It’s Déjà Vu of 2016 in Bengal as Mobs, Hypernationalism and Fake News Spread Post Pulwama Attack

An attack on Anik Das in Cooch Behar (L), school teacher Chitradeep Shome is forced to ask forgiveness by the mob.

An attack on Anik Das in Cooch Behar (L), school teacher Chitradeep Shome is forced to ask forgiveness by the mob.

A string of mob attacks on people for 'anti-national' posts on social media has been witnessed in the last few days.

Aniruddha Ghosal
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On Monday, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee became the first opposition leader to question the narrative of the Pulwama attack and accused the BJP of attempting to foment communal tension ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

In the days preceding Banerjee’s press conference, the state had seen at least four separate cases of unidentified mobs – which the TMC alleges were linked to the BJP – targeting individuals who had allegedly posted “anti-national” posts on social media. The videos of the assault were then uploaded on social media.

What is worrying the state government, sources in the home department said, weren’t just the incidents or the “many rumours and fake news doing the rounds on social media”.

It is also about the similarity they bore to a series of incidents that led to communal violence and rioting ahead of the 2016 assembly and panchayat polls.

It was this very combination: the allegation of anti-national statements or derogatory religious statements, social media and a mob that led to two deaths in four separate incidents ahead of the assembly elections.

A home department official said that while there were similarities, there were also crucial differences. “This is not a case of waiting for someone to make a statement on social media – but here we have mobs that are actively looking to go to their homes and foment trouble. It’s worrying, because once you put out a video of doing this – we worry that others might try it in their areas,” said an official.

The official added, “There is a massive influx of fake news on social media and WhatsApp. There are two kinds of messages – one demanding nationalism and the other stoking fear.”

In her press conference, Banerjee alleged, “What messages are being forwarded by the RSS! I got one too from a Bengal leader… It was on how we must all act against Pak, which, of course, we all agree on – but how we must all act against those who are ‘hidden Pak-premi (lover)’ also.”

“What does that mean? Who is a Pak-premi? Where are they hidden? Everybody outside the BJP-VHP-RSS is a Pak-premi?” she asked.

The run-up to 2016

Illambazar, (Birbhum), March 2016

The trigger in this case, was a Facebook post that made “derogatory” remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and the post was allegedly made by a 17-year-old computer science student in March 2016. The violence saw a police station being attacked and a van driver, identified as Rejaul Islam (30), was allegedly shot in the head by a “stray bullet”, said a source in the home department.

A day after the incident, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, arrived in the area and launched a vitriolic attack and called for “anti-nationals to be beheaded”. A BJP pamphlet, distributed at the time, said that while the party wasn’t opposed to “difference of opinions”, its objective was for “Hindus to be able to live with self-respect”.

Dholahat (South 24 Parganas), September 2016

The trigger: the death of a cattle trader, whose body was found allegedly mutilated – the news of which was circulated on social media, along with the allegation that the police was intentionally slowing down the investigation. The resulting violence – that saw over 40 people attack a police station and “destroy vital evidence” – resulted in the death of a 28-year-old man, Salam Laskar – a Kerala based mason, said the home department.

The violence took place at a time when the BJP in the state was taking a hard-stand against cattle slaughter and its minority wing and gau-raksha committee had joined hands. But critical, said the home department, was a smaller organization, Hindu Samhati, that was “very active in the area” and “used social media platforms and WhatsApp to spread fake news”.

The Hindu Samhati has since lost steam, after its far-right chief Tapan Ghosh, disassociated himself from the organization and moved to Jharkhand last year.

Hazinagar and Halishahar (North 24 Parganas), October 2016

The trigger for clashes between Hindus and Muslims that left several injured and saw many shops gutted was the alleged throwing of a low-intensity bomb near a Muharram tazia, said the home department. But a senior police officer said, “Before this and after this – varying accounts of the incident were posted on social media and the area remained tense for days.”

The violence took place at a time when several smaller incidents of communal tension were reported in the state, following West Bengal government’s “verbal order” to prohibit immersion of Durga idols a day after Vijaydashami, since it coincided with Muharram. The order was later struck down by the High Court.

The police officer added, “The area was always communally sensitive but things became worse over the years as the local economy – that was heavily dependent on a dying jute industry – crumbled. The relations between the Hindu majority migrant population from Bihar and Muslim who worked in the mills have worsened over the years.”

Dhulagarh, December 16

The trigger, in this case was also an alleged attack on a religious procession to mark the birth of Prophet Muhammad. The police, later in its report, concluded that the attack was conducted by an "organized, politically motivated mob" that deliberately used "low intensity bombs" to minimise loss of life "but maximise confusion" while simultaneously "using social media" to ensure "select photographs were circulated."

While the BJP alleged that under the Mamata Banerjee government, “Hindu homes” were being targeted by “Jihadi Muslims” – the home department notes that several Muslim majority localities were also singed in the violence. The incident, a home department official added, was different from the previous incidents. “It took place just a few months before the poll and was widely covered in the national media,” said the official.

Ahead of 2019: mobs, rumours and fake news

On Monday night, after Banerjee questioned the Centre on the Pulwama attack, a TMC member from Nabadwip in Bengal began a Facebook live.

“Aren’t we patriots, is it just you…coming here to harass an old man, a school teacher and demanding that you search his home,” the TMC youth leader was heard saying the video.

The video, shows several TMC youth leaders meeting a mob of men – allegedly from a different city – outside the home of a purported school teacher.

This, TMC leaders said, was the result of a series of assaults on “common citizens” by unidentified mobs who’ve been taking offence to alleged “anti-national posts”.

Among the first, recorded on social media, was when an individual identified as Sarbajit Saha posted a Facebook “live” video with the caption, “We are at the house of an anti-national” and proceeded to accost a young man named Anik Das. Das denied he had posted anything anti-national.

Another similar incident was recorded in Bongaon, when school teacher Chitradeep Shome, was forced by a crowd to “apologise” for a post related to Pulwama and chant, “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. "I am an Indian too," Shome is heard saying. His home was later vandalized and he was also fired from his job as a teacher in a city school, as per reports.

In Siliguri, a mob landed up at the door of a college student named Debi Biswas and as per reports, the mob allegedly threw stones at her house – before she was rescued by the police.

Meanwhile, the state’s capital and adjoining suburbs have also seen the additional trend of “rumors of kidnapping”. The first incident, sources in the police said, took place at Sridhar Lane in Tollgyunge area when a 22-year-old woman was allegedly attacked by a mob after it was alleged that she was trying to kidnap a child on Sunday. The police rescued and then arrested the woman – but investigators admitted that the allegations were “far-fetched”.

Police stations bordering South 24 Parganas and Kolkata – where “a very worryingly large number of fake WhatsApp messages, alleging kidnappings” were found – have been put on high alert.

“There was another incident of a mob attacking here. Three men were beating up, before the police arrived. We haven’t identified the cause for the attack yet. Investigations are ongoing,” said a senior police officer.

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