From Buffalo to India, the Right’s Demographic Paranoia Fuels Deadly Violence

As the Western far right promotes “great replacement” theory, the Indian right accuses Muslims of trying to outnumber the Hindu majority. After Buffalo’s mass shooting, Joe Biden condemned the former — then praised Narendra Modi, who repeats the latter.

In India, where Narendra Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is seeking to transform India into an ethnic-majoritarian, Hindu supremacist state, “great replacement”–like tropes are deployed by politicians and media figures alike on a regular basis. (Narendra Modi / Wikimedia Commons)

One day after the deadly supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, it was reported — to absolutely no one’s surprise — that the shooter had published a 180-page document online detailing his plans for the massacre, which targeted a black community and left ten dead. In the document, the shooter outlined the racist ideology that had motivated the attack, with a particular emphasis on the so-called “great replacement” — the white supremacist conspiracy theory that holds that liberal immigration policies and promotion of diversity are part of a sustained conspiracy, usually led by Jews, to flood the country with foreign migrants and “replace” the white majority.

The roots of the great replacement theory, which has motivated white supremacist attacks from Christchurch, New Zealand, to El Paso, Texas, reach back decades — in April 1968, the far-right British politician Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, which warned that “in this country, in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” as a result of large-scale immigration and the embrace of multiculturalism. Five years later, in 1973, French author Jean Raspail published The Camp of the Saints, a virulently racist novel in which France and other Western countries are overrun by barbaric, dark-skinned migrants. Looking further back, warnings of “white extinction” and declining “racial hygiene” brought about by immigration and racial intermarriage have featured centrally in the speeches and writings of white supremacists throughout history, from turn-of-the-century eugenicists to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The great replacement theory as we know it today, however, was first articulated in 2010 and 2011 by French author Renaud Camus, who was deeply influenced by the views of Powell and Raspail and whose writings on the great replacement remain highly influential in far-right and white nationalist circles to this day.

Today, Camus’s rhetoric of replacement has become a staple talking point for far-right media figures like Tucker Carlson, who has explicitly invoked the great replacement on his show. The theory has also gained currency among Republican politicians, from hopeful “new right” candidates like J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona to established politicians like New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik. All of these figures have employed the language of replacement — particularly in the context of immigrants crossing the southern border — as a conspiracy engineered by the Democrats and the “radical left” to promote mass immigration and intentionally alter America’s demographic makeup. The version of the great replacement theory espoused by mainstream Republicans, though certainly no less racist, is generally slightly less extreme than that which circulates on white nationalist 4chan boards, shying away from the explicit language of “white genocide” in favor of more standard GOP talking points about topics such as election security. As a result of this strategic moderation — a moderation of form but not of substance — the great replacement theory has been allowed to implant itself as an established, growing political force on the American right.

But the United States is not the only country where conspiracy theories about replacement are gaining traction as right-wing leaders warn of immigration and demographic shifts posing an existential threat to the majority community. Halfway across the world in India, where Narendra Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is seeking to transform India into an ethnic-majoritarian, Hindu supremacist state along the lines of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology, similar tropes are deployed by politicians and media figures alike on a regular basis. These tropes are best summarized by the Hindi slogan “Hindu khatre mein hai,” which translates to “Hindus Are in Danger.” This slogan, frequently raised by Hindu nationalists who aspire to transform India from a secular, pluralist democracy into a “Hindu Rashtra,” or Hindu nation, encompasses a wide range of issues — from fertility rates to interfaith relationships — that fuel the Hindu far-right’s demographic paranoia.

Population Paranoia and “Love Jihad”

Fearmongering about the population growth and fertility rates of India’s Muslims, with the subtext that a growing Muslim population necessarily spells disaster for the Hindu majority, is a rhetorical mainstay of Hindu supremacist leaders — in particular Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who warned in 2015 that “the comparatively high fertility rate among Muslims will cause a dangerous demographic imbalance” and has attributed Muslim population growth to the “special rights” and privileges that Indian Muslims have supposedly been afforded.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who typically restricts his anti-Muslim rhetoric to carefully crafted dog whistles so as to maintain plausible deniability for the violence engendered by his politics, has dabbled in this sort of demographic fearmongering. At a 2002 rally in Gujarat, shortly following the horrific violence in which he has since been personally implicated as chief minister of the state, Modi repeated tropes about Muslim marriage habits and birth rates, mocking Muslims with the slogan “Hum panch, hamare pachees,” or “We Five, Our Twenty-five” — a spoof on the old family-planning slogan of  “Hum do, hamare do,” which translates to “We Two [Parents], Our Two [Children].” This fearmongering about Muslim population rates, which closely mirrors white nationalists’ fears of a growing nonwhite population, is not even remotely rooted in reality — not only has India’s demographic balance remained largely stable over the last seventy years, but all realistic models indicate that Hindus will maintain a substantial majority for decades to come, severely undermining any narrative of replacement.

The falsity of their claims has not, of course, stopped the Hindu far right from reifying these claims through policy. Adityanath, with the backing of the national BJP, has introduced a population-control law in Uttar Pradesh, and a similar proposal has been introduced at the national level. Although this legislation may appear neutral on paper, devoid of references to any particular community, even a cursory glance at the individuals and groups pushing for such bills reveals the true motives — one activist who claims to have mobilized 150,000 people to write letters in support of the national legislation, for example, told Al Jazeera that “in Muslims, there is no humanity. Each of them is a jihadi in his or her own way. With a growing population, they will become huge vote banks and their votes will start mattering more than Hindu votes.” Indeed, some of the proposed bills are more explicit about their intentions than others — the chief minister of BJP-ruled Assam, for example, has announced plans to create a “population army” in the state, tasked with distributing contraceptives and information about population control specifically in Muslim areas.

The materialization of demographic paranoia into policy extends beyond population-control measures as well. In 2020, when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) threatened to strip citizenship rights from millions of Muslims, sparking massive nationwide protests followed by brutal state repression of the demonstrations, Assam’s chief minister claimed that the law was aimed at “protecting identity” in the region, and defended it as the only way to “check the demographic change” caused by Muslim migration.

In addition to fearmongering about birth rates and population trends, there is another, arguably even more insidious dimension to the Hindu far-right’s demographic paranoia — the “love jihad” conspiracy theory, which baselessly purports that Muslim men are engaged in a targeted conspiracy to abduct Hindu women or seduce them into love marriages, forcibly converting them to Islam so that they can produce more Muslim children to fuel the supposed demographic takeover. The theory, which plays into vile colonial-era tropes of “virile” Muslim men posing an existential threat to the “purity” of Hindu women, has gone mainstream on the Hindu right in recent years — particularly with the rise to power of Yogi Adityanath, who has made love jihad a central facet of his particular brand of Hindutva. Under Adityanath’s leadership, Uttar Pradesh has passed an anti-love-jihad law targeting “forced conversion” through interfaith marriages, and similar laws have been passed or proposed in several other states.

As with population-control measures, the targets of these love-jihad laws could not be clearer — of the 208 people arrested in Uttar Pradesh under the law between November 2020 and August 2021, all were Muslim. These laws, as well as broader rhetorical fearmongering by Adityanath and his fellow Hindu supremacist leaders, have also fueled an epidemic of deadly hate violence against interfaith couples suspected of love jihad as Hindu supremacist groups such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh form vigilante mobs to hunt down, torture, and even kill the accused — often with tacit or overt sanction from the police. Some Hindu extremists have even gone so far as to carry out “reverse love jihad,” targeting Muslim girls and marrying them off to Hindu men.

The “Enemy Within”

Like population-control bills, the anti-love-jihad measures that have passed in many BJP-ruled states, bolstered by the insidiously alarmist rhetoric of Hindu nationalist politicians, allow the false narrative of “Hindu khatre mein hai” to evolve and metastasize, embedding itself over time as a mainstream position on the Hindu right. Similar to the great replacement theory in the West, the “Hindu khatre mein hai” narrative has taken on a deadly significance, leading to horrific violence against the marginalized minorities who are accused of conspiring to engineer a demographic overthrow of the majority community.

But although there are many parallels between the two narratives, they also differ in certain key ways, and it is these differences that highlight the extent to which India can serve as a cautionary tale for what happens when the global far-right’s demographic paranoia is allowed to move from the fringe to the mainstream.

The first major difference between the great replacement and “Hindu khatre mein hai” is in the targets of each narrative’s respective paranoia. In the United States, the bogeyman is the foreigner — the hordes of migrants supposedly descending upon our borders, demanding to be let in so that they can take over, and the internal enemies who are accused of conspiring to enable them. In India, however, the supposed threat is coming from within — namely, the Muslim minority that makes up some 20 percent of the Indian population. Unlike in the United States, where the supposed enemy’s physical location outside of the country’s borders makes it easy for far-right figures to ascribe to it any number of fearful characteristics — think of Donald Trump’s characterization of all migrants from Mexico and Central America as murderers, rapists, and MS-13 members — the Hindu far right in India must contend with an enemy that not only already exists within the country but has done so for centuries. As a result, the focus in India shifts from keeping the danger out through draconian immigration policies to dealing with a perceived internal threat by any means necessary, including through deadly violence, carried out by vigilante mobs with the explicit or implicit sanction of the state.

Similarly, while both theories have manifested in horrific violence against minorities accused of replacement, the scope and nature of this violence differs in a few key respects. In the West, and particularly in the United States, most instances of violence engendered by the great replacement theory follow a similar pattern: an individual extremist — typically a young white man who has spent years consuming white supremacist propaganda fed to him from the darkest corners of the internet — picks up an AR-15, walks into a synagogue or supermarket, and opens fire. These attacks, often characterized as “lone-wolf” massacres, are typically met with mass outrage from the public and empty rhetoric from political leaders, dominating the headlines for a few days before the news media moves on to the next story. A few months pass before the cycle repeats itself.

In India, on the other hand, the violence engendered by the “Hindu khatre mein hai” narrative takes on a different dimension altogether — rather than sporadic instances of high-profile, mass-casualty killings, the open promulgation of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories by mainstream political leaders coupled with a pervasive culture of impunity for perpetrators results in a situation in which ongoing, lower-intensity violence against minorities seems to be becoming a daily reality. While attacks by vigilante mobs may not result in the death tolls of massacres such as Christchurch or Buffalo and as a result do not garner the same media attention as these higher-profile attacks, they nevertheless contribute to a pervasive culture of fear for the minorities who find themselves the target of this unremitting assault.

The differences in terms of how these demographic conspiracy theories and the violence they engender manifest in the United States and India can, in many ways, be traced back to differences in the extent to which they have entered the mainstream of the political right. Although as the Buffalo shooting has proven yet again, the great replacement theory has clearly gained an unacceptable degree of currency on the American right, the fact remains that many mainstream conservatives — perhaps as a result of the outrage provoked by attacks such as Buffalo — are clearly still uncomfortable with the idea of fully invoking this theory in its most blatant form, instead referencing it through somewhat subtler dog whistles such as “election security” so as to maintain a politically expedient degree of plausible deniability.

In India, however, the narrative of “Hindu khatre mein hai” has become an uncontroversial orthodoxy among the Hindu right, openly parroted by BJP politicians and their supporters without any fear of possible backlash to dealing in such conspiracies. As a result, the violence brought about by this narrative has similarly become normalized, accepted by the media and Hindu public as yet another fact of life in Modi’s India, so that those who are unaffected can continue going about business as usual. In this sense, India can be viewed as something of a cautionary tale for what happens when conspiracy theories rooted in far-right paranoia enter the political mainstream. While the violence caused by such theories may be lower profile than the sensationalized massacres we are used to in the West, it becomes that much more difficult to eradicate when the comparatively lower body count and clear complicity by state actors allows attacks to occur without substantive attention from the media and the public. In the long run, this only emboldens the perpetrators of the violence, who find their acceptance and encouragement not on dark-web forums and 4chan message boards or even on the nightly news shows of a handful of far-right pundits but instead in the explicit rhetoric and policies of their political leaders.

Western Hypocrisy

In a speech in Buffalo three days after the shooting, US president Joe Biden condemned the white supremacist ideology that motivated the shooter — including the great replacement theory — as a “poison . . . running through our body politic,” asserting that “hate and fear are being given too much oxygen by those who pretend to love America.” Less than two weeks later, Biden met with Narendra Modi at the Quad Summit in Tokyo, shaking the latter’s hand and proclaiming that the Indian leader’s political successes have “shown the world that democracies can deliver.”

One must wonder exactly what the president meant by “deliver” — perhaps he was referring to the steady rise in hate crimes and 500 percent increase in hate speeches by political leaders since Modi came to power, or maybe the warning by Genocide Watch founder Gregory Stanton that “genocide could very well happen in India.” Regardless, it is clear that the Biden administration is unbothered by the Indian government’s role in spreading the poison of Hindu supremacy — so unbothered, in fact, that the State Department has refused, for the third year in a row, to heed a federal agency’s recommendation and designate India as a “country of particular concern” for gross violations of religious freedom.

This is, unfortunately, far from surprising. The Biden administration, like its predecessors, remains close with a number of governments that routinely commit egregious rights violations, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. There is something especially sickening, however, about correctly identifying the themes and tenets of white supremacy as a “poison” while still shaking hands and sharing the stage with a leader who is directly responsible for enabling and encouraging that same poison, in only slightly altered form, to seep into another country’s soil.

As the mainstreaming of far-right conspiracy theories such as the great replacement and “Hindu khatre mein hai” show, the poison of supremacist politics — whether in the United States or abroad — is a slow-acting one, spreading over time through the veins of a society and contaminating everything it touches before finally exploding into genocidal violence. It is only by recognizing this reality before it is too late, moving to counteract this poison’s spread with an exponentially more substantial response than the empty rhetoric of our leaders, that we can have any hope of formulating an antidote.