The 21-year-old Hindu college student was having a quiet breakfast with her mother when her phone pinged with a terrifying message. Her name was on a hit list.
She and her Muslim boyfriend had been targeted publicly on Facebook along with about 100 other interfaith couples – each of them a Muslim man and their Hindu girlfriend. She immediately called her boyfriend to warn him.
The Facebook post included instructions: “This is a list of girls who have become victims of love jihad. We urge all Hindu lions to find and hunt down all the men mentioned here.” At least two followers heeded the call.
The phrase “love jihad” is meant to inflame dark fears that Muslim men who woo Hindu women might be trying to convert them to Islam – a prejudice that the Hindu right has tried to stoke for nearly a decade. But use of the term has spread on social media with the rise of the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a time when religious hatred is growing on Facebook in India, its largest market.
Facebook is facing criticism that hate speech spread on the platform has fuelled ethnic and religious violence in Asia, particularly in places such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
During his appearances before Congress on April 10 and 11, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the company was working on a way to remove hate speech within 24 hours of its appearance and adding dozens of new Myanmar-language content monitors.
“It’s clear now we didn’t do enough” to prevent the platform from being “used for harm”, Zuckerberg said in his statement. But the company has said little about its prevention efforts in India, a market of more than 240 million users.
You cannot defend such a sick love. This too is a kind of terrorism
The list of Hindu-Muslim couples was posted by Satish Mylavarapu, a mild-looking sales and marketing manager in Bangalore who propagates militant Hinduism to thousands of followers in Facebook groups and elsewhere.
“It’s a matter of Muslims taking over our blood and taking over our wombs – the wombs that would give Hindu children,” he said.
Highly motivated Hindu extremist “volunteers” across India assembled the list by meticulously plotting the locations of mosques and girls schools and colleges around the country and combing young women’s profiles for photos or posts that would link them to Muslim men.
“You cannot defend such a sick love,” Mylavarapu said. “This too is a kind of terrorism.”