Instagram posts about a 17th-century king leading to arrests.

Instagram posts about a 17th-century king leading to arrests.

The Online Crusade Against Muslims in Maharashtra: A Mirror of Indian Politics

Aurangzeb

Shafiq Bagwan was hanging out with a few friends in his village of Hasnabad, which is in the Maharashtra state in western India, when he opened Instagram on his phone and saw that his younger brother Taufiq had posted an update. When he clicked on it, his heart fell.

Taufiq, who is 18, had posted a picture of a 17th-century Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, with a description of him as “the father of Hindu nationalists.”

“I immediately called him up and ordered him to delete the story,” Bagwan says. “I got scared for him, and I hoped that nobody had seen it.” It was too late. The next day, June 20, Taufiq was arrested and charged with “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings.”

Taufiq had been caught up in an online crusade, initiated by Hindu nationalists in Maharashtra, who have taken it upon themselves to police social media for anything, no matter how tenuous, they can spin as offensive to Hindus. These groups, which appear to have links to local government and law enforcement, are turning Instagram and WhatsApp into hostile spaces for Muslims, who face harassment and arrest for seemingly innocuous posts. It’s another demonstration of how the Indian internet is coming to mirror the Hindu nationalist slant of politics under the government of Narendra Modi.

“What has happened offline has happened online,” says Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an NGO. “The attitude remains the same. Social media is just another tool to subjugate.”

Historical Context and Symbolism

Aurangzeb died over 300 years ago, but he’s recently become something of a protest symbol for Muslim youth in Maharashtra. To some Hindus, he’s a tyrannical figure who imposed discriminatory taxes, destroyed temples, and was resisted by Shivaji, another warrior king who is revered in Maharashtra. With tensions between communities running high, Aurangzeb has become an emblem for both the Hindu majority and its 13 million Muslims, who make up around 12 percent of the population of the state.

“Aurangzeb, a Muslim ruler, is just a political tool to target today’s ordinary Muslims,” says Surendra Jondhale, a professor in the department of politics at the University of Mumbai. “The right-wing groups have used Shivaji versus Aurangzeb—a battle between two kingdoms—to propagate a Hindu versus Muslim binary.”

Political Influence and Religious Tensions

In February 2023, led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the union government renamed the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra—named after Aurangzeb—to Sambhaji Nagar. In rallies that followed the renaming—and which were attended by members of the BJP—T Raja Singh, a party member and (currently suspended) lawmaker, said that any Muslim unhappy with the name change would be considered a traitor.

The BJP has been widely accused of stoking religious tensions across India and promoting a Hindu identity for India that runs contrary to the country’s founding principles of religious pluralism.

In response to often brazen hate speech and discrimination from public figures, young Muslims have adopted Aurangzeb as a symbol of defiance. But posting the former ruler’s picture often elicits serious consequences. Right-wing Hindu groups, which have been publicly supported by members of Modi’s BJP, have been keeping a close eye on Muslims’ social media posts, claiming that even a photograph of Aurangzeb hurts their religious sentiments.

The Ripple Effect and Persecution

Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, there has been a notable increase in hate speech across the country, with Hindu nationalist groups calling for the mass rape of Muslim women and the extermination of the community. The RSS and other groups affiliated with the BJP have fueled unfounded conspiracy theories, including the “love jihad,” which alleges that Muslim men are seducing Hindu women en masse and converting them to Islam. There have been multiple incidences of assaults on minorities and even lynchings.

“There will be people dismissing these as isolated events and saying there are only so many cases in a country of a billion people,” says Prateek Waghre, policy director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, an NGO. “But the ripple effect is hard to ignore and also hard to measure. It impacts people’s minds and their behavior.”

In Maharashtra, the campaign has widened the divisions between communities. At least 13 similar cases have been reported in the national media over the past four months. The police are filing cases against Muslims for social media posts under pressure from the ruling BJP, creating a hostile environment for minorities.

The Impact on Individuals and Society

Inamdar says the cases filed against Muslims over social media posts are unlikely to succeed in a court of law. “Everybody knows that,” he says. “But the cases drag on, and it becomes a blot on the person’s record. They have to appear for court dates, they have to spend money on the lawyer. The process becomes the punishment.”

This kind of campaign is a form of lateral surveillance of minorities, where people have to be constantly alert for anything that could be exploited to attack them. It points to broader societal issues, where there aren’t too many degrees of separation between people reporting Instagram or WhatsApp updates and the ones being reported. Many of them are on their contact lists. There is also a possibility of watch lists being maintained. It is scary.

“In the end, the harassment and persecution of Muslims through social media is a reflection of the polarized political environment in India under Modi’s government,” says Waghre. “It is tearing at the fabric of Indian society and pushing communities further apart.”

In a country known for its religious and cultural diversity, it is crucial to foster inclusivity and protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. Only by encouraging understanding and dialogue can India truly become a society where harmony prevails over division.