More hate, more votes? Maharashtra’s voters on how they’re impacted by hate speech

In 2023, the state recorded one instance of hate speech every three days.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
TV screens showing Suresh Chavhanke, Nitish Rane and T Raja Singh, with a map of Maharashtra.

In March 2022, a Ram Navami rally passed peacefully through the Muslim-dominated area of Kiradpura in Aurangabad, now Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, where a Ram temple is located. Some Muslim shopkeepers and associations distributed sharbat to the hundreds of people walking by in the heat. 

But a year later, when a Ram Navami rally took place in the same area, it flared into a communal riot. One person died and property was damaged.

What changed between the two events? What catalysed this escalation?

Days before the 2023 violence, a group called the Sakal Hindu Samaj organised a Hindu Jan Akrosh, a rally in support of the decision to rename the city to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar. But it went well beyond its purported agenda. 

The march, which started at Kranti Chowk, saw several hate speeches made, including one by BJP leader T Raja Singh, who said Hindus should stop “love jihadis” and, if the police did not support them, “voh aage kate hai na, unka pura kaat do”. Sudarshan News editor Suresh Chavhanke, meanwhile, demanded an “economic boycott” of Muslims.

Soon after, participants in the rally vandalised shop boards and posters that carried the word ‘Aurangabad’ – an act the police said was a result of communal speeches. Importantly, the rally had been organised despite not getting police permission. 

But there’s a larger pattern of hate speech in Maharashtra, which recorded 118 instances of hate speech in 2023, according to data from India Hate Lab. This was higher than any other state in India, with Uttar Pradesh in second place with 104 instances. In other words, Maharashtra recorded a hate speech once every three days in 2023. Ten have been recorded so far this year. In January, India Hate Lab’s website was blocked in India.

According to India Hate Lab, 420 (63 percent) of the 668 hate speech events in 2023 included references to conspiracy theories, such as love jihad. 239 of the recorded hate speech events featured explicit calls of violence against Muslims, including calls to arms. 

In Maharashtra, most of the speeches documented were made at rallies organised by the Sakal Hindu Samaj, an umbrella group of right-wing factions including the Bajrang Dal, Vishva Hindu Parishad, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The group began organising public meetings, predominantly in Maharashtra, about four months after the Shinde government came to power in June 2022.

Analysis by Newslaundry indicates that ever since the Samaj was set up in November 2022, it held rallies in at least 28 out of Maharashtra’s 36 districts.

But does this matter during a general election? What do local residents think? 

We visited three constituencies in Maharashtra that recorded hate speeches last year – Mira Road in Thane (four instances), Malvani in Mumbai North (two), and Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (three) – to find out.  These locations also witnessed communal clashes, often just days after the hate speeches. 

Anger, mistrust on eve of elections

In Mira Road, about 30 km from Mumbai, Muslim residents vocalised their anger and a sense of mistrust ahead of voting.

Mira Road, which is part of Thane constituency.

The suburb is part of Thane Lok Sabha constituency. The local MLA from Mira-Bhayandar, which has a Muslim population of 16.28 percent, is Geeta Jain. She won the assembly polls in 2019 as an independent, having quit the BJP after she was denied a ticket. She found her way back to the party after beating the BJP candidate by over 15,500 votes. 

Jain has, over the last two years, emerged as a leader of hate speech, either making statements herself or sharing stage with others who make them, such as Kajal Hindustani and Nitesh Rane.

“We are greater in numbers, if they need 10-15 minutes, we only need 5 minutes which will be good enough for them,” Jain had earlier this year amid communal clashes that took place in Mira Road in January this year in the run-up to the Ram Mandir inauguration. She meant that five minutes of free reign would be enough to express the Hindu community’s power, given their population.

Jain had also flagged rallies off other leaders where speeches calling for economic boycott of Muslims had been made.

While Jain isn’t contesting in the Lok Sabha polls, there’s a sense of betrayal among voters against her.

Amjat Mayyur Nayyar, who drives an auto rickshaw in Mira Road, told Newslaundry he “strongly supported” Jain in 2019 since she “seemed like an educated woman who did good work”. “But the things she says about our community now is vile and feels like a betrayal. It is different if someone on the road says this versus a sitting leader saying this.”

Nayyar said he’s determined to vote against Modi, whom he holds responsible for the rise in hate speech. “The leaders who come from outside and spread hate here are all from the BJP,” he said. “The atmosphere has become so tense that now when I work late, my wife calls me and tells me to be careful when I go to Hindu localities.”

The main Lok Sabha candidates in the fray from Thane are Naresh Mhaske, from Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena, and Rajan Vichare from the Shiv Sena (Uddhav). At least 10 Muslims in Mira Road told Newslaundry they will vote for Vichare, mainly because there aren’t “better options”. Vichare himself doesn’t have the best reputation – in 2014, he was caught on video “force-feeding” a Muslim who was fasting.

“Our helplessness is such that we have no other options so we will vote for him,” said Naser Khan, 46, a businessman who lives in Mira Road. “But I’m still scared that he may switch alliances after winning, looking at the state of Maharashtra politics.”

Khan said Hindu customers began shunning his real estate business after the communal violence last year. “We used to get a lot of inquiries via phone calls and messages. But now we have barely got any Hindu customers,” he said. “I think they see my name...and decide otherwise.”

Spreading ‘poison’

On March 19, 2023, at the rally organised in the city by the Sakal Hindu Samaj over changing Aurangabad’s name, BJP leader T Raja Singh addressed over 5,000 attendees. 

“Wherever you get to know that our sisters and daughters are getting trapped, go there with your team. First, request the authorities to help you, but if the authorities do not support you, then you yourself kill the ones that are already half cut [a reference to circumcision],” he said. 

He also said a real Hindu is not “one who stands in a temple, but one who kills Muslims”.

At the same event, Suresh Chavhanke urged attendees to “economically boycott these dogs of Aurangabad”. “My friends, I am talking as the representative of the government and Hindu culture…Now we will change the character of this city. The headline of this is the oath that we have taken to change the character of this city,” he said.

Voters have three choices here for the upcoming polls: Sandipan Bhumre from the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena, Chandrakant Khaire from the Shiv Sena (Uddhav), and Imtiaz Jaleel, the sitting MP from the AIMIM.

When asked about hate speech, several locals referenced the prime minister’s recent speeches, especially the one from Rajasthan where he said the Congress party would “snatch” mangalsutras from Hindu women to fund welfare schemes for Muslims. 

It is very wrong that these statements are coming from someone occupying the seat of prime minister. The BJP is the one with poison spoiling the game.

A broker in Kiradpura

“It is very wrong that these statements are coming from someone occupying the seat of prime minister,” said Ismaile Khan, a 52-year-old broker in Kiradpura. “The BJP is the one with poison spoiling the game. I will vote for someone who doesn’t spread hatred and instead works on development. I want India to be like the countries focused on development and progress but instead, we are fighting over such things.”

A labourer in the same area, who didn’t want to be named for this report, said hate politics “must stop”. “If the government changes in 2024, everything will become okay and back to how it used to be,” he said. 

‘Not really hate speeches’

In Mira Road’s Shanti Nagar area, Jignesh, who runs a plywood shop, has a neighbour whose store was attacked by rioters in March during the 2023 Ram Navami violence. However, he said he’ll still vote for the BJP. 

“There is only one man who can do good work on the national level, and that is Modi,” he said. He dismissed hate speeches by people like Geeta Jain and T Raja Singh, saying they were “not really hate speeches”.

This was echoed by Harshvardhan Kenekar, the president of the Bajrang Dal unit in Sambhajinagar and the son of state BJP general secretary Sanjay Kenekar. Harshvardhan regularly organises and attends rallies organised by the Sakal Hindu Samaj.

On an “economic boycott” of Muslims, he insisted it’s the “need of the hour”. “When a poor Hindu dreams of being an entrepreneur but can’t survive in this world due to the halal certifications that Muslim insist on, isn't that an economic boycott? Why shouldn’t we do the same?” he asked angrily. 

When told that halal certifications are required for exports and Muslims constitute a minority in India, he grew incensed and said Muslims are “the second majority” in India. 

“Sometimes a Neha is stabbed, sometimes a Shradda is cut into pieces, and sometimes a Rashi is stuffed in a suitcase. A community defence structure is needed to balance that, which is why these rallies have come up. If our women are being harmed but you still want to be ahimsa, then you’re impotent,” he said.

Kenekar is convinced the BJP is the only party “trying to take a stand for Hindus”.

A BJP worker, who attended the rallies in Mira Road, told Newslaundry that he did not think speaking about ‘love jihad’ should be considered hate speech. “Love jihad cases have increased over time. What is wrong in speaking about it?” he asked. “Saying things like ‘Hinduo jago apne raksha karo’ is also not wrong, don’t we have all the rights to protect ourselves?”

He told Newslaundry that Geeta Jain was, in fact, “not serious enough” about this cause. “Before elections, she is putting up the facade of being a Hindu sherni, but I'm not convinced at all. I’d give her a one out of 10.”

Love jihad cases have increased over time. What is wrong in speaking about it?...Don’t we have all the rights to protect ourselves?

BJP worker in Mira Road

In Sambhajinagar, a young chartered accountant, who did not want to be named, said he had attended rallies organised by the Sakal Hindu Samaj in the city last year. “They’re not hate speeches,” he said simply. “I agree with what was said.”

“When they turn 18 years old, the madrassa gives them money to patao Hindu girls,” said another Sambhajinagar resident in his 20s. When asked the source of his information, he said a neighbourhood acquaintance once “confessed” this to him. There is no evidence for this at all. 

In Mira Road’s Shanti Nagar area, there is only one shop with a visibly Muslim name – Saba Boutique. On January 23 this year, when the Ram Navami violence broke out, the rally passing through threw stones at the shop, breaking its glass windows. 

“They saw the name of the shop and attacked with stones. We got the windows repaired but this one still has the mark of the stones,” said Shamsher Alam, the owner of Saba Boutique, pointing at marks on the window. “Some people have suggested that we should change the name of the shop so we are not identifiable by our Muslim identity. But we’re not scared and won’t bow down.”

Alam filed a police complaint at Naya Nagar police station soon after the violence alongside other shop owners who had suffered damages. An FIR has been registered but no action taken yet. 

“If we file another case individually, it will attract too much attention. We don't want to suffer again,” he said. “BJP leaders have been spreading hate through their speeches and politics. From Geeta Jain to PM Modi, an attempt is being made to ruin the peaceful atmosphere.”

Reminders of the violence at Saba Boutique in Mira Road.
Mohammad Eyjas, a resident of Sambhajinagar.

Changing neighbourhoods

In Malvani, the Sakal Hindu Samaj organised two rallies over the past year that saw hate speech against Muslims. During a rally on January 29, 2023, T Raja Singh said a “time for war” was coming and Hindus must “kill”. Hindutva leader Sakshi Gaikwad described Muslims as “sacrificial lambs, waiting to be sacrificed”.

During the second rally on March 3 this year, Nitish Rane, the son of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Narayan Rane, told attendees, “Yeh Hindu Rashtra mein Jihadion ka kabhi waqt bhi nahi ayega. (In this Hindu rashtra, these Muslims will not get.)” 

Rane has become a sought-after figure at such events in the state, given his history of making communally charged statements like “Tu Durga ban, tu Kali ban, kabhi na burqe wali ban” and “love jihad band karo”. 

Rajashree Raut, a Shiv Sena (Shinde) party worker in Malvani, defended Rane, saying it was “just his way of speaking”. She also said events like these are “important” to push back against Muslims in her locality.

“We wear any clothes but they just wear white kurtas, topis, and burqas – dharm ka uniform. When our relatives and friends come from outside, they ask what all this is,” she said. “Our people were getting scared for so many years, so we have formed Hindu Manch to address our problems.”

Malvani has seen a long-standing to ruin its reputation. Right-wing leaders use the phrase “Malvani pattern” to refer to Hindus purportedly being driven out of their neighbourhoods so more Muslims can move in. Coined by BJP leader Mangal Prabhat Lodha in 2021, it’s now a catch-all phrase used by party leaders and others to claim a “Hindu exodus” is taking place if Muslims live in an area.

Meanwhile Lodha, once the head of the BJP in Mumbai, was sent a showcause notice by the Election Commission in 2019 for claiming “bombs and bullets” used in terror attacks in Mumbai were manufactured in Muslim-majority areas of the city.

“I have been here 42 years and this is the first time I am seeing things turning this way,” said Afzal Sheikh, a resident of Malvani. “The ones who want to spread hate just come and do it.  We are educated but the ones who are not may get influenced by these speeches.”

In Sambhajinagar, Mohammad Eyjas told Newslaundry he’s lived in the city for almost six decades. He said he watched the Ram Navami violence unfold before his eyes last year, with cars being burned, shops vandalised, and slogans raised. “A few people came, made slogans, started the problems, and went away,” he mourned. “Ninety percent of Hindus aren’t hateful but the 10 percent that are, are defaming them. The same goes for Muslims.”

Mohammad Qayoom, 45, manages a restaurant in Malvani. He also blamed recent tension on people coming from “outside”.  

“It is the age of social media. We don’t have to be present at the spot to know what is being said about our community,” he said. “It is the people from outside coming and doing this. They need to be questioned on why. In our locality otherwise, every community celebrates their festivals through rallies and other programmes, and the rest coordinate. For example when a ganpati visarjan passes the masjid at the time of azan, they stop the music out of respect.”

But some people haven’t lost hope.

In Mira Road, a group of citizens launched a unique campaign to counter hate, sending thousands of virtual postcards to Geeta Jain saying they hope she recovers from the “hate virus”.

“Unlike the #coronavirus, this nasty bug doesn’t just attack the body; it preys on the very humanity within. But fear not, my friends! We are not giving up on Geetaji just yet,” said the postcard. “We can still show her that we care and support her by sending her some #GetWellSoonGeetaJain cards and flowers.”

The local police allegedly did not permit the group to send physical postcards, seizing the material instead and urging the organisers to remove Jain’s name from the campaign.

“You can’t reply to hate with hate,” said Sadique Basha, one of the organisers of the initiative and a member of the CPI. “We have not even had communal tensions here before. Ever since BJP has made Hindutva its vote bank, it has become essential for them to hate on minorities.”

In Malvani too, there is the rare feeling of triumph. After a plea in the Bombay High Court sought registration of FIRs against Jain, Rane and Raja, for hate speeches in areas such as Malvani and Mira road, the Maharashtra government informed the court that the FIRs had been registered.

Mohammad Qayoom, who manages a restaurant in Malvani.
Members of the group of 25 NGOs in Malvani that filed a petition to deal with hate speech.

“It took a month and a half to get them to file the FIRs. They have made this ‘Malvani pattern’ a module or phrase that they keep trying to sell,” said Shanul Sayyed, one of the petitioners in the case. “When festivals happen, their sleeper cells get active to make this an issue. People come from outside areas and spread their agenda slowly.”

Shanul filed the petition after a group of 25 NGOs came together in Malvani to deal with rising hate speech. 

“The purpose of these hate speeches is to bring together the people who believe in this kind of Hindutva,” said Anwar Shaikh, president of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Malvani unit. “ The purpose isn’t just to demean Muslims, it is to demean Muslims for the vote bank. Make Muslims the villain, push them to the point where they can’t push back up.”

Shaikh added: “Maharashtra is a big part of BJP’s mission to achieve 400 seats. After UP,  Maharashtra has the most number of seats – 48 – which is needed to achieve its vision. It’s all just a power game. Maharashtra did not have hate speeches before, but there are puppets such as Rane being prepared to do this. It won’t ever be the big leaders like Nitish Gadkari and Piyush Goyal.”

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article image668 hate speech events held in India in 2023, most of them in BJP states: Study


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