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From Dog Whistles to Public Abuse of Muslims: BJP’s Speeches Don’t Need Plausible Deniability Anymore

Hindutva hate is both a means and an end.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Coded political messaging (dog whistling), direct bigotry, and incitement to hate, exist on a continuum.

Globally, Donald Trump is a good example of a politician freely using all types. In the run-up to the 2016 election, he had started with straight up bigotry, calling Mexicans “rapists, criminals and drug pedlars”. He then also used coded messaging about ‘American family values’. On the face of it, the phrase seems unobjectionable, but to the core white male voter, it dog whistled – signifying that immigrants do not have these ‘American family values,’ blacks do not have them and ‘gays’ definitely do not.

Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) slogan, also used by Reagan (1980), contained the dog whistle punch in the word ‘again’, signalling to his core constituency that he stood for a [white supremacist] past, free from the shackles of civil rights and race equality. But he also continued to deploy direct bigotry, by proposing a Muslim entry ban into the United States (a diluted form of which he implemented during his presidency). And, in 2020, during a campaign rally, he called SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” It was honest, in-your-face racism. Trump consistently pitted an array of ‘others’ (Mexicans, all immigrants, blacks, Muslims, Chinese) against white America. So that it could be, well, great again.

Even so, he avoided direct verbal reference to his ‘white’ constituency until a 2022 campaign rally in Arizona. It was a stunner.

He claimed that life-saving medicines were being rationed based on race. “…Discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating white people, to determine who lives and who dies. If you are white, you don’t get the vaccine, and if you are white, you don’t get therapeutics… In fact, in New York state, if you are white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help. Think of it, if you are white, you go to the back of the line!”

He went on to say, “The Supreme Court should intervene and shut down this flagrant civil rights violation.”

This was a classic race reversal of the very meaning of the civil rights movement in America; the whites were now the victims of racism.

This open play upon white race anxiety was a noteworthy moment in American political discourse. One commentator called it “an unprecedented turn in Trump’s political strategy.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Banswara speech of April 21, in which he directly used the word ‘Musalmaan’ in a denigrating way, is India’s equivalent of that exceptional moment. It has been followed by more speeches in the same vein over the past 15 days. The BJP official Instagram account also released a video saying: ‘If the Congress party comes to power, it will snatch all the money and wealth of non-Muslims and distribute it to Muslims. Their favourite community!’

This is a dangerous shift in political discourse but at least the word is out of hiding. Muslims. ‘Musalmaan’. Because the barrage of loaded words doled out by Modi and other BJP leaders over the past decade – Mughal, Pakistan, Shehzada, Pink revolution, ‘Woh paanchUnke pacchees,’ Shamshan-Qabaristan, ‘Kapdo se Pehchanno,’ Bangladeshi, Biryani, ‘80 banaam 20 Ka Chunaav,’ and Abba Jaan – were not really dog whistles.

A classic dog whistle is something understood by the chosen few. (It is defined as a frequency only canines pick up on.)

Dog whistling is like an insider nudge-nudge, wink-wink, code. Only its intended audience, with common reference points, picks up on the real signalling. Others may not ‘hear’ it on the conscious register.

Also read: India, Globally: Hate Speech, a Hindu State and What Has Changed Under Modi

What the ruling party in India has been offering up against Muslims, for a decade and more, is actually straight up bigotry and public abuse. There is nothing inaudible-to-the-human-ear in – ‘Woh paanch-Unke Pacchees’ or ‘80 versus 20.’ It was crystal clear to the entire national listening room – that the ‘Musalman’ was being referenced in a demeaning way and constructed as the enemy.

The only purpose, then, that so-called coded messaging serves is to give politicians plausible deniability, should they need or want it. That is the reason politicians (so far) desisted from using the M word directly. A classic example of deniability is Yogi Adityanath in 2022. In the month leading up to the UP Assembly election, he said at an event, “Yeh Chunaav 80 Banaam 20 Ka Hoga. 80 pheesdi samarthan ek taraf hoga. 20 pheesdi samarthan doosri taraf hoga,” referring to the 80% Hindu and nearly 20% Muslim population in the state. He called it a Hindu versus Muslim battle without using either the H or the M word. When asked, he simply denied it. “80 percent BJP ke saath hoga. 20 percent humesha virodh karta hai, virodh karega. Humnein jati, dharam, majhab ki baat nahin ki thi. … 80 weh log jo Sarkar ke karyakram se khush hain.”

There is also the other kind of plausible deniability (to the Muslim voter), best explained by Usman Gani, former BJP Bikaner Minority Cell president, who was sacked for being critical of the PM’s speech. In an interview to an online portal, shortly after the Banswara speech, Gani said he could still make a case for ‘adjustment’ on dog whistles about things like ‘shamshaan-qabaristan’ (made by the prime minister in 2017). “Yeh sab adjust karne layak message hain. Shamshaan honi chahiye, to hum bhi keh dete hain … Kya ghalat keh rahe hain? Qabaristan ki agar deewaar ho rahi hai to shamshaan ki bhi honi chahiye. Toh ismey Muslim ko specially naraaz hone ki zaroorat nahin hai.” He said – “Hum apni zimmedaari par vote maangtey hain. Hum tumhara kaam karenge… Humari ek face-value hai.”

But deployment of the M word made Gani’s ‘adjustment’ plea unworkable. His ‘face value’ was lost. ‘Ab directly Musalmaan shabd aur yeh sab bola jaata hai. To log mujhe katgharey mein khada karke poochtey hain, ki ab kya?’

Even a long-time Muslim karyakarta of the BJP was hard-pressed to defend the Banswara speech. It took away his ‘face value’ and vestigial aankh ki sharam (deniability).

There is a third kind of psychological deniability that dog whistling gives – a camouflage to people who don’t like to think of themselves as communal. The whistle works as a discursive alibi. A moral cover. ‘I have many Muslim friends,’ they will bristle hotly, if poked. Yet, they have ignored, and been largely unaffected by the coded Muslim-abuse memes and messages. And, like Gani’s target voter, they may even be made to believe there is really nothing wrong if shamshaan ghats are built each time qabaristans are built. The M word spoken out loud has shaken at least some of them.

Now, the dog-whistling days of all (im)plausible deniability are over. The ruling party wants people to know exactly what it stands for. And it does not need plausible deniability. Because, for a politician to need deniability, someone has to ask the simple question, ‘What did you mean by that markedly communal speech?’

In the Great Indian Election 2024, no one is asking. Neither the mainstream media nor the Election Commission.

Also read: Election Commission Mum as BJP Video Openly Incites Hatred Against Muslims Again

A mere electoral strategy?

Some commentators say this is a BJP ploy to distract from the ‘real issues.’ Is the use of the ‘Musalmaan’ word, out there being freely used as a gaali, mere electoral strategy?

Political scientist Gilles Verniers tweeted about the April 21 Banswara speech: “This is not strategy. It is a world view.”  This is a ‘real issue’ and this is the core of the Hindutva package. It is not ‘strategic’ hate that can be cynically turned on and off at will.

Hindu anxiety has long been fed on the Muslim ‘enemy’. Ecstasy and frisson are generated by ‘denying,’ by ‘taking away’ everything from them – the right to rations, housing, jobs, affirmative action, even delegitimising their right to vote (it is, after all, ‘vote jihad’).

Trump’s message was – fear and hate the immigrants for they will take away all of America’s riches and benefits, at the expense of the white working class. The BJP is saying, fear and hate the Muslims who will take away riches and benefits at the expense of all the Hindus. It is doing so by offering neither a fair share of the riches nor the benefits to anyone. Just – fear of equality based on hate of the other.

Hindutva hate is both an end and a means, and the journey in between. And in the 2024 election, it is laying the ground for legitimising a regime of permanent inequality, by invoking a constructed ‘enemy’.

A local former BJP supporter, in his middle age, said told me in the park,“Woh shameful inequality par bol nahi sakte, billionare raj par bol nahin sakte, 1% of India eating halwa-puri of whole nation bol nahin sakte, to jo bol sakte hain, wahi bol rahe hain. (They can’t speak about shameful inequality, they can’t speak about billionaire rule, they can’t speak about 1% of India enjoying the whole nation’s benefits, so so they are saying what they can say.)

This is the other way dog whistles work: the congealing of a positive idea (sharing wealth and equality) with a negative ‘enemy’ image (Musalmaan), and thereby pushing through an agenda for the 1% rich who control 40% of India’s wealth. That is the new political dog whistle in town. And it is addressed to the Ambanis and Adanis of India. Nudge-Nudge. Wink-Wink.

Meanwhile, the (‘ghuspetiya/outsider’) Musalmaan is firmly established, once again, as a pivotal insider to the political discourse of the BJP. Hate is too. If anyone needs special tonal frequency to hear that, they are wilfully deaf.



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