Toxic Myths About Muslims Are Putting India on the Road to Ruin

How soon and far the country asserts the truth will decide its fate.

Last summer, India witnessed a number of grisly acts of anti-Muslim violence: ten Muslims were lynched or murdered. Yet in December, when a Hindu man hacked and burned a Muslim labourer in Rajasthan, there was something particularly macabre about it – the attacker had filmed the murder and shared the video on social media, and it was shown on television. Murder was no longer merely news or a statistic.

In the video, the attacker could be seen justifying his actions (to “protect the honour of Hindus against Muslims”). As the weeks went by, we learned more about the murder. There was a love triangle involved; the girl whom the attacker was besotted with had eloped with another man, a Muslim; to get even with his rival, the attacker had plotted murder but, in his unhinged state, killed another Muslim by mistake. Or so the story went.

As for the attacker himself, media reports said that he was “a well-meaning, quiet man” to those who knew him. One bewildered neighbour declared: “We had no idea he could do such a thing. We have known him for a long time and he didn’t seem to be the kind of man who could murder someone.”

How did the well-meaning, quiet man turn into a murderer? That question assumes greater significance if we step back from the Rajasthan case and behold the broader canvas: how did rail passengers, neighbours and villagers in the country turn into Islamophobic lynch mobs? Surely they too were normal ordinary people until some point in their lives. When and how then did these people become vicious? What incites ordinary people to commit heinous crimes?

Until they tell us how they developed murderous instincts, we can look elsewhere to similar normal peaceful people who metamorphosed into brutish murderers and also documented their violent transformation. For studies suggest regularities in some forces turning ordinary people to violence.

See without seeing, hear without hearing

Melita Maschmann was a simple schoolgirl in Weimar Germany until the Nazis took power in 1933. That year, she defied her parents to join the Hitler Youth. In her memoir, translated and published in English in 1964 as Account Rendered, Melita narrates her transformation from an ordinary teenager to a Nazi propagandist and official who supervised ethnic cleansing in Poland.

In chilling detail, Melita documents how the spread of toxic lies conjured up a “bogeyman” in the Jewry and created a general anti-Semitic atmosphere, in which she and other ordinary Germans would come to accept – even justify – violence against the minority group. Once Jews were portrayed as “the most dangerous enemies”, ordinary people condoned anti-Semitic violence: “… false tales… had to be invented and propagated amongst the people so that Müller the shoemaker [a German] should not get any rebellious ideas when his neighbour, Mayer the tailor [a Jew], was taken from his bed one morning and never came back.”

Systematic manipulation of the German psyche centred on a design that falsehoods, when repeated often enough, would make people believe them. To that end, Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, orchestrated the vilification of Jews to a deadly crescendo. Powerful anti-Semitic lies warped German minds and deadened morality to such an extent that violence seemed and became normal. The consequence was murder on an epic scale.

The path that took ordinary Germans to ethnic hatred and savagery traversed a dark valley of toxic myths about ethnic minorities. That valley of transition not just made Germans complicit in mass murder, but also killed in them the basic virtue that respected the sanctity of human life.

India too, it seems, is now standing at the entrance of a dark valley. Virulent lies about Muslims that turn normal ordinary people murderous are circulating in the country. That “well-meaning, quiet man” in Rajasthan, we now know from police accounts, was on a toxic diet of “hardline Hindutva videos” that “fuelled his hatred towards Muslims”. And he is not the only one in the country on a diet of Islamophobic myths.

Hum paanch, hamare pachees’, ‘love jihad,’ and all that

Of considerable currency these days is the claim that the Muslim population share will overtake that of the Hindus and turn India into an Islamic nation. There are three strands to this argument.

  • Hum paanch: the insinuation that Muslim men are polygamous since Sharia law licenses men to have up to four wives, whereas Hindu men are monogamous.
  • Hamare pachees: the charge that an animal cycle of reproduction prevails among Muslim women leading them to have numerous children (five per woman so that Muslim households are rendered “child producing centres”, according to one purveyor of this view), while most Hindu women have just one or two children.
  • Love jihad: the claim that young Hindu women are seduced by Muslim men and converted to Islam to boost Muslim numbers.

The first strand has no relation to reality, while the other two distort fragments of truth. The 2016 National Family Health Survey shows that polygamy exists only among a minuscule fraction – 0.66% – of married Muslim men, and to almost an equal extent among Hindu men, 0.45%. The census meanwhile reveals that far fewer Muslim women than Hindu women have more than five children. In the 2011 tally of women who had children in the preceding year, some 47,000 Muslim women had more than five children compared with the 1.2 million Hindu women.

Those who push the hum-paanch-hamare-pachees myth fail to disclose that only some Muslim women have five children, that far more Hindu women have more than five children, and that the reason for why some women have higher fertility rate is not a religious norm but, as studies have pointed out, illiteracy and poverty (In short, it is largely due to policy failures). At higher levels of education and living standards, both Hindu and Muslim women have about two children.

Source: National Family Health Survey, 2016.
Note: Economic background uses the NFHS wealth index.

To appraise the third strand, of ‘love jihad’, we need – but do not have – systematic data on inter-religious marriages in the country. However, its veracity can be probed with census data. The graph below compares the number of girls aged between five and 24 in the 2001 census to the number of young women between the ages 15 and 34 a decade later in the 2011 census. That is, the graph tracks girls over a ten-year period, as they become young women.

If “countless Hindu girls” had converted to Islam, then the number of young Hindu women in the 2011 census should have declined relative to their number in the 2001 census, and the number of young Muslim women should have registered a concomitant increase. Looking at the graph, it does not take any great powers of deduction to figure out the falsity of the ‘love jihad’ claim. Both Hindus and Muslims show decline in the number of young women, with a sharper drop in the minority group.

Source: Census of India, 2001, 2011.

In fact there are fewer young women in 2011 relative to girls ten years ago in all religions, perhaps due to childhood mortality, migration abroad, or a decision not to be listed under any faith in the census as did about half a million young women. There is no denying that young Indians marry out of love and change religious affiliation, including young Hindu women converting to Islam after marriage. But to spin and spread a story about ‘love jihadthat will turn India into “a Muslim-majority nation” is indefensible.

Yet the spate of anti-Muslim violence suggests that the veracity of these stories hardly matters; normal ordinary people will give into assertive falsehoods.

Road to ruin?

Only in the wake of mass murder, untold misery and often in retrospect did many Germans – in shameful disgust – realise what they had done under the Nazi regime. For Melita Maschmann, it took a period of internment and a soul-searching epistolary memoir to her childhood Jewish friend to come to terms with her past. But “by then it was too late… to recognise that [she had] supported an ideology whose very core was a primitive, and in its effects, criminal racial madness.”

The Hindu man, who hacked and burned a Muslim in Rajasthan, is in jail and, even as he awaits trial, making Islamophobic videos. With poisonous falsehoods spreading unchecked in the body politic, many more Indians will go mad with religious hatred. Emphatically and systematically, truth too must be proclaimed for India to realize its civilisational yearning for asato mā sad gamaya (progressing from falsity to truth).

Anoop Sadanandan is a social scientist and author of Why Democracy Deepens. He tweets at @SadanandanAnoop.