After the Tablighi Jamaat’s Nizamuddin headquarters in Delhi became one of India’s 10 coronavirus hotspots in early April, a section of the media held the Muslim organisation almost solely responsible for the outbreak. In fact, it won’t be an exaggeration to say many Indians believe it was the Tablighis who brought the pandemic to India. TV anchors amplified news about the Tablighis for weeks, referring to them as the “”, and accusing them of waging “corona jihad” or “spitting jihad”.
It got so bleak that the Equality Lab, a South Asian human rights group in the United States that tracks Islamophobic hate speech, the World Health Organization to intervene urgently. The Muslims in India and around the world risked increased discrimination and bigotry, even the denial of medical services, it warned.
Though the Indian media’s coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat has been widely analysed, it’s worth considering if some of it would qualify as hate speech.
What happens when hate speech is disguised as journalism? When questioned, defenders of hate speech scramble towards the free speech argument, and denounce any “questioning” as an attack on the freedom of the press. But what if “free speech” kills? Or can kill?
History of media trial
Hate speech has long been used to provoke violence. One of the first journalists anywhere to be held accountable for inciting violence was Julius Streicher, the founding editor of the antisemitic German weekly Der Stürmer. He was tried at Nuremberg and the verdict against him : “For his 25 years of speaking, writing and preaching hatred of the Jews, Streicher was widely known as 'Jew-Baiter Number One’.”
Fifty six years later, the Rwandan Genocide Trial three journalists guilty of genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity. The Rwandan trial once again offered the international criminal justice system an opening to examine, question and prosecute hate speech. In both Nuremberg and Rwanda, it was proved that hateful propaganda can be and has been a crime against humanity and a crime of genocide.
In both Rwanda and Nuremberg, the media trial took place well after the world had mourned the genocide. In the Rwandan trial, the Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which upheld the notion of accountability, said one doesn’t need to wait for genocide to prove intent to genocide and that intent itself must be held criminally liable. The Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust did not happen overnight. The grains of hate had been soaked long before they sprouted into mass murder.
There is no genocide happening in India. I don’t see it in the near future either. But if you pay attention, you can hear the muffled sounds of the drum of hatred being beaten somewhere on the horizon. And if history is anything to go by, it’s imperative to take note of it before it’s too late.
Creating the climate
Creating the climate that prepares the masses has always been the first stage of genocide. In Germany, what started with civic exclusion of the Jews quickly progressed to mass murder as the systematic dehumanization of the minority community turned common men into frenzied cheerleaders of the Final Solution.
Media propaganda was integral to setting the stage for the Holocaust. It began with anti-semetic canards that the Jews were “”, or face of the enemy, impure, and equal to “” , that is, vermin.
This was done by constantly vilifying them, launching public verbal assaults and spreading false information about the Jews. Similarly, the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, or RTLM, which was held accountable for direct and public incitement of genocide by the ICTR, often referred to the Tutsis as “”, or cockroaches.
According to the ICTR, it is imperative to distinguish between the intent of news to educate and its intent to provoke. The tribunal notes that speech constituting ethnic hatred results from the stereotyping of the ethnic group combined with its denigration.
In India, as documented, the media “peddled fake news and made up conspiracy theories” while reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. “Maulana Muhammad Saad, head of the Tablighi Jamaat, was called a ‘terrorist’ and ‘the maulana of death, the attendees were described as ‘human bombs’ and linked to terror groups, and, of course, Pakistan. All without a shred of evidence.”
In early March, Sudhir Chaudhary of Zee News schooled his viewers about the various kinds of jihad using a . He presented it as his original work, but it was discovered that the chart had been lifted off an anti-Muslim Facebook called “Boycott Halal in India”.
Chaudhary’s attempt was to show how “jihad” was destroying “Indian culture”. A case was against him under the penal provision which punishes “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.
On the surface, the pattern of peddling fake news may seem sporadic and random, but it is not. At the Rwandan trial, one witness what the RTLM had done to “spreading petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country”. Looking at the language and slandering done by certain Indian journalists shows how their purpose is to vilify the Muslims, portray them as outsiders and as a community that the Hindu majority .
Arnab Goswami, of Republic TV, started his primetime show on the Tablighi Jamaat by demanding the nation “wake up” to the that “50 percent of India’s coronavirus cases are because of the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz”. There was, of course, no source or evidence cited for the 50 percent figure.
Constructing the Muslim as the dangerous other, Goswami said he was worried about the state of “his” country because the Tablighis were out there only to spread the virus with “acute deliberate callousness”.
“A conspiracy against India will have to be bought down with effectiveness,” he declared.
In a broadcast on the Palghar lynching case, he , “In a country where 80 percent of the people are Hindu and follow the Sanatan Dharam, it has become a crime to be Hindu.” This when the .
Steitcher similarly the German people to “wake up” and see who the Jews were and the dangers they posed. "I ask you once more, what is at stake today? The Jew seeks domination not only among the German people, but among all peoples. The communists pave the way for him.”
As the French historian Jean-Pierre Chretien , the first step is to set the propaganda within a “traditional socio racial policy that had been refined for a generation”.
In the case of Rwanda, Chretien explains how misinformation and propaganda, along with provocation and violent rhetoric, grounded itself within the efficiency of its arguments for uniting the Hutu masses against Tutsis. This is how under the guise of freedom of speech, Chretien warns, democratic language itself becomes a “technology” designed for totalitarian mobilisation. He calls this the slow and steady creation of a democratic alibi. Thus, any anger expressed in this form simply becomes rightful democratic anger. “They are, in fact, a call to kill, sanctioned by arguments drawn from past experience,” he adds.
Role of stereotyping
In early April, posters that read “No Muslim Trader will be Allowed Access to our Hometown until the Coronavirus is Completely Gone” went up across Mangalore, Karnataka. According to a report in the , a video shows Mahesh, the panchayat president of the Hindu-dominated Ankanahalli village, warning that any Hindu caught fraternising with a Muslim would be fined Rs 500 to Rs 1,000.
Facsim requires serious homework. Propaganda is never recognised as such while it’s being disseminated. To reach that stage, the legwork of stereotyping is essential. As Deborah E Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University, , the German masses were willing to believe propaganda – even when evidence wasn’t offered or it was baseless – simply because it made sense to them. And it is stereotyping that plays an active role in this sense making.
“They had been so exposed to this stereotype, it had become so much the pivot point and the central element of anti-semitism that Jews have other loyalties, that it seemed like it must be true, and they were ready to believe the worst,” he explains.
Why were other religious gatherings not covered with the same rigor as the Tablighi congregation? A few weeks after the event was held, and barely days after members of other religions had held large gatherings, Rahul Kanwal, the news director of India Today and Aaj Tak, a primetime show, “Madrasa Hotspot”. According to Kanwal, the caretakers of three madrassa in the National Capital Region had violated lockdown rules by keeping the students in cramped spaces. India Today declared that the caretakers were closely linked to the Tablighi Jamaat, thus suggesting a conspiracy with no care for the lives of the children.
An investigation by found the children were not “hiding”, they just could not travel to their homes outside the capital because of the lockdown. A doctor who had visited one of the madrasas told India TV that no student had coronavirus there.
And neither the caretakers nor the students were connected to the Tablighi Jamaat in any way. The only commonality between them was their religion.
Such misinformation where the common thread between certain events is only the identity of those attached to those events was noted by the judges at the Rwandan Trial. The pattern of naming people on random suspicion, without articulated grounds, or on completely unfounded grounds, they held, was a deliberate and conscious attempt at “infecting minds”.
The ICTR that the accuracy of a generalisation is only one factor in determining if it’s intended to provoke or educate. The tone of the statement is as relevant to this determination as its content. The tribunal also considers the statement’s context to be important. A statement of ethnic generalisation provoking resentment against members of that ethnicity, for one, will have heightened impact in the context of a genocidal environment. It will be more likely to lead to violence. At the same time, the environment will indicate that incitement to violence is the intent of the statement.
In India, the unceasing stereotyping of the Muslims is what legitimises, for example, the brutal , 22. He had returned home to Delhi from a Tablighi Jamaat event in Bhopal, only to be accused of conspiring to spread coronavirus. It is also what justifies the public display of anti-Muslim posters in Mysore.
As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt writes in her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda...In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”
History’s blind spot?
If we look closely enough, it might be possible to see how the groundwork for hate is stealthily and steadily being prepared. And, as the Rwandan chief prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow , if the media deploys its power to attack ethnic or racial groups it will have to face justice.
“The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility," the ICTR states in a 29-page summary of its judgment. "Those who control the media are accountable for its consequence.”
Even if one can legally argue that mere hate speech cannot and does not amount to incitement to genocide, none can deny that as history has proven it is the first step in that direction.
The media cannot and should not remain history’s blind spot. As the Rwandan trial shows, only journalistic accountability and the viewer’s vigilance can protect us against the looming danger in India. Once we reach the point of no return, of mass murder, it will be hard to trace the history of violence while counting the dead.
The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today.