Challenging Extremism in India by Mohammed Sinan Siyech

The following paper was presented at the Strategic Forum on "Meeting the Challenges of Extremism by Advancing Human Security Centred Policies" organised by the NESA Centre for Strategic Studies and the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) held from 6th - 7th September 2017 in Colombo.

This paper addresses some policy recommendations that deal with the challenge of extremism in India, drawing on human security centric approaches. Human Security, as defined by the Commission for Human Security means “to protect the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and human fulfillment”. It is a reconceptualization of security that can be better understood via three factors:

  1. It moves away from state centric security (protected by the army) to a human centric approach, which focuses on individual rights and freedoms.
  2. It focuses on a multitude of threats that are cross-sectional in nature, ranging from food security to job security, freedom of speech and religion among others.
  3. Its central focus is the human being; the well-being of the nation is advanced by advancing the well-being of the human.[1]
In this regard, India faces lots of challenges that threaten the accomplishment of a comprehensive human security framework. This paper looks at one of those challenges i.e. extremism. Extremism as found in Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary denotes "beliefs and political parties which most people consider unreasonable and unacceptable".[2] Various countries in the world are currently grappling with the problem of extremism. In many cases, the line between violent and non-violent extremism is often blurred, leading to people undertaking actions that are detrimental to the safety and well-being of their fellow human beings.[3]
India, being one of the countries across the globe that is most prone to terrorism, is familiar with various forms of extremists, both violent and non-violent. These include Islamist extremists, violent separatists in Kashmir and parts of the North-Eastern states as well as the growing tide of Hindu extremists.[4]

India thus, has to face the tricky challenge of tackling extremism in different forms across the country while keeping in mind the preservation and promotion of human security. In practical terms, this would involve many processes that include upholding the freedom of speech and expression, rightful arrest and humane treatment during detention, and granting due court procedure and counsel to the arrested.

This paper will, for the sake of brevity, work to provide directives for select aspects of extremism that are being faced in the country i.e. Hindu extremism and the increasing fear of communal spillover in India. 

To frame the debate on human security, we look at Ashutosh Varshney, a prominent scholar of Indian politics and communal conflict in India, who stated that the Indian democracy has three main objectives which are also long term human security endeavors. These are 1) National Integrity, 2) Social Justice, and 3) Tackling Poverty. These three objectives go a long way in ensuring that peace (and subsequently, human security) is facilitated in the country.[5]

In the present, the discussion on the objectives of democracy have become of paramount importance. India faces an increasing rise in intolerance and extremism across different states in the nation. Critics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s government (BJP) have alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival on the national stage has led to increased mob violence against minority communities, perpetrated by those claiming to defend the Hindu religion and people.[6] Commentators have noted that even if the government is not responsible for such rising extremism, the silence of major party leaders, including the Prime Minister, emboldens miscreants and people with malicious intent.

This paper alludes to different instances of mob violence against minority religion individuals in India. An example of this is the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque in Dadri on suspicion of processing beef (the allegation later turned out to be false). Since then, many such instances of mob violence against individuals belonging to minorities have mushroomed across the country.[7]
This rise in violence is not new. Many instances of mob violence have indeed been observed before the year 2014. However, commentators have linked the uptick in violence with the BJP and its parent organization, RSS’ ideology of creating a Hindu state by the year 2025. This ideology stems from the beliefs of the 20th century Hindu figure Savarkar, who proposed that the Indian identity was to be adopted by those who considered India their fatherland and holy land (effectively excluding Christians and Muslims whose holy lands lie outside of India).[8] The ideology has taken root in India, at times manifesting violently over the past few decades.  Many political leaders who were both ideologically and politically motivated used this violence to their advantage, encouraging sporadic communal violence in the name of Hinduism.

Two major examples of such violence perpetrated against the Muslim community is the Pogrom conducted in 2002 in Gujarat and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh in 1992 which, according to some, stood on the ruins of the Ram Mandir (a holy site for Hindus).[9] These instances do not imply that the Muslim community was not complicit in violence against other communities in India. However, in the present atmosphere, there have been increasing fears of communal violence and tensions in the country against the minority communities.

In a country like India where an upwards of one billion people reside, tackling such an issue is a mammoth challenge and is one that this paper certainly does not claim to solve. It does, however, point towards many practices and recommendations that encompass aspects of human security and contribute to addressing the nation’s growing problem of extremism and communalism.
On ground practices

Some of these practices are short term in nature, and must be undertaken as such, both by political parties and civil societies. This paper calls on leaders of different political parties to effectively condemn all instances of mob lynching and communal violence instantaneously. While it is no real solution to the larger problem, it is a contributive factor in dousing the flames of communal tensions that inevitably flare up in a highly televised environment, an environment that has become even more influential with the rise of new media like Facebook and YouTube.

The media, alongside civil society, plays a strong role in creating this atmosphere. As the viral nature of social media has demonstrated, many leaders have bent down to public pressure if opposition to specific moves was strong enough. In this regard, hindrances to the freedom of speech of the Indian media establishment need to be addressed. As the media watchdog organization ‘Reporters without Borders’ have recorded, India’s rank in the press freedom index field has slipped from 133 to 136, an alarming sign for a country that is trying to assert itself in the global sphere. [10]

Owing largely to the media’s role in shaping the debate around extremism, ensuring its freedom of speech is important to maintain human security, and curb extremism and communal rioting.

Notwithstanding their urgent need, these reforms only provide short-term relief. Over the long term, several steps can be taken to reduce the chances of ethnic and interreligious discord. Keeping in mind the present context of the BJP administration, several experts have suggested three influences that could impact, positively or negatively, the interreligious harmony in the country:[11]
  1. Poverty,
  2. Past integrated networks, and
  3. Political strategies
Various research over the past few decades have shown that countries with decreased poverty rates have had better experiences with controlling civil conflicts. Exceptions to this rule do exist in the case of India, where some communal riots have taken place primarily in high income urban areas as opposed to low income rural areas. However, there is also much conformity to the rule of the poverty-rioting nexus in India and other countries abroad. [12]

In this regard, the current government’s calls for development (a major factor that pulled in the middle-class section of the country) are a step in the right direction.[13] If they lead to increased incomes and uplifting from poverty, there remains large scope to prevent communal disharmony over time.

Previous evidence in minority communities across the world shows that good intercultural/interreligious programmes have reduced the chances of riots and ethnic conflicts. These experiences are perhaps best sketched out in Ashutosh Varshney’s book regarding ethnic and interreligious conflict in India.

Thus, one major recommendation made in the book was to develop and strengthen both new and existing ethnically integrated organizations including business associations, trade unions, professional groups, political parties and sports clubs.
In many specific contexts of conflict, there were several such groups proving their mettle as key dissipaters of tension due to their existing networks. An example is the residents of the city of Calicut, where such networks helped dispel rumors during times of communal tension.[14] These models have also been implemented in other parts of the world with measurable amounts of success and are a strong bulwark against strife, regardless of external factors in place.  

Exploring the online realm

The presence of diverse groups organized along specific interests is not just limited to face to face interactions but can be extended to the online sphere as well. Social media websites like Facebook and Google have vastly changed the way in which information is conveyed.

On the downside, however, there have been many instances of social media playing negative roles too. The case of the Pune communal violence in June 2014 is illustrative of this, whereby a malicious fake video was shared on social media leading to people coming out on the streets in search of the perpetrators of this online mischief, eventually causing riots. Many other incidents have borne witness to the amplifier effect that social media has had on communal incidents in India and elsewhere.[15]

Moreover, telecom wars in India have led to a significant decrease in the cost of data, inversely increasing the amount of videos and information consumed from the internet.[16] This has presented multiple opportunities to spread information that may incite communal sentiments. With close to half a billion internet users, this constitutes a clear threat if there are no checks placed on the kind of online content being consumed. [17]

Various methods have to be encouraged to prevent such violence from occurring. Drawing further from the above-mentioned recommendations made by Ashutosh Varshney, there is scope for communities to be built on common online interests, which may help break barriers between communities. Existing fitness groups, common interest groups, travelling groups and many more that avoid discussing offensive, religious or political matters are proof of the sort of diverse circles that civil society can form and that can later help reduce tensions during political and civil turmoil.

Beyond this, tech companies also have a role to play in ensuring a decrease of hostilities online. Companies like Facebook, Google and YouTube have entire teams dedicated to reducing malicious online content. While this is mainly limited to preventing Islamist extremism and terrorism, the companies are also taking a prerogative to removing harmful content uploaded by other groups such as white supremacists and hate groups. Increased efforts along this direction, with regional offices targeting issues in their respective vicinities, could prove to be very effective in reducing any unwanted online traction.

Governmental responsibilities

The final piece to the puzzle rests entirely on the shoulders of the Modi administration and its future political strategies. Despite the long spanning tenure of the Congress party prior to the BJP and the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) at the central level- the chances of the BJP taking the next national election have never been stronger.[18] In this regard, many experts fear that the leash on the electoral constituencies’ reprisal for increased communalism (which so far ensured that the government remained moderate) may be removed.

In such a scenario, PM Modi’s strategy will have a key role in ensuring that peace is maintained and violent and extreme elements within his supporters are kept at bay. His silence and refusal to take a tough stance with instances of extremism has, as previously mentioned, led to the emboldening of instigators of communal violence. By simply being more vocal against such miscreants, despite the risk of polarizing party members and the base organization (RSS), a lot of impactful change can be brought about owing to his sizeable fan base. Whether this happens remains to be seen.

This paper has tried to examine the problem of Hindu extremism in India, a phenomenon that is quickly picking pace and is likely to destabilize the fragile interreligious harmony that India took years to build. The recommendations made here are by no means exhaustive. However, these have touched upon the role of the media, civil society and mostly that of the government in preventing this extremism while promoting human security.

 In the background of the upcoming elections and the slow but steadily rising resistance to ‘national’ beliefs, the central Government’s stance towards communal violence and tensions could be the game-changer India needs. Alternatively, drawing from its past and present responses towards such violence, it may just take the country’s socio-religious balance more than a few steps back to a worrisome reality for the future of democracy, human security and large portions of the population.
[1] “Human Security in Theory and Practice:  An Overview of the Human Security Concept and the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security. Human Security Unit, United Nations. 2009.
[2] “Extremism” Cambridge dictionary.
[3] Schmid, Alex P. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? International Center for Countering Terrorism – The Hague. 2014.
[4] Chauhani, Neeraj. “India 3rd largest terror target after Iraq and Afghanistan: US report”. Times of India. July 23,2017.
[5]Varma, Vishnu. “A Conversation With: Political Scientist Ashutosh Varshney”. New York Times. December 17,2013.
[6] “Wu, Huizhong. “#NotInMyName: Indians protest against rise in mob violence”. CNN. June 29,2017.
[7] Subramanya, Rupa. “Has India Become ‘Lynchistan?’ Here’s What the Data Says”. Huffington Post. July 03,2017.
[8] Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu”. Veer Savarkar Prakashan Bombay 1923.
[9] “Varshney, Ashutosh. “Hindu Nationalism in Power?”. Journal of Democracy. October 2014.
[10] “Jyothi, Dhrubo. “Press freedom rankings: India slips 3 places to 136, ‘Modi’s nationalism’ blamed”. The Hindustan Times.April 27,2017.
[11] “Varshney, Ashutosh. “Hindu Nationalism in Power?”. Journal of Democracy. October 2014.
[12] “Varshney, Ashutosh. “Hindu Nationalism in Power?”. Journal of Democracy. October 2014.
[13] Worstall, Tim. “PM Modi Is Right, India Could Be a Developed Country in One Generation - But Which One?”. Forbes. December 24,2016.
[14] Khan, Mahvish. “To Keep The Peace, Study Peace”. New York Times. July 27,2002.
[15] Dutta, Saurav. “India: Communal violence in times of social media”. June 26,2014.
[16] “Bhargava, Yuthika. “Telecom wars to continue in 2017, consolidation seen”. December 26,2017.
[17] Chopra, Arushi. “Number of Internet users in India could cross 450 million by June: report”. Livemint. March 02,2017.
[18] “Sridharan, Eshwaran. “2019 general elections and the BJP”. The Hindu. May 23,2017.