Why Fighting Propaganda is an Uphill Battle

I am an atheist from a Hindu Brahmin family. I do not like the BJP and their Hindutva agenda. I do not like Islam. I do not like Christianity. I do not like any religion. But I grew up learning about Hinduism – I thought the spiritual lessons of karma and doing good deeds were good lessons and worth following. I was not raised in a household that pushed any religion onto me – I was taught that all religions essentially teach the same thing – be good, do good. My earliest understanding of religion was that it was a practice in moral science aimed at keeping people kind and honest. “Who is the main God?” I once asked my folks, since my grandma’s pooja place had pictures of several gods. My grandfather explained it to me like this: “They are all the same. It is the human imagination that is unable to comprehend the concept of a creator and hence we choose to visualize them as Brahma, Vishnu & Maheshwar – with each entity handling a different task in the Universe. We have assigned names and identities to Gods, their incarnations, and regardless of who you pray to, you’ll be praying to God.”

That explanation kept me satisfied for a few years. When I learned of other religions, I could just fit them in my understanding of God. Same God, different names. This made sense to me. I liked that I was never forced to pray or go to the temple. I liked that I could question things in the religious epics and still be Hindu. I liked that the faith of our country accepted all – this helped us be truly secular. Then I grew up. I did learn about other religions in detail – but by this point, I had already accepted that the stories about Gods are just mythology that we follow, which are aimed at keeping us honest. So, all other religions and their “stories” were okay in my eyes. The fact that each religion thought that the other religion was wrong didn’t cross my mind until I interacted with some people as an adult. I still thought it was stupid – and that’s how I started questioning the idea of a creator itself. Once I accepted that the God(s) that people believe in is a construct of their imagination, I could see all people as people. I empathized with their belief system while also criticizing the problems with their belief systems, but I never stopped thinking of them as fellow human beings.

Then came 2014. I had not been very political before or even after the BJP came into power, but in 2014, I was old enough to understand the ideology of RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. And I immediately saw what was wrong with it. Initially, I was hopeful that like in 1999-2004, BJP would give a rest to the Hindutva angle and focus on development and other issues that actually mattered to the country. But that did not happen – right from the beginning, the people associated with BJP, started pushing the pro-Hindutva agenda hard, especially since they had won with a full majority. Hate speech and online propaganda against Muslims started slowly but steadily growing and encompassing the online space. News channels also started spewing hate and pandering to the ruling party. It was unbelievable. I really didn’t think that rallying the “secular-minded” people of this country to hate their fellow citizens would be such an easy thing to do. But it was. That brought me to an epiphany: The hate and discrimination were always there. The ruling government also subscribing to the ideology just empowered people to speak about it openly without being judged. Once I realized this, I lost a bit of the pride I associated with my identity as an Indian. After that, every time there were instances of violence based on religious differences, they kept chipping away at my pride as an Indian. 

I was a silent spectator all these years, hoping that things would improve, hoping that people would see the error of their ways. But since the BJP came back to power in 2019, things just got worse. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, instead of questioning the government’s readiness to fight the disease, news channels targeted the Tablighi Jamaat, holding them responsible for the spread of the virus in India. Curiously, I had attended a 3-day seminar with 120 of my colleagues in New Delhi around the same dates as the Tablighi Jamaat. There was no warning of an impending lockdown, and no guidelines in place to prevent a gathering of any kind till the 18th of March in 2020. “Why were just the Muslims being blamed then?” I asked myself. The answer was simple – people needed someone to blame, and it couldn’t really be the government who didn’t act in time, so it was the group of people who were the easiest to hate, the same group of people who shared a religion with the famous terrorist outfits like Al Qaida and Taliban. People lapped up this story and hated on Muslims like anything – but it wasn’t anything new. They were doing that before this also. Social media was a phenomenon right from the Orkut days but during the pandemic, it quickly became our main source of entertainment. And we consumed propaganda at a rate that was unprecedented.

“Hindu khatre mein hai!” (“The Hindu is in danger!”) – This slogan made a country with 1 billion Hindus paranoid about the 200 million Muslims. Every point of contention between Hindus and other religions was magnified over social media to drive the propaganda home so that the Hindu majority would feel insecure and keep voting for the one party that claimed to be its savior. Modi emerged as a dictator-like figure, where the propaganda served a two-prong purpose, keeping him in power and making his dissenters unpopular. If you questioned Modi/ BJP, you were questioning the country. If you spoke against violence against Muslims, you were against Hinduism and hence against Modi and India. Every time someone famous questioned these policies, they were canceled, trolled, and threatened. I stayed quiet over social media for years – but then recently, I decided to speak out. I spoke out against the propaganda. I spoke out against the BJP ideology which is divisive. As an individual, my speaking against Modi makes no difference – their propaganda machinery is strong and has managed to penetrate our society in a big way. They will probably win again in 2024 and things will probably continue getting worse till we reach a point of genocide or civil war. So, I decided to speak against the lies that made up the propaganda. I started commenting on things that were wrong – I started voicing my opinions. And I met with resistance, called names – all because I, a citizen of an independent republic expressed opinions about something which was clearly wrong. I noticed a disturbing trend in the propaganda – in an attempt to portray other religions as bad, people have started glorifying Hinduism, to a point where even the flaws that existed in the Hindu society are either being painted as something positive or their existence are being denied altogether. There are posts that claim that the birth-based caste system did not exist. I even saw a video stating the virtues of an occupation-based caste in a society. Then there are videos propagating how the gurukul system was way superior to the Western system of education and it was “systematically ended by the British”. I know these things are easy to believe for Hindus and that’s why they sound true. We, as a society, seem to have lost the will to question things and critically think about things in the face of the worst possible propaganda war in the history of this country. I thought maybe I could bust some obvious myths and make people see that they are lying to. So I posted a reel about one such video. It got 290 odd views but there are 54 comments on it – mostly consisting of comments from one of my best friends, who missed the complete point and chose to argue that I was defending the British by saying that the British did not invent the caste system. My friend gave me a long lecture about how the British abolished the gurukul system – indicating that people considered Brahmins gurus; and in the same breath trying to tell me that the British came and convinced Brahmins, who were a well-respected community to treat other castes as inferior. Do you see the fallacy in that argument? If the Brahmins were educated, respected, teachers, then they couldn’t just have been swayed by foreigners to change their whole society for the worse, could they have? Anyway, I didn’t convince him. 

And that brings us to this week. I saw a cousin of mine sharing a story on Instagram that showed a video of a group of Muslims gathered, saying that while the pro-Hindu establishment was against them, they could not ever end Muslims. With this was a caption saying that this was the reason why people hate this community. I am paraphrasing her because the story has expired, and I am not able to check it. I messaged her asking why she thought she needed to hate Muslims. I also pointed out that the video just showed a bunch of people speaking exactly how BJP & RSS people speak about them. I invited a conversation to see if I could understand what made her so anti-Hindu. I don’t think I was able to influence her views but it did enlighten me on certain points which I will discuss at the end of this post. Before that, let me try to summarize the conversation that followed. I will write what my cousin said and enclose my remarks in brackets – some of which I said in the conversation and some which I didn’t have the time to before we moved to other topics. (I am writing this article not to call out anyone but to gather my thoughts and express my views on a topic that I feel will affect the lives of all Indian citizens in one way or the other.)

Cousin: I don’t hate Muslims but I hate Islam religion because of their propaganda like “Darun Aman, Darun Harab, Darun Islam”…

(This was quickly followed by a question to me, asking me why I was asking people to love them and telling them Hinduism is a stupid religion. I pointed out that I wasn’t doing either. But I don’t think the point landed. Let us now deconstruct the reason why my cousin hates Islam. I believe the phrases are mis-spelled. The first phrase Dar-al-Aman literally translates to House or Abode of Safety. The second phrase Dar al-Harab translates to House of War and refers to any place where Islam cannot be practiced without persecution. The third phrase Dar al-Islam means House of Peace and refers to a state that allows the free practice of Islam. This translation is the first result when you search these phrases on Google. Now the only place where I have heard these terms being used in the context as mentioned by my cousin was in pro-Hindu propaganda videos where they were trying to scare Hindus about Islam. Because India is already Dar al-Islam as the religion can be freely practiced here. It is being turned into Dar al-Harab by people who are harassing Muslims on the streets after being influenced by the Hindutva propaganda. I didn’t have the time to research this and tell her but I told her that I know for a fact that the Muslim people I have met are just common people trying to get by. So I asked her where she heard this alleged Muslim propaganda – from Muslims or from videos posted by pro-Hindu propaganda pages. She did answer me.)

Cousin: This propaganda comes from Islam against their kafirs, but political people play the game. To me, Islam is just a book of violence, “hawas” and nonsense things, no facts, no good vibes, and no good work.

(So my obvious question was, “You’ve read the Quran then?” My cousin told me that her Muslim friends have translated some of it. She has heard some Muslim speakers and influencers and all have different ideologies and translations. It didn’t strike me at the time but my cousin sort of revealed that her opinion of the second-largest religion in the world was based, not on her personal study of it, but on selective passages used by people online in an attempt to prove how bad a book the Quran is. I pointed out to her that all religious books have passages that seem wrong when taken out of context or sometimes even with context – because they were written in the context of another time and are limited by that. I went on to tell her that this was why I was an atheist and believe no one should blindly believe any book. I don’t think the point I was trying to make got through. She asked me why I was sharing stories of “dhongi babas” and not “dhongi mullas” . She asked me why I was targeting only the Hindu faith. I told her that I intended to post those as well but I couldn’t readily find those videos even though I had seen them before. I asked her how exposing fake Godmen is hurting Hindu sentiments. She told me that she also didn’t believe the babas at all.)

Cousin: I am not here to search about Muslims. I am here to create awareness about Hindus. The great good kind civilization and culture. Due to some past happenings, our culture has not reached those many generations that's why we don't know our own culture.

Me: You speak the language of propaganda. Our culture is an amalgamation of everything that has happened here in the last 1,000 years. And you might think that Islam doesn't belong here, but the people following the religion are people who were always here. So, our bias against them is based solely on religion. Now think about this - how is it any different from their bias against kafir? The fact is - that hating other religions is not a Hindu practice at all. In doing it, we are emulating the characteristics of the very religions we are hating.

(In the recent ‘Us vs Them’ narrative, the propaganda machinery has been working hard to make people believe that the “real history” of Hindu kings was not taught to us. There is this conspiracy theory that in a country of Hindu majority, Hindus were kept away from their own history, and Mughals and other intruders were glorified. This is proven false by a single comment I wrote on a post in Quora. The post claimed that the Mughals could not convert all of India to Islam because we had brave Sanatani warriors like Maharana Pratap protecting the religion. I wrote: “The  Battle of Haldighati between the armies of the Rana of Mewar, Maharana Pratap, and the Mughal emperor Akbar's forces was not a battle of religion at all. These historical figures were fighting only for their land and kingdoms. This is proven by the fact that Maharana Pratap’s army was led by his general Hakim Khan Sur and Akbar’s army was led by Man Singh I of Amber. The same logic also applies to conquerors like Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj who is often hailed as a protector of Hindu dharma in Hindutva propaganda – he was also fighting for his rightful kingdom and not for religion. The opposing religions might have been an added incentive that fuelled their motivation, but it was not the cause or the object of their conflicts. After this, the conversation took another turn.)

Cousin: We have Muslims here due to conversion by those intruders. If u that I am thinking of them as kafirs, then it's ok. But I do believe in karma...bad things always lead to bad luck...I think I should pass on my ancestors’ great work to my future generation. It is also a fact that we have been discounting for other religions for too long – they are not as understanding as we are and that’s why I hate them.

Me: You're missing the point. You're talking about good karma while hating people because they follow a different faith. Intruder is a wrong word for Mughals, they were migrant conquerors. They settled here, just like Aryans came and settled here.

Cousin: Why should we be the people who have to be tolerant always? 

Me: See. It cannot be tit for tat. Your good karma cannot be contingent on other's being good.

Cousin: Hating them is different...I don't do any bad things to them. I don't run any ideology against them. I don't like Islam. That's all. It's a choice. I do have good Muslim friends. Because good people are there in every religion.

Me: You don't get it, do you? In the India of today, the hate against Islam is actually hurting them. This propaganda against them leads to instances of actual violence. And do you think this violence will go unanswered?

(People who have subscribed to all the conspiracy theories and propaganda fail to understand that even if the propaganda was true about some Muslims, it could not be statistically true about all of them. But what that propaganda does when you share it with more people is propagate that hate which inevitably leads to violence. We’d like to think that our sharing a story about a Pakistani Muslim saying he’d readily kill kafirs to show how Islam radicalizes its youth, has no relation to the lynching of a Muslim youth suspected of carrying beef – but it is not that simple, is it? When I tried to convey that it is the propaganda that is poisoning us, my cousin asked me a question that all of you might have heard or even thought about before.)

Cousin: Why is only Islam creating terrorists and not other religions?

Me: That's not true. The people who lynch Muslims for carrying beef - they are terrorists too. The people who burnt a missionary along with his children in Odisha back in the 90s, they were terrorists too. 

Cousin: You’re an atheist, right? Why are you trying to convince people that they should love Islam? Let things be the way they are.

Me: I didn’t ask anyone to “love Islam”. See that's where you fail to understand me. I am saying harmony among people is necessary for a peaceful state.

Cousin: I am sure there are some very good Muslims but the history of Islam makes it very difficult to trust them. Harmony can’t be one-sided now, can it?

Me: You know all the things that you're saying apply to Hindus as well. It applies to any population. (There have been bad Hindus in the past. Good Hindus also exist.)

Cousin: I accept that good and bad people exist but Muslims support other Muslims in their bad actions.

Me: This argument also applies to violence against other minorities. Hindus have also supported that. So how is it any different?

(My cousin didn’t answer that question. The whole point here that I was trying to make that propaganda is generalized. Similarly, mob violence is also generalized. The angry mobs that are affected by propaganda don’t see any difference between one Muslim and another – they don’t stop to think whether one Muslim is wrong and another is innocent. That is the problem with propaganda. That is the problem with demonizing a whole religion.)

After this, I tried to make some other points like how we have ghettoized Muslims but my cousin said that only in her neighborhood ‘5 Muslim families’ stay – I don’t know if she meant it that way, but it sounded like she didn’t approve. She asked me if I wanted Muslims to grow. She said Muslims have 57 countries and Hindus don’t even have one. She asked if I’d be okay letting India become “Ghazwa-E-Hind”. I didn’t answer to that because I didn’t know a lot about what “Ghazwa-E-Hind” meant. I asked her what is stopping Hindus from preaching Hinduism and why we have a problem with people accepting whatever faith that appeals to them. She didn’t answer that and moved on to another topic. Before I go into that, let us explore what Ghaza-E-Hind is. Here is an article by Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. From further reading, it turns out that this is a term used to radicalize Muslim youth by saying that there is a prophecy of a great battle in India between Muslims and non-believers. Here’s another article about it. I asked my ex-colleague who is a Muslim and several years older and well read about this and he said that in his whole life, not one Muslim cleric had ever mentioned the term to him and he happens to be pious and devout. He said that political entities keep coming up with false ideas to radicalize the youth and align them to their cause. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that what the Hindutva brigade is doing? Now let me move on to the next part of my conversation with my cousin.

Cousin: Why are you arguing so much about it? There are so many things that have happened due to which Hindus are suffering.

Me: Where is this suffering you keep talking about? I have also lived in this country. Somebody told you Hindus are suffering and you believed it? No questions no critical thinking?

Cousin: Stone pelting in every festival. Everywhere Hindu has to be secular. We can’t build temples. We can’t teach dharma in school. I think with 57 Muslim countries where Hindus are persecuted, we should have a Hindu Rashtra.

Me: So will Muslims be allowed to vote in the Hindu rashtra?

Cousin: 100%. Everything will be the same. We just won’t have the caste system. And India will be called a Hindu land.

Me: Then how will it be different than what the country is today? Caste system is anyway banned as per the constitution.

Cousin: Why do we have the quota system then?

(I had lost the zeal to argue about social justice with my younger cousin – a fair-skinned Brahmin girl who has grown in the same privilege that I grew up in. You never see the privilege when you are so close to it. I know that I also had the same notion about caste and reservations till I read up about it. I couldn’t have addressed all those things correctly anyway. At this point, she had to go to work and our conversation came to an end. Reading the conversation back, I was amused at how he propaganda has convinced us that stones are pelted at our festivals without provocation and that building a temple is a struggle in this country. There's so much to unpack that I don't know what to address first.)

There are some major learnings I took away from this conversation: 

1. Fighting Propaganda is an Uphill Battle - Propaganda targets people’s pre-existing biases. This makes changing people’s minds that much difficult. You can show them any number of evidence that proves them wrong, but they’d still not change their mind about it. 

2. Religion is the Root of a lot of Social Problems – I am sure the basic principles of all religions might be good, but I am also sure that all religions were started to manipulate and control the people following them. This is what is happening today and will keep happening till people don’t start critically analyzing their religions.

3. Islam is Controversial – Islam is one of the more rigid religions. Started in a war-torn region, it was designed in a way that there was no room left for questions and reform. This stands true for most religions – some more than others. Islam is definitely a victim of bad press but the shit that so many people pull in the name of Islam, makes it such an easy target of hate. 

4. Right-wing ideology is just more appealing to the masses – Having had several arguments like the one I have documented above, I have realized that just by virtue of its conservative and rigid nature, the right-wing ideology will always appeal to the masses more than a liberal left-wing ideology. 

5. Harmony is probably a pipe dream – The Hindutva brigade has managed to poison the people so well that communal harmony is most probably a pipe dream. BJP would probably win next year too and get more and more communal in its approach and our country is most certainly moving towards a civil conflict or a genocide, something that will forever tarnish the history of this land which was once known for peace. 

That being said, would I stop talking about this? No. When I talk against hate, I talk against all hate – be it Hindu’s hate for Muslims or Muslims’ hate for other religions. I know that information and education are the only real weapons against misinformation and propaganda. I would not stop imploring my Hindu friends to open their eyes and recognize that this hate can’t lead to anything good. I would implore my Muslim friends to be open to other thoughts and not get caught up in the rigidity of their faith. Muslims have to distance themselves from the violence that is perpetrated in the name of their religion. Lastly, I would like to implore all religious people to take a close look at their beliefs and ask themselves if they are okay with violence in the name of their faith.

If you like this article, do let me know with a comment. You can also reach out to me over social media. I am always ready for debate and discourse. Vulgarity is not welcome though.


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