India's Hindu extremists are calling for genocide against Muslims. Why is little being done to stop them?
Updated 9:53 PM ET, Fri January 14, 2022
Delhi, India (CNN)At a conference in India last month, a Hindu extremist dressed head-to-toe in the religion's holy color, saffron, called on her supporters to kill Muslims and "protect" the country.
"If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million (Muslims), then we will win ... protect India, and make it a Hindu nation," said Pooja Shakun Pandey, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party, according to a video of the event.
Her words and calls for violence from other religious leaders were met with a roar of applause from the large audience, a video from the three-day conference in the northern Indian city of Haridwar shows.
But across India, people were outraged. Nearly a month on, many are still furious at the lack of government response or arrests over the comments, which they say highlights a worsening climate for the country's Muslims.
After mounting pressure, India's top court intervened on Wednesday, asking for a response from state and federal authorities within 10 days.
Pandey and several others are being investigated by local police for insulting religious beliefs, a charge that carries a possible sentence of up to four years in prison, Haridwar police officials told CNN.
Neither Pandey, nor the others, have publicly commented about the outcry or investigations.
Late Thursday, police in Uttarakhand state, where Haridwar is located, arrested a man who spoke at the event, senior Haridwar Police official Shekhar Suyal told CNN. It is unclear what the man said at the event. Police have not formally charged anyone with any crime.
CNN has contacted India's Ministry of Minority Affairs, the Hindu Mahasabha and Pandey, but has not received a response.
Analysts say the Hindu Mahasabha is at the tip of a broader trend in India which has seen an alarming rise in support for extremist Hindu nationalist groups since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power nearly eight years ago.
Although these groups aren't directly associated with Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his own Hindu nationalist agenda, and the lack of repercussions for these groups' previous vitriolic comments, has given them tacit support, making them even more brazen, analysts say.
Analysts fear this rise poses a serious danger to minorities, especially Muslims -- and worry it may only get worse as several Indian states head to the polls in the coming months.
"What makes the Hindu Mahasabha dangerous," said Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University near India's capital, New Delhi, "is that they have been waiting for a moment like this in decades."
Rise of the right-wing Hindu group
Founded in 1907 during British rule at a time of growing conflict between Muslims and Hindus in the country, the Hindu Mahasabha is one of India's oldest political organizations.
The group didn't support British rule, but it didn't back India's freedom movement either, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was particularly tolerant of Muslims. Even now, some members of the group worship his assassin, Nathuram Godse.
The Hindu Mahasabha's vision, according to the group's official website, is to declare India the "National Home of the Hindus." The website says if it takes power, it will not hesitate to "force" the migration of India's Muslims to neighboring Pakistan and vows to reform the country's education system to align it with their version of Hinduism.
With its controversial campaigns and ideology, Hindu Mahasabha has always been a marginal political force. The last time the group had a presence in Parliament was in 1991.
But according to Verniers, their "strength is not to be measured in electoral terms." And in the past eight years since Modi came to power, they appear to have expanded in numbers and influence based on the size and frequency of their meetings, he said.
While the group does not publicly disclose how many members it has, Verniers said they are "comfortably in the tens of thousands."
Hindu Mahasabha targets rural communities in northern states, where there is a large BJP presence, encouraging them to vote for parties that align with their Hindu-nationalist ideology, including Modi's BJP, Verniers said.
Modi, in turn, has publicly honored the Hindu Mahasabha's late leader, Veer Savarkar, for "his bravery" and "emphasis on social reform."
And as Hindu Mahasabha has grown in recent years, it has become more outspoken.
In 2015, Sadhvi Deva Thakur, then a senior member of the group, caused widespread controversy when she told reporters Muslims and Christians should undergo forced sterilization to control their population growth. CNN has reached out to her for comment.
Pandey, who spoke at the December conference in Haridwar, was arrested in February 2019 after a video showed her shooting an effigy of Gandhi, according to CNN affiliate CNN News-18. Photos uploaded to her official Facebook page last May show her worshiping a statue of Gandhi's assassin. CNN has not been able to confirm whether she was formally charged over the February 2019 incident.
Hindu Mahasabha isn't the only right-wing Hindu nationalist group to espouse violent sentiment toward liberals and minorities -- including India's 200 million Muslims, who make up 15% of the country's 1.3 billion population.
At last month's conference, several speakers called on India's Hindus to "defend" the religion with weapons. Another called for the "cleansing" of India's minorities, according to video from the event.
But according to Verniers, Hindu Mahasbha one of the largest right-wing political groups aiming to make India the land of the Hindus.
And while the group's campaigns and ideas are decades old, they're more bold about them now.
"The escalation of their hate speech is reflective of the state of affairs in India," said Verniers. "But they are able to get away with it more."