(This story was first published on 11 September 2021, and is being republished from The Quint's archives to mark one year since the anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh came into effect.)
10 August 2021: A Muslim e-rickshaw driver is assaulted in Kanpur by a mob, beaten while his daughter clings to him, forced to chant 'Jai Shri Ram'.
21 August 2021: A Muslim beggar in Ajmer, Rajasthan, is beaten by a group of men and told to 'go to Pakistan'.
22 August 2021: A Muslim bangle-seller is beaten up by a mob in Indore for selling his wares in a Hindu-dominated area, accused of love jihad, and arrested based on the accusations of one of the men who beat him up.
28 August 2021: A Muslim scrap-dealer is threatened by two men, forced to chant 'Jai Shri Ram', and made to leave a village in Madhya Pradesh's Ujjain district.
29 August 2021: A Muslim dosa-seller in Mathura is attacked and his cart vandalised by a man who says his cart should have a Muslim name on it, while people in the crowd chant for purification of the city.
8 September 2021: Bengaluru-based ready-to-cook meals-company iD Fresh Foods, founded by five Muslim men, files a complaint with the Bengaluru Police after a forward goes viral making all sorts of communal allegations against them.
These various forms of hate speech achieve a common purpose: paint a particular community as malicious, use this perception to justify greater and greater hatred, and keep the pot of hatred simmering.
This gives you convenient scapegoats to blame for any failures of the country, an 'enemy' that keeps the populace distracted and polarised in a way that makes them easy to control.
Some of these conspiracy theories have ostensible fixes that can be made into public spectacles – like the spate of 'anti-conversion laws' that conveniently cropped up in multiple states after 'love jihad' fever gripped BJP state governments in late 2020.
But not all these claims can be solved with unsound legislation, and the Indian legal system, for all its flaws, has been able to head off some of the excesses.
Take how the hysteric claims of corona jihad came a cropper when the courts had to finally hear the criminal cases lodged against Tablighi Jamaat members: in case after case, the accused have been acquitted or discharged or the FIRs quashed.
However, even when the courts step in, there is no stop to the spread of conspiracy theories within society and the daily vitriol on WhatsApp and social media.
It is easy, perhaps, to dismiss this recent spate of attacks against Muslims going about their livelihood as your garden-variety communal attacks by 'fringe elements', or 'goons', or 'thugs' looking to gain attention.
That such attacks have been so normalised as to not invite serious concern and outrage is in itself a damning indictment of where India is as a democratic society today.
Unfortunately, however, there is even more to be concerned about when it comes to these kind of attacks. These are not, in fact, just random acts of communal bigotry, but the result of a carefully crafted hate campaign targeting the livelihoods of Muslims.
The kind of campaign that takes us even further down a dangerous majoritarian path, where minorities become second-class citizens, enabling further discrimination and violence against them – and even laying the seeds for genocide.
'Redi Jihad': Making a New Bogeyman
Attacks against Muslim traders and vendors are not taking place in a vacuum. The country keeps getting introduced to new, bizarre types of 'jihad' by right-wing organisations, the BJP, and of course their loyal foot-soldiers in the TV media.
In just the last year, we have seen shouts of 'corona jihad', 'land jihad', and 'UPSC jihad' used to demonise and vilify the Muslim community. Not to mention, of course, the old classic that not only exemplifies hate for Muslims, but for women's agency too: 'love jihad'.
And so we now have 'redi jihad'. Yes, an economic jihad waged from the 'push-carts' or 'redis' used by street vendors, because, well, it's not as though they have any voice to fight back against this nonsense, and who else is going to bother standing up for them, right?
It's not just about some men trundling redis around, of course. It's about any poor Muslim who has the temerity to try and earn a livelihood of some sort. Any poor Muslim who, by virtue of their trade, could be seen in public going about their life like an ordinary citizen.
Because we can't be having that in the India of today. Not in a country where somehow it has become totally normal for Muslims to be called 'jihadis' for the heck of it, including on national television, without being condemned. Not in a country where people can openly call for the mass-murder of Muslims in public, screaming into the camera while doing so.
The groundwork for this specific line of attack, this targeting of livelihoods, and encouraging boycotts of Muslim traders, has been laid steadily over a very long time.
In 2017, Raja Singh, a BJP MLA in the Telangana Assembly (where he retains his seat), called for an economic boycott of Muslims because they are all, somehow, traitors. If Hindus started buying only from other Hindus, he argued, then the Muslims of India would convert to Hinduism.
This video continues to crop up on Telegram channels used to promote bigotry against Muslims. Other calls for economic boycotts have been spreading on right-wing Facebook groups and other social media consistently over the last few years.
In March and April 2020, these calls for economic boycotts were magnified by a new crop of figures, from TV hatemonger Suresh Chavhanke to Vinod Sharma, a prominent figure of the right wing Hindu 'ecosystem'.
In January 2021, Swami Anand Swaroop, a Hindu leader and president of a Varanasi-based outfit Shankaracharya Parishad, also called for an economic boycott of Muslims at an event in Meerut's Chaudhary Charan Singh University. Like the Raja Singh speech, his also claimed that this would make Muslims convert to Hinduism.
By June 2021, the calls for economic boycotts had grown even more strident, and were starting to have consequences which could now be clearly linked to them, as was seen in attacks on Muslim fruit vendors in Uttam Nagar in Delhi.
On to August 2021, and the month began with the organisation of a 'protest' at Jantar Mantar that eventually saw outright calls for mass-murder of Muslims, as well as economic boycotts (including by one of the main accused in the case regarding this, Uttam Upadhyay).
Suggestions for the latter had been part of the messages circulated in the groups planning for the 'protest', and once again, this was supposed to help turn India into a Hindu Rashtra.
Note also that while the initial targets of these calls have ended up being small traders – the redis, so to speak – the argument doesn't stop there, and once this rhetoric becomes more widespread, it will be used to attack all Muslim livelihoods, as the targeting of iD Fresh Foods shows.
Structural Violence & the Path to Genocide
In recent petitions filed in the Supreme Court regarding hate speech against Muslims, one of the key arguments used to urge action by the apex court is that when such hate speech becomes widespread, it leads to 'structural violence', ie, economic and cultural marginalisation, including eviction of individuals from tenanted premises and loss of livelihood.
Attacks on traders and calls for economic boycotts clearly fall within this framework.
This kind of structural violence creates an atmosphere of discrimination against the targeted community, which is a continuing attack on the fundamental rights of equality and life with dignity (Article 14 and 21).
Structural violence results in the shrinking of participation for the targeted community in the democratic and public sphere, not just in terms of politics, but in the basic, day-to-day aspects of normal life.
Even where it does not involve actual physical injury, hate speech can, as the Law Commission recognised in a report in 2017, "undermine the 'implicit assurance' that citizens of a democracy, particularly minorities or vulnerable groups, are placed on the same footing as the majority."
The Supreme Court has also acknowledged the risk of structural violence through hate speech. As recently as late 2020, in the Amish Devgan case, the court held that:
"The harm or impact-based element refers to the consequences of the ‘hate speech’, that is, harm to the victim which can be violent or such as loss of self-esteem, economic or social subordination, physical and mental stress, silencing of the victim and effective exclusion from the political arena."
Hate speech of the kind we are seeing in India, including the calls for economic boycotts, can also spell even darker danger, as the apex court recognised back in its 2014 Pravasi Bhali Sangathan judgment:
"Hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on vulnerable sections that can range from discrimination, to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence and, in the most extreme cases, to genocide."
It is uncomfortable for any society to view itself on the path towards that most extreme case of genocide, but this is not something that India can ignore any longer. Not when the hate speech against Muslims keeps finding newer and newer facets, keeps finding new ways to target the community, and is now beginning to demonstrate what looks like a cause and effect relationship.
Genocide is a process, as United Nations Special Advisor on Genocide Adama Dieng has explained. It doesn't matter if the process seems far away from that end result, it always begins with hate speech.
"The genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda started with hate speech," Dieng has pithily said. "The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers – it started with hate speech."
Physical violence against Muslims in the form of lynchings has become all too common in India in recent years. But the new attacks on the livelihood of Muslims take this even further, as now they aren't even accused of some ostensible crime like cow slaughter anymore – the fig leaf has fallen away entirely and Muslims are now fair game merely because of who they are.
This marks a new phase in the targeting of Muslims, and one which forces us to examine whether we have reached what Genocide Watch terms the third stage of the genocide process, 'Discrimination'.
Parallels With Nazi Germany
The 'Discrimination Stage' is described as follows:
"A dominant group uses law, custom, and political power to deny the rights of other groups. The powerless group may not be accorded full civil rights, voting rights, or even citizenship. The dominant group is driven by an exclusionary ideology that would deprive less powerful groups of their rights. The ideology advocates monopolisation or expansion of power by the dominant group. It legitimises the victimisation of weaker groups."
Examples cited of this kind of behaviour include the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany (which restricted citizenship and prevented marriages between Germanic and non-Germanic races) and the citizenship laws and rhetoric against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
We've already seen an amendment to India's citizenship law that, for the first time in India's history, makes religion relevant to the process of gaining Indian citizenship.
While the CAA does not strip away citizenship rights of existing citizens, this is a high risk when the National Register of Citizens is eventually created for the whole country.
We have seen the proliferation of 'love jihad laws' that demonise the Muslim community and, no matter how these laws are technically worded, seek to prevent them from entering into inter-faith marriages, much like the second Nuremberg Law and even the anti-miscegenation race laws in the United States.
Even if one wanted to give these formal legislations the benefit of the doubt separately, in conjunction with pre-existing communal violence and now the calls for economic boycotts and attacks on Muslim people's livelihoods, there is a strong argument to be made that we are meeting one of the requirements of this Stage: denial of full civil rights. All of these also clearly legitimise victimisation of Muslims.
Recall the additional undercurrent found in many of these calls: that these will cause Muslims to convert to Hinduism. Essentially, this is meant to be a message that only Hindus have a right to a normal life in India.
A similar message sent to Jews in Nazi Germany. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum identifies the national boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933 as the start of the nationwide campaign against German Jews. Stormtroopers stood outside Jewish shops and businesses, signs were posted saying 'Don't Buy From Jews', and Jewish people and properties were attacked across the country.
This was followed a week later by laws prohibiting Jews from being employed in the civil services (a chilling echo of the fear-mongering about 'UPSC Jihad'). That year also saw the beginning of the process of 'Aryanisation', ie, the transfer of Jewish-owned economic enterprises to “Aryan,” that is, non-Jewish ownership.
Till 1938, this process was 'voluntary', ie, there were no specific laws passed by the Nazi government that forcibly took away Jews' rights to own businesses, but this did not mean the process wasn't effective.
"By 1938, the combination of Nazi terror, propaganda, boycott, and legislation was so effective that some two-thirds of these Jewish-owned enterprises were out of business or sold to non-Jews."US Holocaust Memorial Museum
While India may still have a way to go before Stage 3 is fully met (voting rights are not yet under attack just yet, for instance), the social atmosphere being created both through legislation and rhetoric fits that bill more and more.
The kind of hateful language used against the Muslim community already approaches Stage 4: Dehumanisation, which is meant to make it easier to excuse violence against the targeted minority.
It will be tempting to many to pretend that the situation is still not quite as bad, and that such predictions are just hyperbole. But if these increasingly common calls for economic boycotts of Muslims are not swiftly quashed, and the attacks on the livelihoods of Muslim traders stopped, this grim reality will become inescapable.
It is still more than possible to pull back from the brink, but this requires significant political and societal intervention, and cannot be left to the judiciary alone.
More importantly, it requires the will and intent to stop this ever-spiralling communalisation – which the people of India will have to demonstrate.