want to stop cow slaughter completely," Sharma said, according to a translation provided by Hindutva Watch. "Vote for me if you want to stop love jihad."

'Fear speech'

In a way, much of the rhetoric employed by BJP candidates is typical political strategy: politicians firing up supporters with exaggerated claims and fear-mongering.

"Look at what House and Senate candidates are saying on the campaign trail," Vaishnav said. "Look at what Republican social media influencers are tweeting about."

Rutgers University Professor Kiran Garimella described the campaign rhetoric suggesting a Muslim takeover through population growth as "fear speech," a term used by researchers.

"We see a lot of cases where this kind of rhetoric is being used both in India and in the U.S.," Garimella said.

But it's not just rhetoric that's worrisome, said veteran Indian journalist and civil rights activist Ajit Sahi.

"In India, the rhetoric is part of a larger movement, which is organized, financed and has boots on the ground," said Sahi, now advocacy director for the Indian American Muslim Council. "If there was just rhetoric, that would be possibly tolerable, but the rhetoric is combined with an organized and deeply financed and widely penetrated movement."