View from India: When viral hashtags promote religious extremism

Nilanjana Bhowmick takes apart the latest viral hashtag campaign for the religious takeover of secular India

Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), takes an oath with other members as former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee stands beside them during an event at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, India, 7 June 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

In our hyper-connected world, hashtags are often a state of mind. A recent popular hashtag campaign made it clear to me that polarization and the religious divide are firmly entrenched in India.

On 17 July, #TalkToAMuslim trended at #1 on Twitter. Over 500 Twitterati picked it up, followed by hundreds of thousands of ‘impressions’.

Of late, there have been several such successful hashtag campaigns here, including the #NotInMyName protests against the lynching of Muslims in the country, and the global #MeToo campaign against the sexual harassment and assault of women. They helped raise social awareness, created a momentum of protest. I participated in them, too. So why did #TalkToAMuslim make me uncomfortable?

Maybe because it was more sensational than sensible, more patronizing than compassionate. It was shallow. It segregated. It belittled. While it urged talking with Muslims, it was in essence talking at them.

This hashtag made it seem like Muslims were being set apart as aliens, as a problem. It made me feel as if I had never talked to a Muslim, I had not grown up with them, kicked a ball with them on the playing field, played holi with them, burst crackers with them or shared an Eid feast with them. It made me feel as if I had never heard an azaan (call to prayer) in my life, or been stuck at traffic intersections due to Friday namaz congregations. The hashtag made me keenly aware of my Hindu-ness. I had never been so aware of my religion. I felt my worst fears coming true, that the last five years of my life – since a right-wing government, with an overt Hindutva agenda, led by prime minister Narendra Modi took office – were usurping over 35 years of being brought up in a secular country. Religion was ruling our conscious and unconscious actions.

There are 120 million Muslims in India – the largest population outside Pakistan and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority countries. We have grown up with Muslims. We have grown up talking to Muslims, sharing our lives with them. There were people who were Islamophobic then (my grandmother wouldn’t allow chicken to enter our kitchen, calling it a Muslim meat), there are people who are Islamophobic now.

It is hardly a secret how Modi’s continuous silence over attacks on Muslims and his party’s often vocal support for lynching Muslims over the last five years have led to a spike in Islamophobia in the country. Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2018 said that the Indian government had ‘failed to stop or credibly investigate vigilante attacks against minority religious communities during 2017’.

According to official statistics, India witnessed more than 700 outbreaks of communal violence last year – killing 86 people and injuring 2,321.

There is no doubt that the Modi-led government, and its hardline cohorts, in­clud­ing the paramilitary Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP) are inciting violence against Indian Muslims. But that should not be an excuse to talk down to them. Indian Muslims share the same dangers as Indian liberals, activists and other minorities who do not subscribe to the ruling BJP’s idea of a Hindu nationalist state. Such self-serving hashtags that alienate and segregate are only playing into the polarizing strategy of the Modi-led government.  

Caste and religious differences have always ruled India. But they are sharper now, just like every other kind of difference. Islamophobia is not unlike homophobia or liberalphobia. When you self-consciously talk to a Muslim or Christian, or a Jew or a Dalit, you have already given in to polarization.

So don’t talk to a Muslim. Talk instead to a bigot. And let’s start by talking to our prime minister.

Let’s #TalkToModi.