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Asia

Hate speech 'sows division' as India votes

With Indian electioneering now at its height, hate speech has become a part of political discourse. The Election Commission has been stirred to act, amid fears the electoral atmosphere would be poisoned.

The types of insult traded between India's Congress prime ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opponent, Narendra Modi, have become so routine that they no longer seem unusual.

In a bitterly contested election, the speech-making has at times turned pungent and even personal - something accepted by many as par for the course.

But when the poison injected in the campaign began to sharpen polarization around Hindu-Muslim lines in the last week, it rang alarm bells and reignited concerns about the country's radical right wing, and extremism within the BJP.

The season of vitriol was opened by Modi's campaign manager Amit Shah, who delivered a speech early April in the northern town of Muzaffarnagar, the town was the site of sectarian strife last year. He described the elections as an opportunity to seek "revenge" against the Muslim minorities.

Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), addresses a rally in the northern Indian city of Agra November 21, 2013. Modi used a large rally in the historic city of Agra on Thursday to push his Hindu nationalist agenda in a key election state where the sizeable Muslim minority eyes his campaign with alarm. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Modi has urged moderation, but some say there should be tougher sanctions for hatemongers

The fact that the Election Commission rescinded an initial ban on Shah's speeches opened the doors for more to follow. Last week Praveen Togadia, a senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), reportedly told his supporters to not allow Muslims to buy property in Hindu majority neighborhoods in Gujarat. The VHP is known for supporting the main opposition BJP.

'No country for opposition'

Togadia has not been the only one. Giriraj Singh, a senior leader of the BJP, had unequivocally stated in an election rally in the northern state of Bihar that those opposing Modi would have no place in India. "In the coming days, such people will have no place in India. They will only find a place in Pakistan," he thundered. Promptly, the Election Commission ordered the state police to arrest him.

"Once people begin looking to harvest hate this election season then we have a huge problem in our hands. Trying to sow divisiveness and hate are punishable and we are acting on them," a senior election commission official told DW.

And if that was not enough, the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP in the western state of Maharashtra, muddied the communal waters further. This, while sharing the stage with none other than Narendra Modi - legislator Ramdas Kadam threatened revenge against Muslims. He even assured the audience that Modi would "destroy Pakistan in six months of assuming power."

While the BJP's top leadership has distanced itself from these speeches, many are wondering why the party has not come down heavily on the culprits and expelled them from the party. Modi himself has merely disapproved of "irresponsible statements" and appealed for those making them to refrain from doing so.

'Using every trick in the book'

"All these statements from Hindu nationalist organizations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, betray an anxiety and a nervousness. They are using every trick in the book to sharpen polarization," Randeep Surjewala, Congress spokesperson told DW.

Political pundits who have been chronicling the election closely feel that the BJP and its allied organizations are trying to give the extra push in the final poll rounds, given the fact there is a mood for change in the country after ten years of Congress rule.

Women in Rajasthan in a que to vote in Indian Parliamentary Elections 2014. Copyright: DW/J. Sehgal via Mahesh Jha, DW

Voting is taking place in several stages in different states across the country

Thursday saw voting for constituencies in 12 states, including Assam, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But it is perhaps in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that the contest is at its bitterest.

"The mother of all battles is being fought from in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which will make or break Modi's fortunes. The recent spate of extreme statements shows that the BJP wants to consolidate the Hindu votes," argued political commentator Nerrja Chowdhury.

'A destructive discourse'

Rakesh Batyabal from the Centre of Media Studies in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University feels these speeches could leave politics and society even more sharply divided.

"If you have elections and have hate speeches as the center of that election campaign, you are basically making society intolerant, rather than raising the standards and consciousness of a population." Batyabal told DW.

The speeches could well run the risk for the BJP of undermining its image and message. But, with the very real danger of society being further divided on religious lines, the stakes could be even higher.

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