State of Confusion

Why the Modi government lies

Distorting reality is fundamental to the Modi regime’s capacity to hold on to power. ILLUSTRATION BY MIR SUHAIL
30 September, 2021

From 10 to 12 September, academics from various US universities organised an online conference titled “Dismantling Global Hindutva.” It was co-sponsored by various departments and centres in more than fifty universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and New York University. The conference brought together scholars of South Asia “specializing in gender, economics, political science, caste, religion, healthcare, and media in order to try to understand the complex and multi-faceted phenomenon of Hindutva.” In the lead-up to the event, pro-Hindutva groups began an unprecedented disinformation campaign and targeted attacks against the organisers and participants. Academic conferences rarely receive mainstream global attention, but in this case the vicious response made the world take note.

The campaign was swift and coordinated. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a violent Hindu-nationalist group—whose cadre are charged with assassinating the journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017—wrote to India’s home minister, seeking action against the India-based speakers of the conference. In the United States, groups such as the Hindu American Foundation, the Coalition of Hindus in North America and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America—which have links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—started an aggressive campaign to malign the organisers and cancel the conference. They reportedly sent out nearly a million emails to the organisers. An academic conference curated to understand Hindutva was quickly rebranded by right-wing groups as “Hinduphobic.” Over the years, Hinduphobia has been used as a smokescreen in the West to deflect any critical questions asked of the Narendra Modi government and its ideological parent, the RSS—including over escalating violence against India’s minorities under Modi’s rule, India’s caste system, the RSS’s Hindu-supremacist moorings and its rise in the United States.

During the conference, videos of panellists were maliciously edited and circulated, and troll armies attacked speakers on social media, threatening them with dire consequences. Anonymous online accounts spread fake news calling the conference “a hit job against India” that was part of a “larger conspiracy.” The Polis Project, a New York-based research-and-journalism organisation I am part of, and which was among the co-sponsors of the conference, was targeted as well. There were falsehoods floated around that Polis was funded and supported by groups such as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and that the organisation was part of a global conspiracy aimed at “targeting Hindutva & Hinduism.” Ultimately, these tactics of intimidation did not prevail and the conference continued as planned, but the disinformation campaign managed to do what the right-wings group intended: muddy the discourse. The news website Firstpost, for instance, has chosen to see the conference as a “partisan and politically-motivated event designed to malign an ancient religion and its adherents.” It described the premeditated and well-orchestrated bullying the speakers endured as one of “the biggest examples of public mobilisation among Hindus around the world.”

Disinformation and censorship are two sides of the same coin, both detrimental to democracy. Both are also fundamental to how authoritarian regimes function. They do not just disregard facts, they deliberately try to alter our sense of reality, manipulate language and set skewed terms of debate. This is accomplished by creating false equivalences and multiple narratives, while discrediting intellectual opponents, scholarship and empirical research. The goal is to leave the public disoriented and unable to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Suchitra Vijayan is a barrister-at-law, writer and researcher. She is the founder and executive director of The Polis Project, and the author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, recently published by Context, Westland.