Hindu extremists in India escalate rhetoric with calls to kill Muslims

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India’s Supreme Court says it will investigate after complaints that Hindu nationalist leaders called on followers to take up arms against the country’s Muslim minority.

The notice of investigation was issued last week to the northern state of Uttarakhand, where a Hindu nationalist conference in the city of Haridwar was attended by hundreds of right-wing activists.

“We must prepare to either kill or be killed,” one of the speakers, Swami Prabodhananda Giri, said at the three-day conference, which was held Dec. 17-19.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been rising in Hindu-majority India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist. But recent calls to violence are shocking in their extremity, experts say, going beyond hate speech to advocate ethnic cleansing.

A petition filed to the court said the speeches in Haridwar and at a similar event in the Delhi territory, which includes the nation’s capital, “amount to an open call for murder of an entire community.”

The speeches “pose a grave threat not just to the unity and integrity of our country but also endanger the lives of millions of Muslim citizens,” it said, adding that organizers had announced further events.

No arrests have been made in either Haridwar or Delhi, and the Modi government has not commented. The official silence, critics say, could be interpreted by Hindu nationalists as a tacit endorsement.

“To give speeches against us and to say you want to drive out an entire population based on their religion, I don’t understand how they can ignore this,” said Maulana Mahmood Madani, president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which describes itself as India’s largest Muslim organization.

Since Modi consolidated power with his re-election in 2014, Muslims in India — who make up about 14 percent of the population, have faced increased violence, discrimination and government persecution. Attacks from Hindu nationalists have ranged from property destruction and the disruption of religious services to deadly lynch mobs.

INDIA-POLITICS-RELIGION (Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)
INDIA-POLITICS-RELIGION (Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)

People with ties to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party were at both events. The Delhi event was organized Dec. 19 by Hindu Yuva Vahini, a right-wing youth group founded by Yogi Adityanath, a BJP member and close Modi ally who is the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh. In Haridwar, attendees included Ashwini Upadhyay, a former Delhi BJP spokesperson and current party member.

In a video shared on Twitter, Upadhyay said he was at the event for half an hour on the last day and spoke for 10 minutes. Adityanath could not be reached for comment.

“The fact that the prime minister hasn’t spoken out against it, it is a form of denial, a form of license to continue this kind of religious extremism,” said Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, a U.S.-based nonprofit group.

BJP leader Shant Prakash Jatav told NBC News that the governing party would ensure respect for people of all religions.

“If and when someone speaks against a religion, then there is proper law and order against that, and legal action will be taken,” he said.

Rakendra Singh, a police officer in Haridwar, said Jan. 6 that two people who spoke at the event there, Annapurna Maa and Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi, had been summoned to provide statements on suspicion of provoking rioting. Maa and Tyagi, a recent convert to Hinduism who was formerly known as Wasim Rizvi, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Delhi police did not respond to a request for comment.

INDIA-RELIGION-HINDU-FESTIVAL (Sam Panthaky / AFP via Getty Images)
INDIA-RELIGION-HINDU-FESTIVAL (Sam Panthaky / AFP via Getty Images)

The term Hindutva, which has traditionally referred simply to Hindu identity or living according to Hindu values, has also come to be associated with an extreme form of Hindu nationalism.

“It says India should not be a secular nation as its Constitution requires and other religions — Muslims, Christians — are foreign and should be driven out,” Stanton said.

That attitude was on display at the two events last month. In Haridwar, Giri, president of right-wing group Hindu Raksha Sena (“Hindu Defense Army”), spoke approvingly of atrocities in neighboring Myanmar, where government persecution of Rohingya Muslims has been described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“Just like Myanmar, the police in this nation, the army, the politicians and every Hindu must join hands, pick up their weapons and carry out this cleanliness drive,” he said.

Speaking in Delhi, Suresh Chavhanke, editor of the right-wing outlet Sudarshan News, administered an oath to attendees that “until our last breath, to make India a Hindu nation, keep it a Hindu-only nation, we will fight and die, and if required we will kill as well.”

He later shared a video of the oath on Twitter, where he has almost half a million followers.

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against what they say is hate speech against Muslims by Hindu leaders, in New Delhi (Adnan Abidi / Reuters)
Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against what they say is hate speech against Muslims by Hindu leaders, in New Delhi (Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

The speeches at the Hindu nationalist events have been severely criticized, including by members of the opposition Indian National Congress.

“Hindutva always spreads hate and violence,” Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, said on Twitter.

Giri, who made the comments about Myanmar, directed a request for comment to Swami Anand Swaroop, founder of Hindu nationalist group Kali Sena and an organizer of the Haridwar event. In a phone interview, Swaroop defended the event, saying its purpose was to “save Hindus from Islam.”

“We don’t have any problem with Muslims. We have a problem with the Islamic jihadis who are killing us,” he said.

Stanton said Swaroop’s comment “goes against what was actually said in the meeting.”

In a speech at the event referring to Muslims, Maa, one of the activists later summoned in Haridwar, said, “If even 100 of us become soldiers and we kill 20 lakh of these people, then we are victors and we are prepared to go to jail.” Twenty lakh, an Indian unit of measurement that equals 100,000, is 2 million people.

“If that isn’t an incitement to genocide, then I don’t know what is,” Stanton said.

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