Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan
THE Indian ruling party, BJP, believes in using unscrupulous means to achieve and retain power. This includes instigating riots and achieving polarisation by dividing people on religious and social lines. It also believes in the use of new technology to disseminate hate. Way back in 2005, it used short messages (SMS’s) in Assam to evict so-called “Bangladeshis” from Dibrugarh. At the time it was reported that 10,000 such persons had fled their homes fearing violence.
BJP’s IT army: Today, the BJP IT army is so powerful that the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said he could get any information across to 300 million Indians instantly. For the forthcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has appointed 163,000 IT coordinators and members for its social media units. At present it has 1918 IT cell heads and 1.7 lakh WhatsApp groups in UP alone (The Print, 20 Oct. 2021). In 2018, UP BJP IT cell set up “Cyber Sena” recruiting 200,000 social media experts (The Wire, c. 13 June 2018). The BJP IT army has created a network of fake accounts in the names of Sikhs and Muslims and uses them to spread hate. A study in early 2020 said that 18,000 Twitter accounts spread fake news for BJP in India.
It is widely believed in India that the BJP keeps a large IT army, said to consist of around 5000 full-timers in addition to hundreds of thousands of part-timers and sympathisers who day in and night out send out hundreds of thousands of fake hate messages to millions as well as sending crude hate messages targeting people it considers as “enemies”. I am one of them. The BJP has never denied the existence of such an IT army. The party is helped in this by recourse to huge funds at its disposal as a result of the opaque “Electoral Bonds” which allows donors to donate funds to the party anonymously. This is a huge fraud on democracy, but since other political parties also benefit from this system, not much objection is raised against it.
The BJP has acquired an industrial-scale propaganda app called Tek Fog. It is a secret app used by the BJP’s IT cell to send millions of messages every day containing party propaganda. This app steals identities, sends out anonymous hate messages and manipulates trends and artificially inflates the party’s popularity. A disgruntled former employee of the BJP IT cell exposed its use of Tek Fog in April 2020.
According to a series of investigative reports in The Wire (https://thewire.in/tekfog/en/1.html), Tek Fog was used to disseminate hate during the Delhi riots. It was also used to troll and send offensive posts against hundreds of journalists including 280 female journalists. According to The Wire report, Rana Ayub, one of these women journalists, was subject of 22,505 such messages during 1st January 2120 to 31st May 2021. Posts against women journalists included their doctored porn photographs.
In a way, Tek Fog is similar to the Pegasus software used to snoop on mobile phones. It is believed that the Indian government acquired Pegasus to snoop on phones of politicians and journalists. The Indian government did not deny this in the Supreme Court.
The BJP is not alone in India in this murky business, but it is the biggest player and enjoys the support of the current government at the Centre. Therefore no action has been taken against its IT army.
Earlier, in June 2018, Shivam Shankar Singh, a BJP data analyst, resigned from the party (Caravan, 29 June 2019) over disillusionment with party propaganda. BJP IT cell founder, Prodyut Bora, quit the party in May 2019 and spilled the beans.
Existence and tolerance of such an army which can dominate and distort social media is a grave threat to democracy as it drowns real voices of people.
Not only the BJP as a party, even the BJP-ruled governments at the Centre and in states have set up IT cells to monitor posts opposed to it. In February 2021, it came to light that the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs was recruiting volunteers to report “anti-India” posts. Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology blocked over 9000 anti-BJP, anti-government and anti-Modi accounts and websites in 2020, as against 3603 in 2019 and 1385 in 2017.
Covid pandemic used to spread hate: During the early months of the Covid pandemic, the BJP IT army and its foot soldiers went to town to claim that Muslims were waging a “Corona Jihad” in India as part of a grand conspiracy to harm the country. For months, Muslims all over the country were maltreated, beaten and arrested, some were even lynched. During those early months, both Delhi and Central governments were publishing daily data of Corona victims with a separate mention of “Tablighi Jamaat”. This was supporting the anti-Muslim narrative. My strong intervention with the Delhi government in April 2020 led it to drop it; two days later the Central government too followed suit.
IT rules to protect govt and ruling party: The Indian government is trying to fully control electronic and social media. It has introduced IT rules early last year to bring the industry under official control, with a view to control what is published online. Three UN special rapporteurs said that the Indian IT rules do not conform with the international human rights norms. 13 key media firms moved Madras High Court challenging the constitutional validity of these rules. They contended that these rules violate rights to equality, freedom of speech and expression and the right to profession (Indian Express, 24 June 2021).
Facebook’s role: India is Facebook’s largest market. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries as well as offenders in this murky game. It has never shown any remorse and has not used technology to stop hate messaging. Facebook’s Indian head till recently, Ankhi Das, was a known supporter of the BJP who condoned these exercises.
With its huge presence in the field and preference for making money over principles and morality, Facebook has shown that it does not care for democracy and people. It cares only for money. For this, Facebook has chosen to empower autocrats. Last year Twitter removed many tweets which were critical of Modi government’s handling of the Corona pandemic.
In India, Facebook has more than 300 million users and more than 400 million people use its Whatsapp messaging service. As thus, Facebook has a huge stake in India and its products can have serious impact on Indian lives and opinions. In 2020-21 Facebook’s estimated revenue in India stood at more than Rs 9,000 crore (around US$ 1.2 billion). It is an unholy alliance between Mammon and hate. Business will do anything to earn an extra buck, while hate will go to any length to spread its evil message to divide and polarise society on religious lines.
Facebook and other social media platforms consistently failed to remove objectionable contents like calling Muslims “locusts” and “termites” and inciting Hindus to violence against Muslims. “Sulli Deals” in July 2021 and “Bulli Bai” last month to “auction” well-known female Muslim journalists and activists are part of the same game to debase and marginalise Indian Muslims and force them to shut up. Mumbai Police said those behind “Bulli Bai” used multiple handles to divide Sikhs and Muslims. A similar network of fake accounts was used to defame and demoralise the farmers who protested in their hundreds of thousands outside Delhi last year.
Facebook was aware of the murky game it played in India. Wall Street Journal reported last October that Facebook’s researchers found that its products in India are awash with inflammatory content. One of their reports linked material on Facebook to the deadly Delhi riots. WSJ had reported in August 2020 that Facebook’s top executive in India had opposed applying Facebook’s hate speech rules to a Hindu nationalist politician and others. Facebook still has a video, seen by an estimated 40 million people, which calls for the extermination of Islam and Muslims from the face of the earth. Facebook has failed to designate RSS and its youth militia, Bajrang Dal, as “dangerous organisations. Raising this issue, Congress Party said 1ast October that Facebook was in fact “Fakebook.”
A study, “Facebook in India – towards the tipping point of violence, caste and religious hate speech” was published in the US in 2019. In March 2020, the US think tank Freedom House advised Whatsapp and social media companies to oppose Modi “repression” in India.
A research-based report published in February 2021 said that Whatsapp is being actively used to spread hate against Indian Muslims (study by IIT Kharagpur and MIT professors, “Short is the road that leads from fear to hate: free speech in Indian Whatsapp groups”).
Facebook top executive in India, Ankhi Das, supported Modi and disparaged Opposition in internal messages (WSJ, 30 Aug 2020). She later resigned after these secrets came out.
Use of hate to ignite Delhi riots: The horrific anti-Muslim riots of February 2020 in Delhi’s North-East district did not start out of a blue. It all started on 15 December 2019 when students of two so-called “Muslim” universities in Delhi and Aligarh were brutally attacked, police barged into both university campuses and, acting like an enemy force, attacked students, hitting them brutally, breaking their bones and damaging university properties. Hundreds of students were arrested at both places. The students were protesting against a questionable new nationality law, passed a week earlier, which discriminated against Muslims and threatened to unleash a process that would snatch away the Indian nationality of millions of Muslims on the lines of that process in Assam.
At Delhi, as the head of a statutory body responsible for protecting minorities, I intervened forcefully with the police, visited police stations at midnight to get students freed. This brutality led to what is knows as “Shaheen Bagh” in Delhi which soon spread to all parts of India and continued unabated for the next three months when people, especially Muslim women, in their hundreds of thousands protested round the clock at hundreds of places against this questionable nationality “law”.
In Delhi, several brutal attempts were made to disperse the demonstrations; social media became overactive to attack the protesters, so much so as claiming that the protesters were preparing to attack Hindu homes and rape Hindu women. Safoora Zargar, a student leader and one of the main speakers at the protest sites in Delhi, was subjected to criminal character assassination. Delhi Police did not respond to my notice in this respect (https://archive.org/details/dmc-annual-report-2019-20 , pp. 138-140).
These round-the-clock protests all over the country highly embarrassed the Central government. In the states where BJP ruled, especially Uttar Pradesh, protesters were brutally assaulted, their homes demolished and they had to pay huge illegal fines imposed by police without any due legal process. At many places people paid huge fines to the police to avoid seizure and/or demolition of their properties.
As a last resort, BJP leaders thought to teach a lesson to the protesters in Delhi. For this, they planned and unleashed terror against the protesters at a site in North-East Delhi. This developed into a big riot which continued for days during which at least 55 persons were killed, mostly Muslims, and properties worth billions were looted and gutted. I intervened on a daily basis with police but with little respite. I also visited the area soon after the riots were over and when the government did not concede to my request to form an enquiry commission, I constituted a fact-finding committee of the DMC which I headed at the time.
Soon thereafter Covid lockdown was announced but the DMC fact-finding committee somehow managed to complete its work and the report was published and presented to the Delhi government and later to media (https://archive.org/details/DMC-delhi-riots-fact-finding-2020). This remains the only official report about these riots and has to some extent succeeded in thwarting the one-sided approach of the Delhi Police which tried to place the blame of the riots on the victims.
As a result of this initiative, my persecution at the hands of the police and other agencies started right away and still continues. It included a high-profile attempt to arrest me on 2 May 2020 and later a raid was conducted on my house and office on 28 October 2020. At present I am free thanks to an anticipatory bail granted by Delhi High Court.
Interventions against hate meant nothing for police, others: My interventions at the time with police and other departments included two remarkable ones. One was my letter on 14 January 2020 to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) enclosing details of 87 hate posts, many on Facebook (see https://archive.org/details/dmc-annual-report-2019-20 , pp. 105-9). The other was a notice on 5 May 2020 to DCP, Cyber Cell, New Delhi about the character assassination of Safoora Zargar, a student leader and an active participant in the anti-CAA protests (see https://archive.org/details/dmc-annual-report-2019-20 , pp.138-40). No action was taken on both these as well as on other similar interventions which is a normal practice in present-day India, while hate posts by pro-BJP elements are ignored by police and authorities. The only option open is to go to courts which is a costly and time-consuming affair and therefore avoided by almost all victims.
The post-riot situation has not changed. The Delhi Police implicated hundreds of riot victims or innocent persons. A few are out on bail while a majority is still in jails. The police also did not fully cooperate in securing compensations which the Delhi government announced for the victims.
In the aftermath of the riots, Muslim boys fled the affected areas because the police were routinely arresting and implicating them in riot cases. Some managed to save themselves by paying huge bribes to police officers. The condition continues to be tense to this day in the affected areas where the two communities still are not on cordial terms, some Muslims have left the areas to live elsewhere. Courts have time and again reprimanded police for implicating innocents. In some case, such judges were abruptly shunted out to other areas.
Hate is a handy tool: Hate has now been institutionalised by the current rulers who have found social media as a handy tool as it allows faceless criminals to attack real people to tarnish their reputations and disseminate fake news, fake videos, forged tweets and statements. Nothing happens to these criminals who are protected by the current rulers.
Hate has so percolated to the ground that we see a press photographer stomping on the body of a hapless farmer just killed by security forces in an illegal eviction drive. Hate effortlessly leads to such shameless episodes as Sulli Deal and Bulli Bai where a young woman and a young man are organising a fake auction of well-known Muslim women only to satisfy their hate and humiliate their victims. An Amnesty International report on online harassment in India last year said the more vocal a woman was the more she was targeted (BBC – 10 July 2021).
Indian Muslims dehumanised: As a result of this consistent and continuous barrage of hate on social media, particularly on Facebook, Indian Muslims have been practically dehumanised, marginalised and rendered voiceless. Sporadic lynchings have been going on these past seven years with videos posted triumphantly on social media. Now there is talk in the air to exterminate Muslims. It’s a call for genocide. Social media platforms, particularly Facebook, share a lot of responsibility in making hate as normal, popular and accessible everywhere in the country. I fear an attempt to unleash genocide may take place any time before the general elections in 2024. And social media platforms will be heavily used for this crime. Therefore, it is incumbent on social media companies to realise their legal and moral obligations and stop hate posts in their entirety.
The author, a Delhi-based author and journalist, is former Chairman, Delhi Minorities Commission.