Sectarian content on social media has proliferated because the laws against hate speech have been used selectively by those in power. While the Modi government was quick to force social media platforms to block clips of a controversial BBC documentary about Modi’s alleged involvement in intercommunal violence in 2002, there has been a proliferation of channels that broadcast extreme nationalist rhetoric because, human rights groups say, the polarization suits the BJP, which runs on a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist platform.
One of the more alarming facets of this cycle, the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Manzar says, is that the mainstream media is now beginning to mirror narratives seen on social media. “The mainstream media has begun producing content based on what is selling on social media,” he says. “That is how the entire pro-establishment and anti-Muslim media has come up. When ‘a dog bites the man’ makes news, the news starts to make the dog bite the man. Earlier, there used to be news publication. With the proliferation of social media, there is news creation.”
India is rolling toward another election in 2024. Modi will be seeking a third term. His government has shown no signs that it will try to rein in the divisive rhetoric that has become its stock-in-trade over the past decade.
Sanatan Sanstha is still operating. Since mid-2022, the group joined Bajrang Dal and a few other far-right radical organizations to form an amorphous group called the Sakal Hindu Samaj, which has been organizing multiple rallies across the state of Maharashtra, where speakers have called for the extermination of Muslims and an economic boycott on their communities. Several BJP functionaries have attended the rallies.
Maharashtra has been increasingly split by religious conflict, which has played out online and offline. Right-wing groups have created a system of lateral surveillance, policing social media for posts that they can claim are offensive to Hindus—sometimes resulting in violence. As the election looms, people fear the sectarianism could spiral further out of control.
In August and September, four social media posts went viral in the Maharashtra district of Satara. All abused Hindu gods and the warrior king Shivaji; all seemed to come from accounts run by Muslims. In one case, Maharashtra police proved that a Muslim minor’s account had been hacked by a Hindu man. The other three alleged posters said their accounts had been hacked too, though that has yet to be proved.
Those three accounts belonged to young Muslim men from the village of Pusesavali. On September 9, a Hindu mob went on the rampage, torching Muslim shops and vehicles.
The attackers lynched a 31-year old Muslim civil engineer, Nurul Hasan, inside a mosque while he offered his evening prayers. He had nothing to do with the social media post. “He is survived by old parents and a pregnant wife,” says a senior community member in the village, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals. “It has become so easy to frame Muslims. I have told the Muslim youth in my village to disable their Instagram and Facebook accounts. The situation has gotten out of hand. And with the elections less than a year away, it is only going to get worse.”