By Rhea Mogul and Swati Gupta, CNN
Updated: Sat, 15 Jan 2022 02:53:24 GMT
At a conference in India last month, a Hindu extremist dressed head-to-toe in the religion's holy color, saffron, called on her supporters to kill Muslims and "protect" the country.
"If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million (Muslims), then we will win ... protect India, and make it a Hindu nation," said Pooja Shakun Pandey, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party, according to a video of the event.
Her words and calls for violence from other religious leaders were met with a roar of applause from the large audience, a video from the three-day conference in the northern Indian city of Haridwar shows.
But across India, people were outraged. Nearly a month on, many are still furious at the lack of government response or arrests over the comments, which they say highlights a worsening climate for the country's Muslims.
After mounting pressure, India's top court intervened on Wednesday, asking for a response from state and federal authorities within 10 days.
Pandey and several others are being investigated by local police for insulting religious beliefs, a charge that carries a possible sentence of up to four years in prison, Haridwar police officials told CNN.
Neither Pandey, nor the others, have publicly commented about the outcry or investigations.
Late Thursday, police in Uttarakhand state, where Haridwar is located, arrested a man who spoke at the event, senior Haridwar Police official Shekhar Suyal told CNN. It is unclear what the man said at the event. Police have not formally charged anyone with any crime.
CNN has contacted India's Ministry of Minority Affairs, the Hindu Mahasabha and Pandey, but has not received a response.
Analysts say the Hindu Mahasabha is at the tip of a broader trend in India which has seen an alarming rise in support for extremist Hindu nationalist groups since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power nearly eight years ago.
Although these groups aren't directly associated with Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his own Hindu nationalist agenda, and the lack of repercussions for these groups' previous vitriolic comments, has given them tacit support, making them even more brazen, analysts say.
Analysts fear this rise poses a serious danger to minorities, especially Muslims -- and worry it may only get worse as several Indian states head to the polls in the coming months.
"What makes the Hindu Mahasabha dangerous," said Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University near India's capital, New Delhi, "is that they have been waiting for a moment like this in decades."
Rise of the right-wing Hindu group
Founded in 1907 during British rule at a time of growing conflict between Muslims and Hindus in the country, the Hindu Mahasabha is one of India's oldest political organizations.
The group didn't support British rule, but it didn't back India's freedom movement either, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was particularly tolerant of Muslims. Even now, some members of the group worship his assassin, Nathuram Godse.
The Hindu Mahasabha's vision, according to the group's official website, is to declare India the "National Home of the Hindus." The website says if it takes power, it will not hesitate to "force" the migration of India's Muslims to neighboring Pakistan and vows to reform the country's education system to align it with their version of Hinduism.
With its controversial campaigns and ideology, Hindu Mahasabha has always been a marginal political force. The last time the group had a presence in Parliament was in 1991.
But according to Verniers, their "strength is not to be measured in electoral terms." And in the past eight years since Modi came to power, they appear to have expanded in numbers and influence based on the size and frequency of their meetings, he said.
While the group does not publicly disclose how many members it has, Verniers said they are "comfortably in the tens of thousands."
Hindu Mahasabha targets rural communities in northern states, where there is a large BJP presence, encouraging them to vote for parties that align with their Hindu-nationalist ideology, including Modi's BJP, Verniers said.
Modi, in turn, has publicly honored the Hindu Mahasabha's late leader, Veer Savarkar, for "his bravery" and "emphasis on social reform."
And as Hindu Mahasabha has grown in recent years, it has become more outspoken.
In 2015, Sadhvi Deva Thakur, then a senior member of the group, caused widespread controversy when she told reporters Muslims and Christians should undergo forced sterilization to control their population growth. CNN has reached out to her for comment.
Pandey, who spoke at the December conference in Haridwar, was arrested in February 2019 after a video showed her shooting an effigy of Gandhi, according to CNN affiliate CNN News-18. Photos uploaded to her official Facebook page last May show her worshiping a statue of Gandhi's assassin. CNN has not been able to confirm whether she was formally charged over the February 2019 incident.
Hindu Mahasabha isn't the only right-wing Hindu nationalist group to espouse violent sentiment toward liberals and minorities -- including India's 200 million Muslims, who make up 15% of the country's 1.3 billion population.
At last month's conference, several speakers called on India's Hindus to "defend" the religion with weapons. Another called for the "cleansing" of India's minorities, according to video from the event.
But according to Verniers, Hindu Mahasbha one of the largest right-wing political groups aiming to make India the land of the Hindus.
And while the group's campaigns and ideas are decades old, they're more bold about them now.
"The escalation of their hate speech is reflective of the state of affairs in India," said Verniers. "But they are able to get away with it more."
Acting with impunity
The reason extremist groups appear to be on the rise is clear, according to experts: they have impunity and support.
India prohibits hate speech under several sections of its penal code, including a section which criminalizes "deliberate and malicious acts" intended to insult religious beliefs.
According to lawyer Vrinda Grover, any group inciting violence is barred under Indian law.
"Police, states and the government are responsible to ensure (inciting violence) doesn't happen," she said. "But the state, through its inaction, is actually permitting these groups to function, while endangering Muslims who are the targets."
Pandey's rant and some of the other calls for violence were the "worst form of hate speech," according to Verniers.
"This is the first time I find myself using the term 'genocide' in Indian politics," he said, referring to the comments made at last month's conference. "They have tacit support in the form of government silence."
That's because Modi also has a Hindu nationalist agenda, experts say.
Modi swept to power in India in 2014, promising economic reform and development for the country.
But starting from his first term as Prime Minister, minority groups and analysts say they began to see a significant shift in India's ideology from a secular to a Hindu nationalist state.
The BJP has its roots in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right wing-Hindu group that counts Modi among its members. Many RSS members are adherents of the Hindutva ideology that the Hindu Mahasabha preach -- to make India the land of the Hindus.
In 2018, India's current Home Minister Amit Shah said Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh were "termites" and promised to rid the nation of them.
The BJP's Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the north Indian state Uttar Pradesh, known for his anti-Muslim views, once compared Muslim Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to Hafiz Saeed, the alleged planner of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, according to the Press Trust of India.
Between 2015 and 2018, vigilante groups killed dozens of people -- many of whom were Muslims -- for allegedly consuming or killing cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
Modi publicly condemned some of the killings, but the violence continued, and in 2017, his government attempted to ban the sale and slaughter of cows --currently illegal in several Indian states -- nationwide.
Human Rights Watch said many of the alleged murders went unpunished in part due to delayed police investigations and "rhetoric" from ruling party politicians, which may have incited mob violence.
In 2019, India's Parliament passed a bill that would give immigrants from three neighboring countries a pathway to citizenship -- except for Muslims. It led to extended protests and international condemnation.
In December 2020, Uttar Pradesh enacted a controversial anti-conversion law, making it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.
Other states, including Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Assam, introduced similar laws, leading to widespread harassment and, in some cases, arrests for interfaith couples, Christian priests and pastors.
All of this has only served to encourage extremist groups like the Hindu Mahasabha, say experts.
Zakia Soman, a women's rights activist and co-founder of the Muslim group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, said "a failure of governance" had given rise to more right-wing extremists.
"Our community is realizing that we have become second-class citizens in our own country," Soman said. "Minority bashing and hate is becoming regular and normalized. As the intensity increases, the venom and violence in their language also increases."
A 21-year-old Muslim student in Delhi, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from right-wing groups, said Muslims are filled with "a sense of fear" every time right-wing Hindu groups make hateful comments.
"It gives us a sense that we don't belong here," he said.
The future of the Hindu-right
Despite police investigations and public outrage, legal action against those who spoke and were present at December's event have been slow.
In a letter submitted to Modi on Friday and seen by CNN, students and faculty of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore and Ahmedabad said his silence "emboldens" hate, adding there is "sense of fear" among minority groups in India.
Some experts agree the government's silence has only emboldened these groups further.
"Hate speech precedes hate crimes," Grover, the lawyer, said. "And we are witnessing a crescendo of hate crimes. These groups are rapidly spreading poison through society."
A 2019 US intelligence report warned that parliamentary elections in India increase the possibility of communal violence if Modi's BJP "stresses Hindu nationalist themes." It added that state leaders "might view a Hindu-nationalist campaign as a signal to incite low-level violence to animate their supporters."
The BJP -- which rarely gives statements on the issue -- says it does not discriminate against minorities, adding in a statement last March that it "treats all its citizens with equality" and "laws are applied without discrimination."
But analysts fear the BJP's divisive politics will could lead to increased violence against minority groups in the lead up to pivotal state elections this year.
And reported episodes of violence against Muslims have already increased ahead of this year's state elections.
In December, crowds of India's Hindu-right confronted Muslims praying on the streets in the city of Gurugram, just outside of Delhi. They prevented Muslims from praying, while shouting slogans and carrying banners in protest.
"It is an electoral strategy," said Verniers, the political scientist. "Create religious tension, activate religious polarization and consolidate on the Hindu vote."
Grover, the lawyer, said criminal laws are "weaponized" in India, adding anyone who challenges those in power "face the wrath of the law."
"Muslim lives in India are demonized," she said. "The Indian state is in serious crisis."
On January 1, Pandey held a live broadcast for her more than 1,500 Facebook followers. The subject was "Religious Parliament," her post said.
For the 21-year-old student, it is difficult to "expect any sense of justice" for Indian Muslims. He says even having a Muslim name is enough to make him feel unsafe.
"It is really scary to carry the Muslim identity in India today."