Indian Union Minister’s hate speech about Muslims liable for prosecution

Bharat Bhushan

Union minister of state for law and justice, Satyapal Singh Baghel, made a statement that there were very few tolerant Muslims, and even those who appear to be tolerant use it as “a mask” to stay in public life; to become governors, vice presidents and vice-chancellors. Nobody reacted; not the Opposition parties, not the media, nor even those who claim to speak for the Muslim community. The silence is deafening. It is as if everyone has already accepted the narrative about “intolerant Muslims”.

Baghel is a relatively new convert to Hindutva. A one-time sub-inspector of police in Uttar Pradesh and a former “professor” of military science at Agra College, he has been a five-time MP. He was the personal security officer of Samajwadi Party leader and then chief minister of UP, Mulayam Singh when he developed political ambitions. Since then, he has been a serial party-hopper – moving from Samajwadi Party to Bahujan Samaj Party and now to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He is also a caste hopper. Up to November 2016, he was an OBC (Gadaria caste) and was even the BJP’s OBC Morcha chief in UP. However, in 2017 Baghel claimed Scheduled Caste status (Dhangar) and contested a reserved seat in the UP assembly. In 2019, he again contested as an SC and won from the Agra reserved constituency. His brother Brijlal Singh, however, reportedly continues to be an OBC. A case is pending against him for alleged falsification of his caste certificate.

Baghel was appointed the minister of state for law and justice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his second term in office. He told reporters, “I will not leave any stone unturned in doing justice to the portfolio assigned to me.” Perhaps the minister thinks that expounding divisive social narratives is doing “justice to the portfolio”.

At an event organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Baghel said, “Tolerant Muslims can be counted on fingers. Their numbers are not even in the thousands. Even that is a tactic. It is to stay in public life with a mask. This route then leads to the house of the governor and vice-president or vice-chancellor. But when they retire from there, they begin to speak their mind.” This was a rejoinder to the preceding speaker, an information commissioner of the Centre, who had argued that Islamic fundamentalism should be fought, but tolerant Muslims should be embraced.

Questioning the previous speaker’s image of Akbar as a tolerant Muslim, Baghel said his tolerance was only a contrivance to rule over a Hindu majority, “He knew that he could not rule Akhand Bharat by hurting religious sentiments. But this was a strategy. It did not come from the heart. If Akbar was really secular, the massacre of Chittorgarh would not have happened. Din-e-Ilahi and Sulah-e-Kul were also part of a strategy as was inclusion of Hindus among the Navratnas. His marriage (to Jodhabai) was also a political marriage. When he died, his last words were ‘Ya Allah!'”

This interpretation of Akbar and the delegitimisation of all rulers of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal state was then used by him to support the idea of a Hindu nation oppressed by medieval Islamic rulers: “People keep talking about the Constitution’s basic structure and how it cannot be tinkered with. The basic structure of this nation is that of Akhand Bharat Hindu Rashtra before 1192 (Battle of Tarain in which Muhammad Ghouri defeated Prithiviraj Chauhan). I have never agreed with (Ram Manohar) Lohia ji’s views that Ghouri and Ghaznavi were looters while Akbar, Dara Shukoh and Razia Sultan are our ancestors. The Delhi Sultanate was run based on Shariat. It was a hard-line regime.”

Such simplistic historical narratives are distinct from academic histories that would be far more complex and nowhere as certain as the story Baghel wants to tell. His story has a hook, arouses emotions, and its assertions are definitive; his audiences do not have to analyse anything— served as a pre-plated dish, it requires zero culinary skills on the part of the consumer.

Such ideological “histories” help to embed fear and harden notions of difference in the majority community. That is why Baghel went on to say, “After Prithiviraj Chauhan’s defeat to Mohammed Ghouri, our culture, language and traditions have been under threat. Now they (Muslims) think they were rulers, how can they become subjects? That’s where the problem lies.”

Baghel’s speech is a clear case of constructing and legitimising a scurrilous social narrative about the Muslim community. He reaches for Muhammad Ghouri’s invasion but deliberately ignores recent history – India’s freedom movement, which saw exemplary Muslim leadership which opposed the partition of India. This included well-known leaders such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and scores of ordinary people who resisted the two-nation theory and stayed behind.

Baghel’s ideological vision is dystopian – designed to trigger fear in the majority community while demonising Muslims – past and present — as the source of that fear. Using his Constitutional Office as a minister to propound it is unforgivable. The law clearly states that promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and indulging in acts prejudicial to maintaining harmony are punishable offences. It makes no difference whether the hate speech comes from a saffron-clad rabble-rouser, a maulana or a minister.

Baghel, therefore, is liable for prosecution, especially in view of the Supreme Court’s order on hate speech of April 28, 2023. The apex order ruled that hate speech was a serious offence capable of impacting the secular fabric of the country and directed all states and Union Territories to register hate speech cases even if no complaint was made by an individual. The court warned that any delay in registering hate speech cases would be treated as contempt of court. Now it remains to be seen whether the grey eminences of the Supreme Court will implement its own lofty pronouncements.