AT A TIME WHEN A RIGHT-WING HINDU NATIONALIST party is in power and vigilante violence against Muslim minorities is a common occurrence in India, a Muslim-based dynastic party, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (All India Council of the Union of Muslims [AIMIM]), has made rapid inroads into national politics. The trajectory of AIMIM from a regional party that mediated minoritarian citizens’ concerns in Hyderabad, in southern India, to the national voice of disenfranchised Muslims was advanced by a combination of social media activism by volunteers and mainstream media coverage of their leading figures, the brothers Asaduddin Owaisi and Akbaruddin Owaisi. Whereas Asaduddin’s rhetorics are legalistic, polite, and guarded, Akbaruddin is known for viral videos of so-called hate speeches directed against the Hindu majority, with a number of legal cases pending against him and forty days already served in prison. This chapter explores minoritarian extreme speech within the moral economy of the Indian nation-state. It asks how Akbaruddin’s most well-known speech “reacts” to the available moral frameworks and what such a reaction implies for the moral self-understanding of the Indian polity. I argue that alternative moral evaluations that go beyond the term hate are important in understanding this form of minority politics. In this context, “extreme speech” is a key concept that enables one to understand minority articulations from a non-normative perspective, highlighting the unequal distribution of the capacity to use extreme speech between minoritarian and majoritarian subject positions.
The chapter begins with an ethnographic discussion of Akbaruddin Owaisi’s controversial speech that circulated widely on social media. Situating this incident within the broader climate of antiminority politics in contemporary India and its historical antecedents and legal precedents, I suggest that what is often called the “outrageousness” of Owaisi’s speech should be understood within the trajectory of a reframed Muslim minority politics. This trajectory goes beyond the commonly invoked frame of “communalism” (interreligious conflicts) and its associated negative emotions in the Indian context. Drawing on the Nietzschean use of the French term ressentiment and its distinction from the English resentment in the liberal tradition, I argue in this chapter that the outrage of the Muslim minority is not the mirror image of majoritarian populism but rather should be understood in relation to the moral economy of the nation-state and its structures of social justice. If the resentment from those who are living under conditions of discrimination and structural violence cannot be legitimately expressed because that expression gets caught up in the term hate, this then reveals a serious limitation of a liberal democratic polity. The chapter concludes by returning to the term extreme speech to highlight its critical potential in delineating minority politics in the current digital media cultures.
An “Outrageous Speech” in the Nation’s Moral Economy
“You haven’t seen Akbaruddin’s hate speech? It is outrageous!” My friend was laughing in disbelief and immediately reached out for his mobile phone to show me what he was referring to. The video contained a snippet of a speech in which the Indian politician Akbaruddin Owaisi rhetorically asks, “What could these twenty-five crore [250 million] Muslims do if you just take away the police for fifteen minutes?” The moral evaluation of the “outrageous” nature differed widely among mainstream news coverage, my conversations with Indian Muslims, and legal assessments. Akbaruddin seemed to invert the usual reverential attitude expected from minority leaders, who politely respect a polity that has delivered little in the name of development and representation to most Indian Muslims. His comment enables multiple readings depending on moral reasoning and political affiliation. One reading could be that of the myth of heroic Muslim warriors, a martial community that holds historical pride as former rulers of large stretches of what is today’s India. His words imply martial pride, suggesting that “we would overcome the Hindu majority if the battle were fair.”1 His audience at a political rally in Nirmal—a small town in the southern Indian state of Telangana—would be aware of the police’s role in past state-backed violence against the Muslim minority. In this reading, I assume a mixture of scandalous enjoyment, ire, indignation, and resentment also took hold of some of my Muslim conversation partners with whom I have discussed the clip. Although the speech is from 2012, it currently resonates strongly with a community going through some of its darkest times since the emergence of the modern Indian nation-state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has been responsible for a climate of minority repression, intolerance, and mob violence (Palshikar 2017; Teltumbde 2018). Since 2012, the whole video of the speech and subsequent snippets have become among the most circulated online objects of Muslim minority politics in India—their popularity perhaps linked to the predicament of the community.
Muslim politics in India have been informed in recent years by the publication of a number of state-commissioned reports that have shown the abysmal socioeconomic conditions of most members of this community. The Sachar Committee Report (2006) indicates that Indian Muslims are disadvantaged in many respects, ranging from high poverty and low literacy levels to exclusion from government jobs and underrepresentation in business and media. This report and others (Ministry of Minority Affairs 2007) have stirred debate among journalists, academics, and the Muslim community in India. Some groups have pressed for affirmative action policies for all Indian Muslims. This follows a model already implemented among other groups classified by the state as “backward”: scheduled caste (formerly “untouchables”), scheduled tribes, and other backward castes (OBCs). Nevertheless, commentators have stressed the internal diversity and inequalities within the category of “Indian Muslim” and the need for a more differentiated approach to affirmative action (Ansari  discusses how Indian Muslims are part of caste society and, in many federal states, included in the OBC category). At the same time, strong arguments concerning their discrimination as a minority have been brought forward that focus on cultural aspects of discrimination (e.g., stereotyping) and underrepresentation (see Islam 2019 for a detailed discussion). These debates provide the backdrop to a new, more assertive phase of Muslim politics in India that coincides with the weakness of Indian National Congress, at the center, to claim representation of the religious minority through its own understanding of secular nationalism. I suggest that Akbaruddin Owaisi’s persona and his “hate speech” have become such controversial topics because they open up various ways of questioning the moral order of the Indian nation-state in times of Hindu nationalist hegemony.
The growing importance of Akbaruddin can be judged by his substantial social media fan following and the mainstream media coverage of his scandals (Jha 2017).2 However, his visibility as a star persona is aligned, augmented, and challenged by his even more famous brother, Asaduddin Owaisi, who was recently recognized by Facebook as India’s second politician, in terms of interactions, just behind Narendra Modi (Tech Observer Desk 2018). While Asaduddin is a UK-educated “barrister” (a title that his followers rarely omit) who holds a seat in the Indian Lok Sabha and was recognized for good parliamentary practice, his brother Akbaruddin is a medical school dropout and has a reputation as a maverick. In his public image, he embodies a set of character types ranging from the tough politician to the comedian to the dada (local strongman). In his most famous online videos, he caters to comedy and scandal through extreme forms of speech.
Even though the term hate figures mostly in the press coverage of his Nirmal speech, this chapter is neither meant to confirm this term nor to dismiss it wholesale. Instead, I want to explore the politically more relevant question pertaining to the link among a speaking position (that of Muslim leader in India), an emotion (is it really hate?), its resonance among audiences, and its moral evaluation. When Akbaruddin says in his Nirmal speech that “every action calls for a reaction,” I think it is important to ask, what conceptual stakes are in the claims of reaction and how are they aligned with the moral self-understanding of the Indian polity?
In the speech, Akbaruddin mostly addressed the importance of representation of Muslims by Muslims for the sake of community empowerment. However, his elaboration of current economic and cultural exclusions of the community were secondary to the media visibility that has evolved around this speech. Most commentators, be they his audience (a mostly male political rally), Muslim online users, the security forces, the prosecuting party, public intellectuals, or some segments of the English-language press, focused on the more scandalous moments and their professed emotional qualities. Akbaruddin was eventually imprisoned for forty days pending trial under suspicion of violating section 121 (waging or attempting to wage a war or abetting waging of war against the government of India) and section 153(A) (creating enmity between different communities) of the Indian Penal Code. The latter claim is related to his mockery of Hindu gods.3 In response, a number of public intellectuals, filmmakers, and social activists criticized his speech in a statement issued by the Hyderabad-based Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), an organization founded in the aftermath of communal riots in the 1990s that strives to strengthen “communal harmony.”4 COVA called the speech obnoxious, divisive, and in violation of peace (echoing the principles largely associated with the Indian National Congress Party).5 With film star Farhan Akhtar and veteran journalists like Karan Thapar and Swapan Dasgupta joining in after the speech via Twitter, Akbaruddin affirmed his reputation as a firebrand.6 Among these highly visible secular-nationalist commentators, there is consensus concerning the problematic nature of this “hate speech,” labeling it “outrageous” and “obnoxious.”
Although often called “hate speech” in media coverage, the speech in Nirmal does not figure the radical othering that is typical of the politics of hate (which involves purification of one’s own group against the hostile takeover of “rats” and “germs,” etc.). That does not mean that its most extreme image of “twenty five crore unbound by the police” would not evoke the possibility of mass violence and thus may qualify as hateful if taken as a threat. Akbaruddin’s speech, delivered at night to his jalsa public (an almost exclusively male political rally), includes a number of other chauvinistic assertions that add to the audience thrill in participating in these gatherings. Anthropologist Shefali Jha (2017, 341) describes how the speech was originally considered “private” by some members of his audience. For them, it was not proper to have Akbaruddin prosecuted for something “said in a jalsa.” Jha argues that the unexpected online visibility of these speeches was part of a larger shift that enabled Akbaruddin’s nationalization as an all-India Muslim star persona, as well as his media visibility as a “hate speaker.”
I argue that this transition must now be analyzed in respect to the emotional resonance it can create among a national minority. There are aspects such as the implied understanding of fairness and the importance given to secularism that made me wonder how this widely professed “outrageousness” can be understood within the trajectory of a reframing of Muslim minority politics beyond the context of communalism and its associated negative emotions. In India, the term communal is used for popular leaders who assert their position with an emotional pitch through religious identities. They are often accused of “inciting communal passions,” denoting two (post)colonial categories: one is the not yet rational colonial subject who is on the verge of group violence (Mazzarella 2013), and the other is seen through the British understanding of Indian society as being made up of internally coherent religious “communities” in an atavistic and perennial conflict. The different communalists are then often lifted into equivalence by those who consider themselves above “communal passions”—the harbingers of rational, unbiased justice. This balancing act is particularly disturbing considering the degree of Hindu dominance in various areas of the Indian polity, from the constitution, judiciary, and security services to the media (Singh 2015). The endeavor to question communalism is nothing new in itself (see Ahmed 2013; Islam 2019), but I argue that the link between moral evaluations of negative emotions and possible articulations of extreme speech has not yet been properly explored.
In Congress-aligned discourses of national secularism, Akbaruddin and his followers not only react but rather are reactionary—people led by hate and revenge turning the AIMIM into a “mirror image of the Hindu BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]” (Shivshankar 2020). Some of the media’s usages of the term resentment capture something about the way Akbaruddin “outrages” people by drawing on negative emotions.7 This evaluation of Owaisi’s position can also be found in some political science writing (Friedrichs 2018; Singh 2019). To address reaction and its position toward the political role of emotions in relation to minority politics, it is helpful to differentiate between the Nietzschean use of the French term ressentiment and resentment. Doing so allows me to speak about two politically relevant ways of subjectification (Fassin 2013, 250; Hunt 2013, 119), referring to the moral value of emotions such as indignation, anger, ire, bitterness, and a desire for revenge. From the perspective of conceptual history, the term resentment is misapplied in the journalistic and scholarly contexts mentioned. Instead, it is more of an accusation of Nietzschean ressentiment that lurks behind some of the media coverage—when, for example, it is suggested that because of a lack of real transformative power, the Owaisis are able to arouse only the “hate” of their constituencies when they use extreme speech (Alam 2018). For Nietzsche, ressentiment is a reaction of the weak in which they cannot fight in any other way than to moralize and take what is suppressing them as amoral. Ressentiment is caught in the self-affirming circularity of autovictimization and revenge—thus, it is reaction gone bad, where the active force was cut off by some sentimental or symbolic attachment to the master as a memory trace. In contrast, political philosopher Adam Smith considers “resentment” as a normal yet disagreeable passion that “can be disciplined as long as a sense of justice prevails” (Fassin 2013, 251). The point for Smith is that resentment can be legitimate when its reaction is aligned with the justice provided by the nation-state (liberal political philosophers such as John Rawls  and Martha Nussbaum  continue this tradition of nation-state–focused approaches to justice and political emotions).
How then does Akbaruddin himself interpret the emotional quality of his rhetoric? In the middle of the Nirmal speech, he says that he is the “voice of the ǥuṣṣa [anger] of Indian Muslims.” According to Platt’s dictionary, غصہ ǥuṣṣa8 comes from the Arabic غصہ (“to be choked”). The semantic context is one of “choking, strangulation, suffocation”—thus “(choking) wrath, rage, anger, passion;—grief, disquietude of mind, anxiety”—and, as an adverb, ǥuṣṣemeṃ (“in anger; from or through anger”). Even though gus.s.a is usually understood as a brief reaction—like a burst of anger—the historical dimensions of Akbaruddin’s claim rather point to “resentment”: a complex moral sentiment with a value that relates to a whole moral order. Consequently, instead of seeing Akbaruddin’s gus.s.a as a mirror image of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) majoritarian populism or the extreme speeches of Hindu nationalists, I argue that it is crucial to look at the exact wording, the rhetorical style, and the Indian polity to analyze which values are evoked and to what degree of legitimacy.
My questions are pursued in a media anthropology of “moral economy” (Fassin 2009) that discusses the way values are produced, circulated, regulated, and appropriated through media practices. These questions have immediate relevance when it comes to extreme speech (Udupa and Pohjonen 2019) in online vitriol and new digital media cultures. As a concept, extreme speech explores the boundaries of legitimate speech through context-sensitive studies. Udupa and Pohjonen question legalistic and universalizing moral assessments of “acceptable or non-acceptable speech” to engage with processes of mediation and performance within the larger context of different media-cultural environments where historically different notions of politeness, abuse, and comedy shape the way people practice extreme speech. Thus, what counts as “hate speech” depends on a multitude of factors including law, moral discourses, and historical experiences that have formed the basis of group and individual memory. In the case of India, the nation-state’s moral order results partly from liberalism and from its (post)colonial history, including the partition of British India and the struggle of lower castes for democratic access. Colonial forms of governance and various group struggles led to citizenship that includes both collective and individual rights through which justice is demanded.
Crucial for the purpose of this chapter is Udupa and Pohjonen’s (2019, 4–5) call to go beyond normative understandings of “hate speech” by looking at the ways control and authority are exerted in assigning the term “hate” to certain speeches and not to others. If the resentment from those who are living under conditions of discrimination and structural violence cannot be legitimately expressed because it gets caught up in the term “hate,” then that situation reveals a serious limitation of a liberal democratic polity. Even if one does not propound a normative order oneself, it is still important to open up these questions of legitimacy by an immanent critique to those who identify with a national-secular and more liberal version of the Indian state. A closer historical contextualization of the AIMIM, elaborated in the next section, will help to explicate this critical intervention.
AIMIM: From Hyderabad to the Nation
Journalistic articles on the AIMIM usually begin with references to its former avatar, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), and the historical role the party played in the defense of Muslim interests in the Nizam’s state of Hyderabad. The MIM’s private troops, the razakars, fought on the side of the Nizam’s army against the Indian forces during Operation Polo, the war that led to the merger of the Hyderabad state with the Indian Union. In 1948, amid widespread violence against Muslims in the region, many Indian politicians identified the MIM as the main culprit in stirring “communal passions,” and the party was banned. Confronted with evidence of the scale of violence directed against Muslims in the aftermath of Operation Polo, Indian politicians framed the incident in the classic colonial rhetoric of “equal violence on both sides,” hurriedly dedicating the topic to history (Sherman 2015). The party reemerged only ten years later—now with an “All India” in front of the MIM—in 1958 with a new constitution and under the leadership of the Owaisi family. Since then, some landmark successes included a Lok Sabha seat won by Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, the father of the brothers, and the defense of more than six seats in the state parliament (in 2019, they had seven) for several decades from constituencies located in and around the old town of Hyderabad.
The speech in Nirmal falls into a new expansive phase of the party since 2012. Some journalists I interviewed suggested that this timing cannot be coincidental but rather reveals a larger shift in the orientation of the party: from Hyderabad to the nation. The circulation of snippets of this speech furthered by the use of digital media is linked to the attempt to enter other Indian states with large Muslim populations. This approach has so far resulted in some victories in municipal corporations in a few cities and two seats in the legislative assembly of the federal state of Maharashtra. In September 2018, an official electoral alliance was forged with Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of famous Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar. Arguably, this alliance helped in securing the second Lok Sabha seat for the party in the 2019 national elections in the Maharashtrian city of Aurangabad. Bajpai and Farooqui (2018, 293) noted the reliance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s rhetoric on India’s constitutional framework and the AIMIM’s similarity to Dalit parties in terms of demands for state reservation (affirmative policy measures) and political self-representation as an articulation of mostly secular interests (they define this as “non-extremist outbidding”). But they confine their analysis to the formalities of Asaduddin’s rhetoric, sidelining the ludic and transgressive aspects of the party’s visibility mostly connected with his brother Akbaruddin (this perspective mirrors the overall trajectory in scholarship regarding the recent successes of AIMIM, concentrating on rhetorical style, ideological content, political patronage, and the mediation of citizenship; Moore 2016; Jha 2017; Bajpai and Farooqui 2018; Suneetha and Moid 2019). The astonishing visibility of the Owaisis cannot be explained by looking at organized media alone but rather should be read along with digital media practices of the party’s new followers. The latter has played a critical role in the party’s recent expansion and the popularity of the Owaisis, as “outrageous” speech continues to provide the fulcrum for digital popularity. Although the mediation of the speech would be a worthwhile subject on its own, in the next section, I will explore the link between the most “outrageous” content of the speech in Nirmal (ironically, the name of the town means “pure”) and the nation-state’s trope of secularism.
A Dirty Speech in Nirmal
The issue of the Bhagyalakshmi temple sets up the more immediate context of a series of eight speeches that became famous “hate speeches” in late 2012. The temple was constructed in the 1960s next to the iconic Charminar building in Hyderabad’s old town. In November 2012, the roof was renovated, against the protests of AIMIM. Akbaruddin claimed that the police protected the illegal construction work, and he led a rally to the old town. There was some stone pelting and tear gassing by the police, which resulted in a few AIMIM supporters, including Akbaruddin, being taken into police custody. It is possible that this event and the confrontation with the police played a role in setting the tone for the speech. During the speech, Akbaruddin says that he is the “voice of g_us.s.a of Indian Muslims.” In the introduction, I pointed out that the Urdu term g_us.s.a in the context of the Nirmal speech is more suggestive of the complex emotion of resentment rather than its preferred translation as “anger.” Because many commentators understood his words as an expression of neither anger nor resentment but rather as hate, it is worth briefly exploring these differences.
Anger and hate are usually differentiated by their temporality and by their relation to an object. Anger is understood as a rather short outburst, whereas hate is marked by a long-term attachment. As noted earlier, resentment is linked to (community) memory and history of subjugation—thus acquiring a long-term dimension. Bursts of anger as part of a feeling of suffocation that derives from current situations and historical memory are not very different from the temporal attachment that hate requires—but different in the way they are directed toward an object. Resentment, as a politically theorized negative emotion, is directed at institutions that have so far failed to deliver justice. Its object is not just the resented other; it acquires a crucial third instance through which a “recognition” of the position from below may get justly acted upon (see the reconstruction of the concept of recognition by Axel Honneth ). In contrast, the object-cause of hate, in the words of Sara Ahmed (2014), “presses against me,” threatening the individual’s very existence—it does not require institutions of recognition. Superficially, one could ask whether Akbaruddin talks about exactly this when he explains the reasons why AIMIM parted company with Congress on the issue of a temple construction next to Charminar that “used to be a mosque.” The temple presses against the mosque as another wound in the history of Muslim subordination in India—a history he addresses in passing by speaking derogatorily about Hindu temples. He warned that “Muslims would take the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, and Qutb Minar [important monuments erected by Muslim rulers] with them,” adding, “What will then remain here? Just a razed Ram temple in Ayodhya and the naked statues of Ellora and Ajanta.” But his stressing that the mosque was a legal construction and that the encroachment was actually the illegal attack on the moral order makes one wonder if “hate” really captures it. Even in his most “outrageous” comments (e.g., the remark about the “police” referenced earlier), there is no demonization of the Hindu other. Rather, both instances suggest that they be understood along with the historical disappointments India’s Muslims have experienced with Indian (national) secularism and Hindu nationalism. Akbaruddin thus aims at a comical inversion of the trope of communalism: “You who expect secularism [from us], rebuild the Babri masjid, and Akbar Owaisi will consider if he should be secular or not. (Secularism kī tawaqqo rakh’ne wāloṃ, Babri masjid ko banā lo, Akbar Owaisi gaur karegā secular hone kāyā naī hone kā). People will say Akbar Owaisi is communal. . . . I don’t know about pro- this or pro- that; I am only pro-Muslim!” (Log boleṃge Akbar Owaisi firqāparast hai . . . maiṃnaī jānta ye-parast, vah-parast, maiṃ sirf Muslim-parast hūṃ!)” (Jha 2017, 292; changed transcription style by author).
Using the third person, Akbaruddin appears sly and assertive—playing among the dada (local strongman), the ṭaporī (a street-smart gangster with a popular film pedigree [Kramer 2014], indexed by the colloquial hone kā), and the floor leader of the party in the regional state assembly. The party brands him as Habib-e-Millat (beloved of the community), suggesting a popular sentiment that “Akbarbhai” (brother Akbar) may occasionally be “over the top” but only because he speaks from his heart (a notion that came across in many conversations I had with party workers). His words imply that Muslims might as well be communal since the polity is communal and that the Muslim community should accept citizenship mediated by group identities, which are a reality of the Indian polity. The attempts to gain authority over Akbaruddin’s moral evaluation by calling it “hate” requires a critical investigation of the tropes of “harmony” and “secularism” that frame the type of emotional involvement (or noninvolvement) that is supposedly “good” for a nation-state polity under principles of justice—to which I turn next.
Polity and Emotions
In this section, I look at the way emotions are captured in the legal language and moral discourse of the Indian polity. Akbaruddin once said, “Our community (qaum) is emotional (jazbātī); therefore, we have to arouse their emotions.”9 His assumptions are connected to the already colonial debate on “Muslim rage” that is constantly reiterated in relation to different conflicts, be they Kashmir, blasphemy cases in Pakistan (Schaflechner, chap. 12), or discourse on the “Islamic hatred of the West” (Lewis 2001). Continuities between the above-mentioned “social activists” of COVA and older colonial discourses on “Muslim rage” can be traced to 1920s India. Julia Stephens (2014, 47) argues that “while colonial officials had long emphasized their religious neutrality, the term secularism, and its emphasis on removing religion from politics, first gained prominence in Indian politics in the 1920s. Such efforts to exclude ‘fanaticism’ from politics were in theory religiously neutral. In practice proponents of secularism singled out Islam as posing a particular threat, effectively marginalizing Muslims’ political concerns.”
Akbaruddin of 2012 seems to be an impolite, extreme intrusion into the official rhetoric of a party that tried to reinvent its public image. In recent years, Asaduddin has mostly made AIMIM look polite, constitutional, patriotic, and open in order to form a broad coalition with other discriminated groups (however, there are also extreme speeches by Asaduddin). Rhetorically, many of AIMIM’s articulations are moderated by the fact that Asaduddin’s legalist discourse tries to imagine the Indian nation as secular in a substantially Indian way: by opening avenues of affirmative action and representation for Muslims and Dalits. For the purposes of this chapter, the problem of a liberal public sphere does not rely primarily on its implicit assumptions of secularity as rational (somehow devoid of passions; see, e.g., Chaube 2018) but rather on the set of emotions that are deemed “problematic” when related to the assertion of cultural religious identities.
From a perspective of communal harmony, it is easy to frame Akbaruddin as a harbinger of hate speech and a staunch communalist. Ways of framing Akbaruddin as communal need to be addressed through the history of the Indian nation-state. The denial of being a constitutive and transformative element of Indian history forces most Muslims in India to become public through the nationalization of their articulation. Because hegemonic history writing is either secular-nationalist or Hindu nationalist in India, claims suggesting larger Muslim solidarity are often read against the partition of British India and thus firmly placed within the discursive framework of “secularism versus communalism.” This can be seen as a result of what Gyanendra Pandey has called “internal colonization” (2006, 1781), “wherein they [Muslims] are not only perceived as second-class citizens, but are also unable to assert any independent claims to history or to seek an identity outside of and without assimilating into the dominant culture” (Khan 2015, 62). The denial of history also cuts many Indian Muslims off from possible arguments concerning historical injustice that have become the legal basis for affirmative action and reservation policies in the case of Dalit politics (Hasan 2011). Muslims’ otherness, as Barbara Metcalf (1995) argues, should therefore not be misconstrued as primarily “cultural or religious difference” but placed firmly, in Khan’s paraphrasing, as “a product of political expediencies aimed at preserving the hegemony and cohesiveness of the dominant Hindu community and of deflecting attention from the inequalities and lack of redistributive justice within the world’s largest democracy” (2015, 113). Consequently, discourse on communalism frames the moral economy that Muslim minority agents find themselves within when using extreme forms of speech, and it is often used to delimit their space of self-assertion.
The legal context pertains to restrictions on free speech (given that hate speech is not a legal term). Legislation includes Indian Penal Code sections 153A, 295, and 295A (nonbailable, noncompoundable offenses), which focus on attacks on religion, race, place of birth, language, a particular group or class, or the founders and prophets of a religion; damaging places of worship; and insults to religion and religious beliefs. In addition, section 123(3A) of the election law, the Representation of People Act, prohibits attempts to promote enmity on grounds of religion. Key to a discussion of moral economies is the stress on “outraging the religious feelings of any class” (sec. 295A) and linking “public order” with the value of “harmony” (sec. 153A) and “national unity.” In relation to minority politics, communities are “religious” and constitutive of the “diversity of India,” in which state secularism is meant to enable “unity in diversity” against the background of the partition of British India along religious lines.
According to Jose Casanova (2010), secularism as an ideology explains why “we”—a group identity—need secularism while constructing time and again what the secular and the religious are and can do. We need it because we need to deal with diversity within the nation. In a judgment under the Representation of People Act, the judiciary has been shown to have given considerable leeway to Hindu nationalist articulations, going so far as conflating a reformist definition of Hinduism with some core understandings of Hindu nationalism (Sen 2019, 23). Thus, one needs to measure the above-mentioned laws and an ideology of secularism against their legal practice and enforcement. In 2017, a nongovernmental organization, the Association of Democratic Reforms, pointed out that while the majority of the fifty-eight members of the legislative assembly who have been booked as hate speech offenders belong to the Hindu-nationalist BJP (27), none of these lawmakers have been arrested by the police, whereas politicians like Akbaruddin Owaisi, academics, and journalists have been targeted.10 The same is true for former Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, leader of one of Maharashtra’s most powerful political parties, who had several cases pending but has never spent more than brief stints in prison for his offenses (e.g., calling Muslims “rats”). This claim also pertains to the current chief minister of the politically significant state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, who said, “You kill one of us [Hindus], we kill one hundred of you [Muslims].”11 There have been riots in relation to Adityanath’s speech and Thakeray’s offenses—something that did not happen after Akbaruddin’s Nirmal speech. Questions of effectiveness have been regarded by the Supreme Court in the case of Ramesh v. Union of India to have some bearing on restricting free speech. The Law Commission of India states that when it comes to section 19(2), “the relation between restriction and public order has to be proximate and direct as opposed to [having] a remote or fanciful connection” (2017, 11). Nevertheless, Adityanath and Thackeray were let off the hook by procedural arguments (“time barred,” etc.) for extreme speeches of hateful content that had proximate connections to public order (Sahi 2017; Punwani 2017).
Conclusion—The Differences Made by Extreme Speech in Moral Economies
In 2019, the Hindu nationalist BJP returned to power with an overwhelming majority after running a campaign that involved warmongering and anti-Muslim propaganda. In a news article published right after the election results, well-known author and intellectual Pankaj Mishra argued that ressentiment linked to the inequalities of Indian society was a driving force behind the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi’s triumph.12 In a similar vein, Max Scheler (2004) has considered the imagination of equality as established in capitalist modernity and liberal democracy as the driving force of ressentiment. He argues that the formal equality given by modern constitutions establishes an abstract difference based on normative principles and public value ascribed to certain groups that may contrast with their actual social standing (Scheler 2004, 9). Mishra’s concern is timely because the digitalized acceleration of the clickbait economy’s moral outrage may reach a dead end where negative emotions can no longer be redressed effectively in existing institutions. At this very impasse hinges the term resentment as a way to approach the legitimacy of extreme speech.
The word extreme (instead of transgressive) signals an in-depth understanding of emotional intensities and their stakes for moral orders, which are part of an inquiry into how these speeches become politically relevant. Extreme speech is always extreme in relation to some moral interpretation—what is hate for some may be anger for others. This evaluation seriously affects how we can engage with highly emotional claims of minorities: Are they just the reactionary clamor of the weak without transformative force, or are these emotions legitimate and politically relevant to some extent? These stakes for moral orders are measured in an economy with its own rules within which a nation-state polity may or may not dispense justice. Seen from this perspective, Akbaruddin’s references to secularism and jokes about the Hindu religion point to the lack of a language that navigates a path out of the minoritarian discontent. The constant affirmation of nationalism by politically engaged Muslims in India—the AIMIM being no exception—is thus ambiguously bound to expressions of extreme speech as objects in circulation, both valorized and scandalous. It is extreme because both the liberal and postcolonial frameworks of the polity render self-assertive forms of Muslim politics in India as fundamentally problematic while accepting strong forms of self-representation by other historically disadvantaged groups whom the state classifies as Hindu (even though the self-perception of many members of these groups, particularly the Dalits, may strongly go against this identification).
To conclude, I suggest that the following interpretative option based on a liberal self-understanding of the Indian polity may be available: Akbaruddin’s so-called hate speeches often voiced the legitimate resentment of a victimized minority. Naming Akbaruddin’s speech as “hate speech” contrasts with the failures of the Indian polity in regulating majoritarian forms of extreme speech with clearly hateful content. The snippets of the Nirmal speech that became viral are tied to notions of secularism and religion, especially as the Hindu nationalization of the Indian polity has centered the project to position Indian Muslims as second-class citizens.
What I argue, by extending the scope of the concept of extreme speech to the moral economy, is that the emotional value of speeches also requires fine-grained analysis within particular nation-state polities and their possibilities for claims on the nation from minority subject positions. For this endeavor, the term extreme speech is helpful precisely because the moral-normative framework is part of the analytic problem of extreme forms of speech and not of its solution (as liberal theorists may think). Consequently, the meaning of justice as it relates to resentment is always captured within the nation-state form—and this fact is the engine of what makes Akbaruddin’s speech “transgressive” and “legitimate” at the same time. Even though, from a liberal perspective, Akbaruddin’s extreme speech may fall into legitimate resentment, it is always at the brink of turning into ressentiment. Ressentiment is disempowered resentment—where not even some institutional safeguards can help a minority qua minority status—and this vulnerability is present in the form of the nation-state itself and bound up with its effectivity in delivering justice.
1. When I mentioned the comments of Akbaruddin to another Muslim friend in Delhi, he answered dryly and in a slightly teasing tone—probably because of the incorrectness of his comment—that Akbaruddin may be factually right: “Would those few OBCs [other backward castes] and Dalits [two low-caste groups] fight on behalf of the BJP’s [Bharatiya Janata Party’s] Brahmins and middle classes if the police wouldn’t back them up?”
2. A large number of Akbaruddin’s fan pages are available, some of which feature high numbers of subscribers. The accounts most subscribed to are Akbaruddin Owaisi The Great Leader (@AkbarUOwaisiTGL; subscribers in July 2019: 1,114,321) “Akbaruddin Owaisi (@ALHAJAKBARUDDINNOWAISI; subscribers: 729,220), and Akbaruddin Owaisi—Youth Icon (@AUOYI; subscribers: 647,164).
5. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/bjp-breathes-fire-against-akbaruddin/article4259778.ece-31 (Accessed March 14, 2019).
6. MIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi’s inflammatory speech triggers anger on Twitter. India Today, December 29, 2012.
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