Incidents like the Aligarh girl’s murder show how social media is being used to tar a particular community and fan fear
Earlier this month, the body of a two-year-old who had gone missing from her home in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh was found at a dumping ground nearby. White-hot outrage followed on Twitter, and many, including influential celebrity handles, described how a man called Zahid had raped the child and gouged out her eyes. This was inaccurate — since police investigation confirmed neither rape not torture. But the violent crime had acquired communal overtones in people’s minds.
The Aligarh murder was compared to the rape and murder of an eight-yearold in Kathua, J&K, to blame liberals for their ‘silence’ about a Muslim perpetrator — even though in the Aligarh case, no party had rallied around him, no police had covered up the crime and there was no ground for protest.
There are Muslim criminals, as there are Hindu or Christian or Sikh or atheist criminals. But instead of looking at material conditions that drive individual crimes, people are projecting their fears onto a whole community and religion (which currently comprises a sixth of humanity).
This Islamophobia is not new — as historian Charu Gupta writes, even in colonial India the Hindu community was forged by the fear of Muslims as especially cruel, lecherous and vicious. These ideas fanned anxieties that still linger on in popular culture, and show up in our social media frenzies.
The fear of Muslims and Islam is a right-wing staple around the world. Australian senator Fraser Anning claimed that Muslims were three times more likely to be convicted of crimes — a freely made-up claim, since the country does not classify perpetrators by religion. In the UK, they claimed that Muslim immigrants committed 11,000 out of 13,000 knife crimes in London — also pure fiction. In India last year, Mahesh Vikram Hedge, the founder of Postcard News, tweeted that ‘96% of those accused of rape are Muslims’ — again, a lie intended to summon and spread fear.
These attempts to spread fear have become commonplace in India, as facts are often mixed with fiction. An old Bangladeshi video about a group of rioting Muslims went viral in India this May, with claims that the clip was from West Bengal. The caption read: “Muslims driving Hindus out from Bengal, like they did in Kashmir. Fleeing Hindus, helpless cops, and burning houses, if you haven’t seen Kashmir, see Bengal.” Last year in January, suspected Karni Sena members attacked a school bus in Gurugram to protest the film Padmaavat, but within days rumours spread that the accused were named ‘Saddam, Aamir, Feroze, Nadeem and Ashraf.’ It was only after Gurugram police issued a clarification that the dust settled. Recently, a news article describing how Salim, a Muslim taxi driver in UP’s Meerut district, had killed 250 passengers in a span of four months, went viral. Another report claimed that in Mandsaur, the Muslim community was agitating for the release of a Muslim man accused of rape. Often, the media coverage of crime leads audiences to overestimate Muslim violence, imagine psychological differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and fear them.
These imaginary fears can lead to real violence: in 2018, Google employee Mohammad Azam and his companions, were attacked in Bidar, Karnataka because the crowd, fed on WhatsApp rumours, suspected them to be child kidnappers. “Hatred against Muslims has been legitimised. It is encouraged and even valourised,” says Harsh Mander, founder of the NGO Aman Biradari which has been tracking hate crimes in India.
These WhatsApp videos and Facebook posts have steadily grown as “the right-wing builds the narrative that Hindus and others are victims of ‘minority appeasement’,” says Jency Jacob of the fact-checking website Boomlive.in. For all the fear-mongering, studies show that Muslims are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime. According to Hate Crime Watch, in incidents tracked between 2009-2019, Muslims were found to be perpetrators in 12% of the cases, whereas their Hindu counterparts were found to be perpetrators in 58% of the cases.
Crime has to be delinked from religion, says Nazia Erum, the author of ‘Mothering a Muslim’. “This narrative, which demonises a whole community for an individual’s actions, must be actively countered. It is happening across the world,” she says.