Indian police have opened a criminal investigation for inciting hate after video clips from a Hindu religious gathering in the northern city of Haridwar emerged on social media showing saffron-robed monks advocating violence and ethnic cleansing of Muslims.
“The incident is under investigation,” Ashok Kumar, the police chief of the state of Uttarakhand, said over the telephone. Clips from the conclave – held from Dec. 17 to 20 – circulated on social media and drew sharp criticism from India’s former military chiefs, activists and even international tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
A series of video clips from the event showed religious leaders and at least one member of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party exhorting Hindus to arm themselves against India’s largest minority group.
“Muslims weren’t targeted but teachings of a certain faith that justify violence were discussed,” Amritanand, a Hindu monk and an organizer of the gathering, who goes by one name, said.
Hate speeches and anti-Muslim violence are likely to see an uptick as Uttarakhand and the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous – both ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, go to polls early next year.
The elections will serve as an indicator of popular sentiment for both the prime minister and his party.
Modi and the BJP have fast-tracked a Hindu nationalist agenda after winning a sweeping mandate for a second term in 2019. His administration has revoked Article 370 of the constitution that granted special autonomous status to India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and approved a citizenship law that discriminates based on religion.
He has laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Hindu temple at a site where a 16th century mosque was razed. The country’s top court handed over ownership of the site to Hindus in 2019 after decades of bitter dispute.
Hindus make up about 80% of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people, with Muslims the country’s largest minority accounting for just over 14%.
The incident shows “mainstreaming of hate in India and the failure of institutions like the police force and the judicial process,” Barkha Dutt, a Washington Post columnist and founder-editor of Indian news platform MoJo said. “There is a greater acceptance of the mob and the language of the mob” across India now.
However, some organizers of the Hindu religious gathering tried to soften the tone of the event. “A few monks went beyond the brief when addressing the gathering,” said Akhil Kaushik, one of the organizers and head of a religious body.