Rumours, it is said, sustain riots. India has a long and bloody history of proving the adage in its post-colonial existence, from Partition in 1947 to the most recent riots in North-east Delhi in February 2020 ~ marked all through by the virulent narratives of politicians too many to list.
On the other side of the world, in January this year, Donald Trump was accused of giving an incendiary speech to supporters alleging election fraud in the US Presidential election and urging them to march on the Capitol where Congress was certifying the victory of President Joe Biden, telling them to “fight like hell.”
There are multiple examples globally from the Left and the Right of such verbal violence. The short point is that there is a clear causal link between inciting real-world violence and virulent hate speech targeting individuals and/or communities. Political leaders cutting across parties in India now regularly use violent rhetoric to demonise their opponents. Bengal is a classic example with leaders of both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, the two main players in the state, using language against each other which ought to be unacceptable in a civilised country.
It is, of course, difficult to trace a leader’s statement to subsequent events. Research, however, suggests the incendiary rhetoric of leaders not only makes political violence more likely, but it gives violence direction, complicates the law enforcement response, and increases fear in vulnerable communities.
Writing on this phenomenon in the USA, Daniel L. Byman argues that part of the problem is that politicians’ remarks do not fade away after they are made.
Incendiary rhetoric from leaders against their opponents is often quickly magnified ~ it drives the coverage of traditional media platforms, provides a cue for local leaders, and is amplified by social media.
Citizens play an important role too in spreading the message, sharing it with friends and family, thereby shifting the “Overton Window” signalling that an issue is now the subject of acceptable discourse when, in the past, discussing it might have been taboo. Leaders such as former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani condemned this trend of demonisation of political opponents repeatedly and publicly through the 1980s and 1990s when the powerful left intellectual establishment, aided and abetted by the Congress went for the BJP and its allied outfits with a viciousness now matched by its right-wing counterpart which is in the ascendance.
Mr Advani even tried through symbolic gestures to make a distinction between ideological-political adversaries and characterising opponents as enemies by going in person to pay his last respects to CPI-M stalwart EMS Namboodiripad. Unfortunately, that proved to be merely a straw in the wind.
Targeting and demonising political opponents, while it does not change attitudes, does embolden individuals to express, and act on, pre-existing views they had once hidden. The results are there for all to see in West Bengal.