NEW DELHI — “The enemy is not just on the other side of the border, but inside the house as well, living like a termite,” read a message that landed in the WhatsApp group of the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) of an East Delhi neighbourhood earlier this month.
“Termite” is the word that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Amit Shah, now India’s Home Minister, had used to describe persons living without papers in the country in an election speech he gave in April.
As protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) gained momentum in December, the RWA WhatsApp group, meant to coordinate activities and disseminate information in the colony, has been flooded with hateful messages targeting Muslims.
Over this year, HuffPost India has asked readers and sources to share glimpses of their phones to build an anecdotal understanding of how extreme and bigoted views have been normalised on community WhatsApp groups. The activity on these groups is significant as the BJP has built a well-financed misinformation campaign anchored by an in-house propaganda unit, called the Association of Billion Minds, and its so-called IT Cell with a reputation for sharing fake news.
Much of the hate speech on WhatsApp groups tends to mirror the news cycle, and pushes the BJP’s preferred narrative on a given subject.
In August 2019, two months after the general election, messages targeting Muslims were still being shared in the WhatsApp group of the above mentioned neighbourhood in east Delhi, but not with the same frequency as the election months. In December, with the CAA and NRC protests gaining momentum, there has been an uptick in messages targeting Muslims and spreading misinformation on the neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group.
“The amount of misinformation is directly proportional to the sensitivity and longevity of the issue. The CAA-NRC protests have both those elements,” said Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News, a website dedicated to exposing false news. “During the Balakot strike, it went on for 3-4 days, but since the CAA protests are going on and on, the longevity is quite a bit.”
“The amount of misinformation is directly proportional to the sensitivity and longevity of the issue.”
This has all happened before and it will all happen again, with only the volume and frequency of the toxic posts changing in tandem with political events, said the lawyer in the east Delhi neighbourhood, who shared the messages with HuffPost India, on the condition of anonymity.
No one objected to the Islamophobic messages before and no one objects to them now, said the lawyer.
“People don’t feel the need to hide the communal feelings they have inside anymore,” he said. “They are free to say it out openly because they know most people will agree.”
But he was surprised when communal messages were posted on a WhatsApp group populated by Delhi-based lawyers following the protests against the CAA and the NRC.
“When lawyers are speaking in favour of a law that is making religion the basis of citizenship then what hope do we have left?” he asked. “When lawyers are using this kind of language against a minority then what is left to say?”
“When lawyers are using this kind of language against a minority then what is left to say.”
Violent mob, Muslim mob
Messages on WhatsApp reinforce the misplaced narrative of the protestors being violent mobs bent on destroying public property and attacking the police. This is the narrative that senior BJP leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Shah and UP Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, have promoted.
“Hate me if you want to, but don’t hate India. Burn my effigy, but don’t burn a poor man’s auto-rickshaw,” Modi said last week. It is unclear which instance of auto-rickshaw burning the Prime Minister was referring to.
Videos of old mob attacks are being circulated in the present context, Sinha of Alt News pointed out.
The messages on the RWA WhatsApp group also reinforce the narrative that only Indian Muslims are behind the CAA and NRC protests.
The messages also advocate violent reprisals against protestors demanding that the Indian state remain secular.
In addition to WhatsApp, misinformation around the same themes are being shared on Twitter and Facebook and promoted by social media influencers with large followings.
A video which had gone “massively viral,” Sinha said, was shared by BJP’s social media head Amit Malviya, who claimed that it showed “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans being raised at a demonstration against the CAA in Lucknow. Two news channels ran broadcasts on the video. The protestors, Alt News reported, were actually saying “Kashif Sahib zindabad.”
Another “massively viral” video, which was shared by BJP leaders, who claimed that Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) students were chanting, “Hindu ki kabr kudegi AMU ki chaati pe.” The slogan had the word “Hindutva” not Hindus, Alt News reported.
Muslim women targeted
The RWA WhatsApp group had several posts targeting Muslim women, who have been at the front and centre of the movement against the CAA and the NRC.
A sketch that was posted to the WhatsApp group depicted the Muslim women from Jamia Millia Islamia University, who famously shielded a male student from getting beaten by the Delhi Police, as shielding a bearded man who is holding a gun and has bullets strapped across his chest.
Another post says that a “woman from Jamia” indulging in arson and pelting stones turned out to be a man hiding under a burqa. Even though there is no connection, the same post has images of Ayesha Renna, the woman who is now famous for standing up to the police when they were attacking a fellow student.
The post was widely circulated on Twitter and Facebook as well.
Alt News reported that the photo of the man in the burqa is from a news website in Egypt and goes back to 2017.
A false comparison
Misinformation had come from both sides in the context of the CAA and the NRC. Old police brutalities are being shared in the context of the protests against the CAA.
It was claimed that a man dressed in civilian clothes with riot gear, who was spotted on the day the Delhi Police attacked Jamia Millia Islamia University students, was one Bharat Sharma, a volunteer with the RSS and ABVP. This turned out to be false, Alt News reported. Another claim that a Delhi policeman, who was photographed without his badge while he was on duty, was a “RSS goon” also turned out to be false.
The volume and reach of the misinformation from both sides, Sinha said, was not comparable.
“Misinformation from the right wing is more, not just in terms of quantity but also its spread and organisation,” said Sinha. “We need to ask how organised is it? Is the misinformation professionally produced? Who are the influencers involved in putting out the misinformation?”
Not only have BJP leaders been sharing the misinforming on their social media channels, there are more right-wing influencers with over 50,000 followers, Sinha pointed out. Even the production value of the videos and photos put out by the right-wing is more sophisticated than the crude posts from the other side.
BJP leaders, including Shalabh Mani Tripathi, the party spokesperson in UP, and Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, the BJP spokesperson in Delhi, who tweeted out videos that were proven false, are yet to take them down. They continue to be retweeted.
“The influencers on the right are giving misinformation enormous velocity through their Twitter and Facebook accounts,” said Sinha. “They are weaponising it.”
“They are weaponising it.”
Pushback in another neighbourhood
The reasons for the lawyer in Delhi not speaking are unchanged. He needs the RWA WhatsApp group to stay informed about his neighbourhood and prefers not to engage with people posting communal messages. He used to find them annoying. Now, he finds them dangerous.
But even the slightest pushback can make a difference.
A different lawyer in a different east Delhi neighbourhood told HuffPost India that as the protests against the CAA were gaining momentum, messages targeting Muslims started appearing on his RWA group as well.
One such message was a cartoon that shows two bearded men with weapons. One says, “Relax for now, the people of Hindustan are busy destroying themselves.”
“A few of these messages were posted before people objected and they stopped,” said the second lawyer, speaking on the condition of anonymity.