A Dispatch from the Indian Affairs Series
Manasa Narayanan is a journalist and writer, trying to navigate the mighty and confusing world of journalism (or what is left of it). At present, she mainly works with The Citizens (a news non-profit). She mainly deals with topics related to politics, protests, media and technology. In addition, Manasa is Editorial Assistant for Emerging Voices. To access her writings, click here. And to catch her needless newsy tweets, click here.
In India, things always roll with a kind of hugeness. A large chunk of land encompasses diversity difficult to describe to outsiders but matter-of-fact to those residing within it, people with large hearts (many T&Cs applied), whose challenges, big and small, often arise out of the country’s vastness. It’s all so big, burdensome to carry. Whenever someone unfamiliar with India’s nationalistic politics asks me about them, my head fires in many directions. It’s an achievement when I respond with any semblance of coherence.
This series, ‘Indian’ Affairs, published monthly, is an unpacking of thoughts on problems with contemporary Indian nationalism — what it means to ‘Indians’, residing within or outside the ‘motherland’, or just to those who care about the region and its peoples.
This is an edited excerpt from one of the dispatches in the series. See the upcoming pieces here.
In a few days, I am travelling to India to see my family. I was last there in the summer of 2020 — the year Coronavirus took the world by storm. As I prepare to visit, my concerns stretch beyond packing clothes, gifts and other paraphernalia. I’m also preparing mentally. I fear the India I left and the India to which I return are different places. Politically, things were terrible then and I worry they have become worse. India has lost hundreds of thousands of lives to a pandemic whose effects were catastrophic, owing to the stunning ignorance and indifference of the Indian government. The India to which I return is more blatantly discriminatory and violent towards Muslims, flouting the demise of secular temperaments. I go back to an India deprived of the oxygen needed to survive as a democracy.
None of this popped out of nowhere. Warning signs have been obvious to any observer. One did not even have to go far to see them. One only needed to look at family WhatsApp groups.
If you access an Indian person’s WhatsApp chats, chances are you’ll find it’s a family group. [Unless, like me, they have quit the group, having had enough of a confusing mix of harmless good morning pictures and hate-spewing forwards--often in quick succession.] These are not groups consisting only of one’s immediate family. Often there are hundreds of members in a group, composed of uncles, aunts and cousins one has at best seen a few times in life.
What is to marvel at is not the size of our families or of the groups, but the very fertile ground they provide for the circulation of fake news. Unlike say Twitter, which is a public platform on which messages can be challenged and sometimes removed, WhatsApp is an encrypted personal messaging app. Detection and tackling of false information is almost impossible. WhatsApp has been heavily weaponized by those linked to India’s ruling party, the BJP — and it was deployed extensively during elections.
WhatsApp’s ability to reach untold numbers of people quickly, with minimal costs, and the lack of any oversight governing communications has meant that family WhatsApp groups have become a notable phenomenon in themselves — a not very micro microcosm of ideological rinse and repeat. It’s a site where scores of people can be reached by simply forwarding stock messages. More alarming, by facilitating the creation of an intimate family space, all kinds of ideas and ideologies are easily reinforced. Most people want to fit in and to avoid confrontation with their family.
To take a key example of today’s fevered Indian identity politics: a majority of Hindus tacitly agree with what’s posted about the negative and dangerous presence of Muslims in India (given how strongly identified many are with their Hindu religious identity). But even those who do not view Muslims as a dangerous Other do not challenge the disparaging and dangerous propaganda posted on their WhatsApp feed. They seek to avoid discord with their family group. I was an anomaly, especially as I challenged senior family members.
What I refer to as ‘population propaganda’ has been making the rounds on these Whatsapp groups since I was a teenager. I am now nearing my mid-twenties. This is almost a decade of the same pieces of fake news repeatedly surfacing without serious scrutiny. With time, this propaganda gains more and more legitimacy-- as if it were undeniable fact.
What is this ‘population propaganda’? Put simply, it is that the population of Muslims will exceed that of Hindus in the country, turning now Hindu-majority India into some kind of Islamic nation dominated by a majority of Muslims. It is a grand tale of a majority under threat as if it were the minority.
The way these messages are framed tells a story of a rise in Muslim population over the past decades that is outpacing the rise in Hindu population in the same time frame. And the messaging concludes that by some arbitrary year (usually 2050), the Muslim population will overtake that of Hindus.
In 2015, a Pew Research report declared: “By 2050, India will have the world’s largest populations of Hindus and Muslims”. The report said that India already has the largest Hindu population in the world and that by 2050, it will also have the largest Muslim population. These numbers were cited in comparing India to other countries. But absolute numbers came to be taken out of context to paint a false narrative and to misrepresent realities.
The study said that while the Hindu population will grow more slowly, Hindus will still make up 76.7% of the population in 2050. The growth in Muslim population in no way will surpass the growth in Hindu population so that Muslims will exceed Hindus in 2050. But the right wing narrative insists that Hindus are in danger of being outnumbered by an odious outsider group.
This population propaganda is effective because while the facts don’t add up, it taps into the Hindus under danger sentiment, propagated by the right-wing. Tales of widespread forceful conversions of Hindus — of Muslim boys luring Hindu women into marriage and conversion (what’s termed ‘love jihad’) — or of Christian missionaries manipulating and undertaking conversions, are ripe in India’s media landscape. These are reported as facts without any scrutiny. As there is no larger challenge to these narratives in the mainstream media, and as historical tensions between Hindus and Muslims show no sign of slackening, a large chunk of the Hindu population believes this distorted narrative. And given the punitive ethos the Indian government has created for any dissenters and critics, anyone raising alarm over these stories is automatically termed ‘anti-national’. There is no space to have a logical debate. People believe what they are fed.
As social psychology research points out, for people who have strong social identification with a particular variable (like religion, caste, etc), a perceived threat to their cherished social identity can strengthen an in-group bias. And all of these tales, of a Muslim population boom, of forced conversions, target that vulnerability — telling the Hindus (who love being Hindus) there will be no Hindus left if they do not act against the out-group--the Muslims.
As I see it, there are two major issues with the population propaganda I describe. One is that it paints a false picture of Muslims overtaking Hindus to become a majority. Another is that it propagates the belief that a rise in Muslim population is in itself some kind of a bad thing. It vilifies Muslims and strengthens the stereotypes of religious fanaticism and evil-ness with which they are associated. We can only begin to fight this nationalism by acknowledging India’s realities as they are - by telling the story of India as it is and including Muslims as a legitimate part of our national narrative.