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India's Supreme Court steps in after Hindu leaders call for violence against Muslims

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

India's Supreme Court has launched an investigation into hate speech against Muslims. It's focused on a conference of Hindu religious leaders last month where clerics called for violence against minorities. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POOJA SHAKUN PANDEY: (Singing in non-English language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: A devout Hindu woman in saffron robes sings a blessing at the start of a three-day conference last month in Haridwar, a city sacred to Hindus on the banks of the Ganges River. Her name is Pooja Shakun Pandey. She's a member of a Hindu supremacist group. And later in the conference, she screams passionately into the microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PANDEY: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "We are ready to kill and go to jail," she says. "If we can kill 2 million of them, we will be victorious." By them, she means Muslims - India's largest minority. Video of this conference was leaked to Indian media, showing hundreds of participants, men and women, young and old, raising their arms in a right-wing salute and taking an oath to transform India from a secular republic into a Hindu nation.

NEETI NAIR: When it came onto the news, I was shocked.

FRAYER: Neeti Nair is a historian who's tracked the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. This was a fringe gathering, not representative of the vast majority of Indians. But Nair was shocked to see on the video at least one politician from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's mainstream party.

Nair teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a city that hosted a white supremacist rally in 2017 during Donald Trump's presidency. And she sees similarities in the way hate speech against minorities and attacks have increased under Modi in India.

NAIR: The kind of vigilantism that we have seen is unprecedented. What is also unprecedented is the silence of the leadership.

FRAYER: Modi has not condemned the Haridwar conference, though others from his party have. It also came up last week on Capitol Hill. Gregory Stanton, the head of Genocide Watch, a group that works to predict and prevent mass murder, testified before Congress that the language used against Muslims at that conference in northern India is the same type of hate speech he heard in Myanmar and in Rwanda before genocide there.

GREGORY STANTON: We believe that is what the Haridwar meeting was especially aimed at inciting. Incitement of genocide is a crime under the Genocide Convention. And it is law in India. That law must be enforced.

FRAYER: Police have detained two organizers of the Haridwar conference for alleged hate speech. They face multiple years in prison if convicted. The Supreme Court is demanding answers from the state government and weighing whether to order the halt of a similar conference later this month in a neighboring state. Both of those states, along with three others next month, will hold elections, and that's when hate speech tends to spike.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.