A Muslim friend from a town in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh recently called, seeking counsel.
His young daughter had told him the previous day that her friends refused to play with her anymore – after they were warned by other children to stay away from her because of her religion.
This is an experience most Muslims have gone through while growing up in India. They are familiar with anti-Muslim slurs and cuss words used against them. But something new is happening which is radically different from earlier times.
While the Indian media and politicians have long harped on the supposed dangers of radicalization among Muslim youth, or of the threat of far-left propaganda, we are now witnessing the turbocharged expression of a reality the country has never confronted: the radicalization of Hindu youth.
It is an everyday radicalization of young men and women who appear very normal until they decide to target Indian Muslims and Christians.
They are part of public, over-ground groups like the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyaarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); and the Bajrang Dal, the militant youth wing of the RSS. All of them are affiliates of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which gives them political clout and a veneer of respectability.
Members of the ABVP and the Bajrang Dal have been involved in numerous cases of physical violence against students and teachers, especially Muslims and Christians. Yet earlier this year, when the Congress party – the principal national opposition – declared that it would consider banning the Bajrang Dal if it came to power in the southern state of Karnataka, no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised slogans in defense of the militant outfit.
Recently, a video surfaced in India and went viral in which a young Hindu girl is seen singing “Desh ke gaddaron ko Goli Maro…” (shoot the traitors of the country). She is surrounded by elders who are clapping and encouraging her.
This slogan was made popular by a minister in the Modi government who was targeting Muslim women and men for protesting against the controversial new citizenship law passed in 2020 that discriminates against Muslim asylum seekers. The slogan has since been used in rallies and videos to target Muslims.
This video encapsulates a reality that Hindus do not want to talk about. Another video of a school teacher asking her students to slap their Muslim classmate who had not done his homework made national news. Students came up one by one and hit the Muslim boy, as the teacher commented against his religion.
We don’t know what impact this has had on the student who was struck and on his classmates, exposed to bigotry by their teacher at a young age. But we do know that there is an impact, more broadly, on the atmosphere that dominates today’s India.
The principal of a prestigious school in New Delhi told me that some students raised the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” in their class. This slogan is used by the RSS to proclaim Hindu dominance. Their parents were called and counseled.
Some students from another class went out to a park on Valentine’s Day and tried to bully couples sitting there. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is resented by Hindu supremacist groups. They threaten, harass, and beat up couples celebrating the day. It was disturbing for the teachers of this progressive, liberal school to find their students turning into volunteers of this radical ideology.
Talking to teachers and principals, one realizes that the radicalization of young Hindus, while an ongoing process, has acquired dangerous proportions in recent years, fuelled by hate-mongering TV channels, internet platforms, and WhatsApp groups that have been relentlessly spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Sadly, in many cases, what these children hear at home and in their families reinforces the bigotry they are fed by their television and phone screens.
Worried teachers struggle to deal with this phenomenon. For they too are vulnerable.
A fact-finding report released by a recently formed group in Maharashtra called Women Protest For Peace found multiple instances where external groups were intervening in the state’s educational institutions to incite students “to deliberately target teachers on religious grounds”.
Sadly, none of this is a surprise. In the last decade, it has become common to see adolescents, even children, brandishing swords and other weapons, raising hateful slogans targeting Muslims, and even vandalizing mosques and Islamic shrines. Teenagers are seen in rallies organized by the Bajrang Dal.
These young Hindus see that violence against Muslims and Christians is often celebrated or at least tolerated, sometimes approvingly, in their families and society. They observe that people who provoke and lead violence gain social and political respectability and get elected to state legislatures and parliament. They see that far from suffering consequences for hate speech and hate crimes, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts help those who carry them out.
A major source of this hatred towards Muslims and Christians is the chain of educational institutions run by organizations affiliated with the RSS. Studies have been done examining the curriculum and activities of these institutions, and they reveal that they inculcate ‘nationalism’ in young minds, which is synonymous with anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hatred.
Children are told that India has been the land of Hindus, which was infiltrated by Muslims and Christians. That Hindus have been the best in all aspects; that it was Muslim rule that degraded them and turned them into slaves; and that the only way to reclaim the country’s past glory is by teaching Muslims and Christians a lesson.
Tangible tasks are presented to Hindu youth as what they need to do to defend their faith. They are told that they must save cows from the cruelty of Muslims and Christians, establish Hindu dominance over Muslim neighborhoods, and ‘save’ girls from ‘love jihad’ – a conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are out to trap Hindu women in relationships to convert them to Islam.
Scores of vigilante groups have mushroomed all over India, indulging in violence against Muslims under the pretext of protecting cows and Hindu women.
Unfortunately, the radicalisation of Hindu youth often goes unnoticed as it is approved by their families, whom they see indulging in a range of aggressions against Muslims: It could be something as bizarre as protesting against their Muslim neighbours praying in their own houses.
Once hatred is normalized, violence follows naturally.
Yet while the BJP might benefit politically, the long-term consequences of this project will be borne by India’s Hindus, too. With homes and schools as the cradles of this radicalization, a generation of Hindu children is being turned into unknowing criminals.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.