The shooting at the vehicle of AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi in Hapur district, Uttar Pradesh ahead of an assembly election is extremely worrying. In the aftermath, UP police arrested the suspected shooter, Sachin Sharma, and his accomplice, Shubham. The Union Home Office granted Owaisi ‘Z category’ security – which Owaisi reportedly refused – sending a signal that when it comes to serious matters, politics can still come to a halt at the water’s edge. UP police said Sharma was “angry” with Owaisi’s speeches, while the AIMIM leader wants an independent inquiry from the Electoral Commission to investigate the “conspiracy”. Beyond the security response, the attack could however reveal a worrying form of radicalization of part of the population.
Sharma, on his social media profiles, claims to be a BJP member – he shared a membership card to that effect and posted photos with senior BJP leaders as well as a video of Yati Narsinghanand, who was recently arrested for uttering a hate speech at the Haridwar Dharam Sansad. On Facebook, Sharma expressed his sympathy and admiration for Ram Bhakt Gopal, who opened fire on anti-CAA protesters in Delhi in 2020. The investigation will answer all questions, but on the face of it, the incident serves of warning – an act of criminality influenced by a wider climate of manufactured insecurity and otherness. In the age of the Internet, indoctrination and radicalization do not have to happen solely through the concerted efforts of organizations. People, apparently acting on their own, are shaped by the world around them, where there is now an unofficial and poorly controlled network of information – made up of public speeches, social media posts, WhatsApp messages – which can influence the disenchanted and the impressionable. . While it can be difficult to draw a direct causal link between hate speech and violence, it can also be naïve to think that there are no dots to connect between the two.
It is incumbent on the BJP government and its leaders to condemn the attack on Owaisi by those who seek to invoke his name. In fact, all mainstream political parties must unequivocally distance themselves from those who advocate bigotry and violence. As Assembly election campaigns gather pace in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, politicians must remember that the vitriol that has become common on the election campaign trail, if allowed to grow unchecked, has consequences.
This editorial first appeared in the paper edition of February 5, 2022 under the title “Words and deeds”.