THE spate of hate crimes across the Hindi belt, recorded on mobile phones and shared through social media, are being seen as the normalisation of barbarism in public life and a reflection of the growing majoritarian sentiment against minorities, particularly Muslims. The recorded hate crimes also show an intersection of technology and unemployment and the consequent drift among the youth. It’s a brutal age at multiple levels in which hate crimes have become all too frequent.
There are several layers to this phenomenon. First, it is driven by new technology. By 2017, India had witnessed a telecom revolution of sorts as the price of mobile data came crashing down. By offering free data and calls at the time of its launch, a leading telecom company sent the industry into a tailspin; telecom majors subsequently began to offer the cheapest Internet data in the world. In the four years hence, mobile phones and cheap data have penetrated every part of the country and all sections of society now have access to smartphones. Indeed, in 2018 itself, Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, had stated that India had become the world’s number one mobile data-consuming country with a higher consumption than the US and China put together.
The hate-for-the-record phenomenon rides on this technology. One could argue that multiple crimes took place across the country but were not recorded for posterity in the age when everyone was not easily accessing video technology. Simultaneously, one must also note that the perpetrators of these crimes could be committing them partly because they can now record them and amplify the message to the entire world. This leads to the question whether the thrill of recording their acts is also driving public bullying, beating and humiliation of Muslims. In some instances, citizen onlookers may have recoded the violent incidents, but most often it is those committing the acts themselves who are proudly recording and sharing the video clips as they believe the targeting of minorities sums up their ideology and has popular sanction.
Take the case of the priest of the Dasna temple in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh, Yati Narsinghanand, who first came to public notice after a Muslim boy was thrashed on the temple premises earlier this year. The Dasna priest has since become known for making vile remarks and threats against Muslims, and for insulting the Prophet. He recently ‘graduated’ to insulting Hindu women in the BJP as well for which FIRs have now been lodged against him. But he is entirely an emblem of hate who feeds off social media and recorded statements that are amplified because they are outrageous. The lifeline for persons such as him are recorded videos, now easily made with mobile technology.
India has among the youngest population in an ageing world. By 2022, the median age in India will be 28 years compared to 37 in China and the US, 49 in Japan and 45 in Europe. A young population has been seen to be a demographic dividend driving economic growth historically, the reason why countries with an ageing population allow migrants in. But the Indian youth are currently confronted with the worst unemployment rate since the 1991 opening of the economy. The economy was already shrinking when the Covid lockdowns struck hard blows. In other words, masses of young people face hunger, joblessness and a bleak future. This is all the more so in the Hindi belt states that lag behind the south and western India on socio-economic and human indices.
In such a dismal scenario, there is arguably an opportunity in belonging to a so-called Hindu vigilante group in large parts of the Hindi belt, where the political ecosystem is now dominated by the BJP/RSS. Although it is hard to quantify this with data, it’s worth noting that many of the targets of the recent crimes have been Muslim workers in the informal sector. It’s now easier to push Muslims off their land, their patch in the market, their employment.
All this is happening in a country where brutality against sections of citizens on the basis of their social origin does have sanction. Ostracism, exclusion and public abuse have always taken place in a society that sanctifies caste hierarchies, although today the arithmetic and logic of politics creates an impetus away from old-fashioned caste atrocities. The SC & ST Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 has also been a deterrent as it invites long prison terms. Crimes against Dalits and Adivasis still take place, but there is no political narrative that endorses these offences.
The imagery we once associated with caste atrocities in the Hindi hinterland is now part of the lived experience of those Muslims who end up coming in the path of hate mobs. A law as stringent as the SC/ST Act may be needed to tackle this shameful spectacle of crimes, but politics has shifted in a direction in the Hindi belt where most non-BJP political parties seek Muslim support while evading the issue of speaking for the rights and protection of the community.
But finally, in an age of hopelessness and joblessness, the project of changing the idea of India has resources, manpower and energy devoted to it. These hate crimes are ultimately taking place under the umbrella of a shifting political consciousness in the states of the Hindi belt and the victims are the collateral damage of building a ‘Hindu first’ nation. There have been a few token arrests and FIRs, but these crimes are recorded on phone cameras by groups of radicalised young men who also believe that they enjoy immunity because they are foot soldiers of New India.
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