Politics over beef  — the Hindutva project to undermine Indian democracy

The ascent of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India has rekindled a brand of politics that many thought had been consigned to history  —  that of the cow. It has created a discourse that is not only questions many of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution, but also raises doubts over the future of the country as a secular and democratic republic.

A “rule of mob”, supported by the ruling dispensation in many cases, has descended upon the country. The Sangh parivar’s target is clear — it wants a country of upper castes, for the upper castes and by the upper castes. They have also chalked out a strategy to achieve that goal — periodic outbreaks of violence against Muslims and Dalits.

Politics over beef is not new to India. Wendy Doniger, noted author and a scholar of Sanskrit for over 50 years, traced the origin of politics over the cow to the 19th century as an implicit objective to oppress the Muslims.

Mahatma Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism, tying it to his idea of nonviolence.

In the modern age, the pioneer of the cow protection movement was M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. A thorough reading of the autobiography of Verghese Kurien — the Milkman of India — provides an insight into Golwalkar’s thoughts.

Golwalkar was the brains behind the 1960s’ cow protection movement that forced the government of the day to set up a committee to consider the demand of a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The committee lasted 12 years.

Kurien opposed this ban for economic reasons. “It was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilised for healthy and productive cattle. I was prepared to go as far as to allow that no useful cow should be killed,” Kurien wrote in his autobiography.

He then cited a conversation with Golwalkar where the then RSS chief outlined his vision, and it had nothing to do with gau bhakti (cow reverence). It was a political move then; today it is a social move to finally create the India of Golwalkar’s vision.

In India, traditionally, the slaughter of cattle has always been associated with either the Muslims and Christians or the Hindu lower castes — the Dalits. Beef forms an important part of the diet for Muslims. The Dalits, on the other hand, were scavengers and their eating habits still reflects their ancient status at the bottom of the food chain, forced to eat even rats. Beef presented an alternative source of nutrition to them and has since been included in their diet — it was more of an economical habit than a cultural one.

Amid the hoopla, the consumption of beef by Hindus is forgotten. Doniger wrote that even “after the fourth century BC, when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef”. She paraphrased ancient ritual texts, known as the Brahmanas and others, that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century BC. These texts said a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrived.

Doniger credited the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, to explain the transition of Hindus to non-eating of cows: “Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”

The cattle slaughter legislation was the BJP’s attempt to live up to its 2014 election manifesto, where it promised to protect “the cow and its progeny” in a nod to its Hindu nationalist roots. This was an attempt to appeal to India’s Hindu population, which holds cattle — particularly cows — to be sacred. State Assemblies have also begun to follow suit and pass laws that would make cow slaughter a punishable offence.

Alongside their dietary choices, most of India’s leather business is also handled by Muslims or the so-called lower castes. A blanket ban on the slaughter of cattle specifically aims to cut off their source of livelihood. For a nation that so reveres its gau mata (mother cow), India remains one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. Its buffalo meat export has grown from Rs 3,533 crore in 2007 to Rs 26,685 crore in 2016.

“The new rules of buffalo trade on which we were not consulted has come as a surprise and shock for the industry. It is not possible for individual farmers to sell their spent animals for slaughter (directly to us) without going to the nearest animal market,” Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, the trade lobby of buffalo meat exporters, said.

Incidentally, demands to stop cattle slaughter have not just been limited to the BJP or Sangh leadership. Rajasthan High Court recently recommended to the Centre that it should declare the cow as the national animal. Even a body of Muslim intellectuals said it would extend support to any proposal to ban cow slaughter and declaring it as the national animal.

Despite the political grandstanding over the cow’s sanctity, an ugly truth prevails: the animal is frequently mistreated, housed miserably, fed rubbish or left to fend for itself. Cow protection is just a smokescreen that the fringe needs to achieve their long-term goal of turning India into a Hindu Pakistan.

The mistreatment of cows has been widespread in India, said Naresh Kadyan, India representative of the International Organisation for Animal Protection. The politicisation of cattle welfare has distracted from the problem of how India’s cows — some 283 million, according to a 2003 census — are treated.

While cows used to be prized for their economic value, they are now “unproductive, as they have been replaced by machines,” Kadyan said, adding that cows had “become a tool of publicity and politics to divide society”.

In states such as Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh — where the consumption of beef is less common than in the south or north-east — cows are treated well until they are unable to provide milk. “When they become unproductive, they are then kept in animal shelters that are like full-time jails,” he said. “There’s no scientific care for the rest of their lives. They have no exercise, no freedom of movement, and no land to graze on,” Kadiyan said.

A 2010 investigation by the India chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) found rampant abuse of cows in the dairy industry. They were frequently injected with oxytocin, although the hormone causes stomach cramps and pain, to boost milk yields.

“Most (cows) are chained by their necks in narrow stalls, where they are unable to stretch or move normally,” according to Peta. “Lack of proper food causes them to suffer from digestive problems, and lack of exercise causes lameness.”

Unproductive cows may also be turned out of their farms, resulting in the sight that is so familiar in Indian cities: the solitary cow, wandering the streets and picking plastic out of refuse bins. The Peta report also said that at least half of the cows sold to slaughterhouses die before they even get to the abattoir because they are forced to walk there.

Firebrand Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath, who became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has promised to improve the conditions of cows in the state. In May, his government announced a Cattle Healing Mobile Van Service — an ambulance for cows, which may be summoned by anyone who spots a cow in distress. He has also proposed to establish “cow sanctuaries”.

Some of these shelters are to be housed on the premises of penitentiaries because jails have land and manpower to tend to cattle.

However, not everyone agrees with this move. “These shelters will function without any sort of scientific approach,” Kadiyan said. “These are just so-called animal rights activists using the cow as a political tool — to misguide others to achieve their own political targets or for personal gain or profit.”

Kadiyan calls them animal rights activists. In reality, they are foot soldiers of an administration that is intent on imposing its brand and idea of Hinduism on all Indians. It doesn’t matter if they are not followers of Hinduism — they have two options: follow or perish.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.



Decoding the inner workings of India’s lynch mob syndrome

A common thread unites Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan — they were lynched by Hindu mobs in the name of cow protection.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP took power in 2014, mob lynchings have become the new normal. The BJP’s rise and the regular pro-Hindutva sermons issued by party leaders have instilled a sense of invincibility in these gau rakshaks (cow protectors).

Chief among them is Mohan Bhagwat, sarsanghchalak of the RSS, the BJP’s ideological mentor, who has repeatedly urged the Centre to ban slaughter of cows. Party MPs, including Yogi Adityanath, who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March, has issued open threats against beef trade. Adityanath’s appointment as the state’s chief minister was followed by an unprecedented crackdown on slaughterhouses.

In the backdrop of this violence lies the BJP’s ideological goal — to create an India of the upper caste by suppressing the Muslims and confining the lower castes to their “rightful” place at the bottom of the food chain. Its idea of India stems from the Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu and Bunch of Thoughts by M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS’s second sarsanghchalak.

Mukul Kesavan wrote in The Telegraph that “the anti-cow-slaughter campaign has become for the BJP and its vision of Bharat what the anti-blasphemy law used to be for Zia-ul-Haq and his vision of Pakistan: an occasion for the public enactment of the supremacy of a religious majority and, correspondingly, the subordination of religious minorities.”

Kesavan described a visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington where he realised that “lynchings were public performances, designed to strike terror into minds of black people, specially blacks who had forgotten their place vis-à-vis their white betters.”

He also drew a parallel between the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan and the violence of Hindu mobs. The Ku Klux Klan, he wrote, “used violence to intimidate free blacks, to ritually enact their ‘inferiority’. White vigilantes attacked black men and killed them in the name of protecting white womanhood. Between 1890 and the middle of the 20th century nearly 3,500 black men were lynched in the name of white supremacy.”

They also took pictures of their handiwork, which were often published as postcards. It was a “form of white terrorism in America, specifically designed to intimidate black Americans,” Kesavan wrote.

Most lynchings in India take place in the Hindi belt of the north, where the BJP has traditionally wielded more power. The lynch mobs see clear complicity of the people at the helm in the violence where the prime minister, as the chief minister of Gujarat, had himself advocated extrajudicial encounters. The mobs feel empowered. They also know that they enjoy impunity and patronage from the power.

Another aspect of emboldening the lynch mobs is their glorification by the ruling dispensation. The body of Ravi Sisodia, an accused in the murder of Akhlaq, was draped in the Tricolour and hailed as a martyr after he had died in jail.

Modi’s silence on this rabid expression of violence also provides tacit approval of their actions. Forest fires in Portugal elicit a quicker response from their leader than the gruesome murder of a 15-year-old boy.

This has created an “us versus them” mentality among the fringe elements where even police are mute spectators, while the courts are too busy debating whether a peahen reproduces by merely drinking the peacock’s tears.

The lynchings take place not just in the name of cows. It has ranged from fake WhatsApp messages alleging that a rape accused was an illegal Bangaldeshi immigrant through allegations of child trafficking to civic officials allegedly lynching a political activist after he tried to stop them from photographing women defecating in the open.

These were not the only instances. At the height of last year’s students’ movement in Jawaharlal Nehru University, there were repeated, some successful, attempts at attacking students, teachers, and activists on the court preemies. Some lawyers even managed to beat up students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar when he was lodged in jail at the time.

Decoding lynchings from the point of view of neuroscience, Sumaiya Shaikh, a medical scientist with a PhD in neuroscience, wrote in The Wire that a mob lynching differed from physical harm or a killing. According to her, several components come together — the attackers, spectators and the outnumbered victim(s) for this public spectacle that dates back to the medieval ages. “It needs the public humiliation of the victim and, unlike a lawful process of punishment, a lynching is a demonstration that the sentiments of the attackers are beyond the law or the government,” she wrote.

The perpetrator category of ‘participants’, Shaikh wrote, “isn’t an individual but a group that unites to act as a single entity. Within this group, there is trust, recognition, validation, power and anonymity for its members. Every action and thought of a group of this sort, like the workings of an insect swarm, consists solely of achieving their shared objective.”

But not all lynchings are spontaneous outbursts of mob sentiment. Two cow vigilantes had tailed the van of Asgar Ali alias Alimuddin on a bike from Chitarpur in Ramgarh, a known beef hub, to Bazartand in the heart of the district town on June 29 morning, providing regular updates during the 15km stretch to their friends in the marketplace waiting to kill, a chilling example of premeditated mob murder in India.

Apoorvanand agreed that “the spate of violent attacks are in no way spontaneous expressions of mob anger. They are the product of systematic incitement to violence by Hindu nationalists.”

The “atmosphere of sustained hatred against Muslims makes attacks on them seem spontaneous and the product of mob anger. But few question why the mob is angry in the first place,” he wrote.

In April 2017, when a man succumbed to his injuries suffered in a mob attack in Rajasthan, the state’s home minister told reporters that cow protectors were trying to stop people from trafficking cows. The chilling logic — those who are lynched are on the wrong side of the law and those who lynch are protecting it — gives further credence to the work of these lynch mobs.

The absence of laws against lynchings also allows these mob vigilantes get away with little or no punishment whatsoever. The founding fathers of the Constitution of India, perhaps, expected that India had moved on from the medieval practices and didn’t see the need to include any clause against mob violence. They didn’t realise, however, that the party which would hold the country’ts reins from 2014 would steer it back to the dark ages of mob justice.

A draft law to address the menace was unveiled on July 7 by the National Campaign Against Mob Lynching as a response to a spate of lynching incidents that have rattled the nation over the past few months. The draft Maanav Suraksha Kanoon (Masuka) defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, committed to inflict extra judicial punishment, or as an act of protest and caused by the desire of a mob to enforce upon a person or group of persons any perceived legal, societal & cultural norms/ prejudices.”

Masuka is expected to fill a glaring hole in India’s constitution. Whether the ruling dispensation makes any efforts to get it passed without delay is, however, still up in smoke.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Nearly a week after strike, security agencies seem to be going nowhere with probe

Monday’s attack on Amarnath pilgrims in the Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir was one of the most ghatly terrorist attacks on Indian soil in recent years. Seven persons died and 19 more suffered severe injuries in the attack, allegedly by militants of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group.

Despite the nature of the attack and the cowardly manner in which it was conducted, it also leaves some questions unanswered.

According to the rules, all vehicles that ferry pilgrims to the Amarnath shrine have to register with the Amarnath Shrine Board. The bus had a Gujarat number plate — GJ 09Z 9976 — and ferried around 60 passengers to the shrine. The route to Amarnath is dotted by security forces that undertake regular checking of the vehicles that pass through. The passengers on this vehicle had already completed their pilgrimage two days prior to the attack and had taken a detour for sighseeing. It had left the heavily fortified Baltal base camp and moved on the national highway, another heavily-guarded location, apparently without being checked a single time.

The ownership of the bus also raises questions. Originally owned by Sanjay Patel of Umiya Travels, it was sold to Jawahar Desai of the Valsad–based Om Travels. Patel said Jawahar and his son Harsh, who is among the injured, organised the trip. He also said that while the vehicle had physically changed hands, the final payment was still to be settled. As a result, he was the one who had to procure the tour permit.

The Regional Transport Office in Himmatnagar had cleared the bus for travel as it bore a Sabarkantha registration.

Security protocol bars vehicles from plying after 5pm, or sundown, for the pilgrimage. It also bars vehicles from plying on the highway after 7pm as security forces are withdrawn after that. However, gunmen first attacked the bus around 8.17pm. It has since emerged that the a flat tyre held up the journey for a long time. The driver, Salim Sheikh Gafoor, fixed it and started towards Jammu at 4.40pm, having stayed in the area for nearly two hours, according to a Jammu and Kashmir police report.

This report raises another question. If the bus had not been registered with the Amarnath Shrine Board and was travelling on its own, why was there a police patrol vehicle travelling ahead of it in the first place? Protocol dictates that only those vehicles with registrations would be provided security. The presence of a police van, which was also targeted in the attack, has raised doubts as to whether it was guarding the bus or just happened to travel ahead of it.

Moreover, intelligence reports had already warned of a strike on pilgrims during this year’s yatra.

Officials of the Intelligence Bureau, Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir police had met in Chandigarh on June 25 at a state multi-agency co-ordination meeting where the agencies had been warned of a terrorist strike.

“Intelligence input reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 police officers. The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on (a) yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tension throughout the nation,” the alert said.

“The nature of the input needs corroboration at this stage but the possibility of a sensational attack can’t be ruled out. All the officials deployed on the ground need to be directed to remain alert and maintain utmost vigil. All out efforts need to be undertaken to nab the terrorists planning such attempts of violence,” it said.

Two days before the pilgrimage started, Kashmir inspector general of police Muneer Khan wrote a letter where he specifically mentioned terrorists opening fire at pilgrim vehicles.
Despite this warning being made available beforehand, the police allegedly failed to secure the route.

Additionally, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was being blamed as the perpetrators of the attack, has sought to distance itself from it and put the blame squarely on Indian intelligence agencies.

It has been almost a week since the attack took place and bar the arrest of the driver of a PDP MLA, the security agencies have not been able to throw light on one of the most gruesome terror attacks on civilians in recent history.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth — Joseph Goebbels

On March 5, 2015, an outraged mob of 7,000-8,000 stormed into Dimapur jail, dragged out a rape accused, and lynched him. A government report to the Centre following that event said “it appeared to be a case of consensual sex”. It also said the victim had paid the woman Rs 5,000 after they twice had sex.

The spark behind the attack was a Facebook post that claimed that the man, a Muslim, was an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. In reality, Syed Farid Khan was a 35-year-old used car businessman. Originally from Karimganj district in Assam, Khan had been living in Nagaland for eight years.

That was the first real instance of fake news being directly responsible for the loss of a life in India. Since then, the “industry” has only exploded, and India can thank its ruling dispensation for that. The BJP has become pioneers in unleashing its massive army of Twitter trolls on both voices of dissent against the party and the government as well as Opposition leaders. The phenomenon first began after the party anointed Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; since then, it has only got worse. There have been attempts to falsify facts to either glorify the government and the party or undermine the Opposition, including celebrities who hold an opposing view.

The BJP’s massive information-technology cell uses photo editing software, source images from other countries — positive and negative — and use those to further their goals. But the phenomenon is not entirely Indian.

Long before Modi even considered running for India’s premiership, a burgeoning fake news industry existed in Nazi Germany, and, after its fall, the Soviet Union. The powers that be in these two countries used the lack of alternative information sources to further their agenda by using propaganda machinery.

Robert Darnton traces this history even further, going back, through the Roman “pasquinade”, French “canards”, and English “paragraphs”, to the sixth century AD.

George Orwell was the first to identify the problem of fake news in Politics and the English Language where he explained that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful” through the use of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. Donald J. Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” has its roots in this theory.

The explosion of the Internet and its easy availability coincided with the growth and expansion of fake news to become what it is now — and social media, especially Facebook, has been blamed for its role in that expansion. The New York Times, in an editorial, even went as far as calling it the “digital virus”.

The term itself first caught on after Trump accused CNN of being “fake news” during his first press conference as president-elect. In fact, Trump was perhaps the biggest winner of the fake news industry that has made Facebook its home.

Max Read went as far as crediting the social media giant for Trump’s rise. “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news,” he wrote in Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.

When people were still reliant on newspapers and television and radio for information, editors and reporters had the nous to suppress conspiracy theories or stories that could potentially cause harm. Although these would slip out at times, such occurrences were rare thanks to the “gatekeepers” (editors, reporters) of the news industry. But the explosion of the Internet have made them redundant.

Several surveys have put the percentage of people whose primary source of news as social media significantly higher than those that depend on mainstream sources. The results of a 2016 YouGov survey of 50,000 people across 26 countries and published by the BBC put social media ahead of television as the main source of news for people in the 18-to-24 age bracket. The results also showed that of the people surveyed, 28 per cent of the youth cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24 per cent for television. The study also found that Facebook was the most common source — used by 44 per cent of the respondents, followed by YouTube on 19 per cent and Twitter on 10 per cent.

A Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research showed 51 per cent of people with online access used social media as a news source. It also showed that more than half of all online users across the 36 countries (54 per cent) it surveyed said they used social media as a source of news each week, ranging from 76 per cent in Chile to 29 per cent in Japan and Germany. It said that more than one in 10 (14 per cent) were now dependent on social media as their main source.

It’s not only the consumers who depend on social media for news. A survey of 275 people, including 239 journalists and 36 from related professions such as PR and brand consultants, communication managers, content writers, journalism students, ex-journalists, conducted by The Hoot, an Indian website that monitors media in the subcontinent, found how the advent of social media has changed news-gathering as well. It showed that among the journalists who professionally used social media, 69 per cent (190 out of 275) for Twitter and 61 per cent (169 out of 275) for Facebook, used the two forums as a news source, including to find leads for their stories.

Facebook’s pre-eminence as a source of dissemination of news, while getting a lot more people in the know, also has its downside. In the run-up to the presidential elections in the United States, Gizmodo published a story where a former news curator at the social media giant said they routinely suppressed stories of interest to conservative readers from its Trending section. The former journalist, who worked on the project, said they prevented conservative topics from appearing in the section despite organically trending among the site’s users.

This caused furore across the country and there were calls on Facebook to investigate. Three days later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company “found no evidence that this report is true.” Another two days later, Facebook announced automating Trending Topics, fired the section’s editorial team and replaced them with engineers. While many thought that would curtail the problem of fake news, a Washington Post experiment dispelled that myth with Facebook Has Repeatedly Trended Fake News Since Firing Its Human Editors.

Perhaps the greatest view of the inner workings of Facebook came from John Herrman in The New York Times Magazine. His Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine highlighted “how a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds”.

What social media has done is made news “social”. Instead of verifying the truth or logic behind the link to a news being shared on Facebook or Twitter, people tend to be driven by the number of “likes” and/or “retweets” the item has as well as the potential number of “likes” and/or “retweets” it will get them. The user interface and options available on social media have also made people dependent on social media, and, as a result, susceptible to fall prey to fake news. There is also the question of crediblity, and having been a credible source for new for a long time, any post or news shared on Facebook and Twitter are naturally accepted at face value.

Writing on the US presidential election coverage, Hermann found that “a brighter media narrative was unfolding in the growing importance of online social networks — the real new mass media. On Facebook and Twitter, election coverage could be consumed on a large scale, and readers were promised a restructuring of the news media that put them in a position of greater power”.

Twitter allows users to post photos and videos, making news delivery livelier. Facebook, with its 1.5 billion users worldwide, has the capacity to reach more people than all media organisations in the world, combined. Millions of people are on the platform throughout the day or updating news and articles on what they believe their friends might also be interested in.

The dangerous thing, however, according to the YouGov survey, is that consumers are happy to have their news selected by algorithms. Thirty-six per cent of the respondents said they would like news chosen based on what they had read before and 22 per cent were happy for their news agenda to be based on what their friends had read. “People like the convenience of algorithms choosing their news but are worried about whether that would mean they were missing out on key points or challenging viewpoints,” said lead author of the report Nic Newman.

This system has one drawback — instead of the users looking for the right content, it has revered to content looking for the right users.

So, why do people fall for fake news? Dr Michael Shermer links it to four factors — cognitive simplicity, cognitive dissonance, backfire effect and tribal unity. Some others have suggested that confirmation bias — the idea that we selectively seek out information that confirms our beliefs — was the root of the problem. There is also the factor of the casual reader’s relative inattentiveness towards the credibility of the news source.

Then, there are the people who willfully consume and share falsehood through fake news. During the recent communal clashes in Bengal’s Basirhat-Baduria towns, leaders and spokespersons of the BJP spread misinformation, even sharing images of the Gujarat riots as those of that in Bengal.

The recent lynchings in Jharkhand are another example of how misinformation has spread its roots and the manner in which it incites violence is a clear indicator of the dangers of social media, especially WhatsApp. “WhatsApp has become the most popular form of rich messaging, better than SMS and MMS,” said anti-fake news crusader Pratik Sinha, whose AltNews has taken up the mantle of busting online myths.

“The conditions under which messages circulate often tend to act as triggers. In an already charged environment, false pieces of information could be interpreted in ways that contribute to enhancing pre-existing prejudice, rumours or intent,” said Vibodh Parthasarthy, faculty member at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

Half-truths and misinformation are regularly circulated on these mass media platforms and many regularly forward these to their friends, peers and colleagues without even verifying the truth. India is teeming with journalism schools which lay emphasis on two very important aspects of the profession — the 5Ws&H (who, when, what, where, why and how of an incident) and verifying a piece of news from multiple sources.

Despite the efforts of these premier journalism institutes, even corporate media houses fall victim to fake propaganda in their haste to get a story on air or print.

Sinha’s AtlNews is one of several websites that have taken up the task of debunking fake news and misinformation. Others, including Boomlive and SMHoaxSlayer, have taken the fight to the spread of misinformation, but founders of all these websites agree that more such portals are needed to tackle the menace. “On social media, the manpower behind the pushing of the propaganda plays an important role. And the Right-wingers have the numbers,” Sinha said.

Fake news is not, however, just the forte of the Right-wing; Left-wing websites have also started spreading misinformation against Trump on several websites.

“We realised there was a huge gap in what the media was trying to say and what people were believing, so we decided to use Boom to break down every such story,” Boomlive’s managing editor Jency Jacob said.

“While 230 million people have WhatsApp, they do not always have access to newspapers to verify what was sent to them,” said Govindraj Ethiraj, former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg TV India, and founder of Boomlive. “What also comes as a surprise to us is how politicians and powerful public figures cite numbers or share pictures which are clearly fake,” he said.

However, the instances of political leaders spreading misinformation shows that not everyone who fall victim to fake news do so unknowingly. Many do it on purpose to achieve some political goal, making that old adage of ends justifying the means ring true.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


The Basirhat-Baduria violence lays bare the faultlines in Bengal’s communal harmony

The clashes in Basirhat and Baduria, two towns with sizable Muslim populations, have caught many by surprise, especially the social elite who thought Bengal was insulated from what is, generally, a north Indian phenomenon.

As border states, Bengal and Assam have had to deal with mass immigration in two waves — 1947 and 1971. While Assam has suffered sectarian violence over the years, the influx of mainly Muslims from Bangladesh did not change the demographics or the balance of power in Bengal.

Police records from 2014 revealed the state’s rural parts registered 12 incidents of communal violence in 2008, while that number went up to 106 in 2013. While Bengal has always had a reputation for being a peaceful state, it has previously struggled with communalism.

The Left Front, during its 34-year rule, managed to stem such incidents. However, politics of appeasement and polarisation since then have taken its toll.

The riots in Basirhat are just the tip of the iceberg. A Facebook post sparked the riots, and Facebook is used to fan emotions on both sides. BJP leaders and its vast troll army on Twitter have resorted to using fake images to spread rumours about slaughter of Hindus, while the ruling dispensation is trying to shield perpetrators of vandalism.

Bengal has a historic association with civil resistance, and persistence in the face of severe hardships — it survived the famine, Calcutta Killings, two partitions and Naxalism.

But this time, it’s different. Political parties are stoking the fires of communalism for electoral gains, while religious people are falling prey to that trap and resorting to mass vandalism. Mobilisation of public opinion against such efforts is the need of the hour. However, depending on political forces to do that is a far-fetched dream, peace-loving Bengalis need to take up the mantle themselves.

The battle ahead is long and difficult and Bengal needs to find its spirit of resistance to survive.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Once hailed as Bengal’s messiah, the chief minister has set it off on a path to destruction

The last couple of years of Left Front rule in Bengal was unique. The power centre was, unofficially, almost divided into two — an elected government at Writers’ Building and a people’s one at Harish Chatterjee Street, the location of Mamata Banerjee’s ancestral home.

The loosening of the iron fist with which the Left had ruled Bengal for 32 years (at that time) coincided with Mamata riding high on a “wind of change”. She was being seen as the chief minister in-waiting, the unifying force who would deliver the once-great state to the promised land. The intellectuals, anti-Left voters and the media all lapped up her Badla Noy, Bodol Chai (no vengeance, only change) rhetoric; after all, she was the self-proclaimed “symbol of honesty”.

Bengal had seen an unprecedented “brain drain” during the Left Front rule — education and healthcare were in a mess, industrialisation hit a record low, dissent muffled — Mamata promised corrective measures. Gripped by the passion in her speeches and drawing from her long history of struggle against the Communists, Bengal slowly began to take her seriously. She also found support among the state’s intellectuals.

But then she made deals with the devils — the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the Maoist insurgents. Bimal Gurung and his Morcha had set the Darjeeling hills on fire, demanding a separate state for the Gorkhas — Gorkhaland. The hill town was burning, administration was non-existant and tourism suffered. Mamata promised to return peace to the hills.

Although there was no formal alliance with the Morcha, Gurung backed the Trinamul-Congress alliance in the 2011 Assembly polls. She repaid him in kind after the elections, creating the Gorkha Territorial Administration and signing a treaty that included, among other things, a loophole for further unrest on the demand for Gorkhaland.

Then there was the backing from the Maoists in the state’s disturbed western belt, collectively called Junglemahal, where the rebels killed over a hundred CPI(M) and Left workers between 2007 and 2011. Mamata and her party’s leaders shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, a local resident, who liaised between the Maoists under its leader Kishenji and the Trinamul.

Former Trinamul MP Kabir Suman confirmed that the Maoists had supported Trinamul during the Nandigram violence, corroborating the Left Front government’s allegation that Mamata used them to fan violence in the area.

But Mamata’s overwhelming charisma drowned those allegations. She played the Muslim card and began to court imams for their support. Being a border state and with a 28 per cent Muslim population, Bengal was always sitting on a tinderbox of communal violence. One of the greatest legacies of the Left Front government was restricting the outbreak of communal violence in the state. But it never tried to emancipate the traditionally backward Muslim community, even after publication of the Sachar Commitee report, and Mamata used this to her advantage.

Her slogan of “Maa, Mati, Manush” reverberated with the people and she won the 2011 polls in a landslide.

The story from then is one of decline, her carefully hatched strategies coming undone at every step of the way.

First, she got into a confrontation with the Maoists, culminating in the assassination of Kishenji. Although a decisive victory against the Maoists won her plaudits, allegations of human rights violations were also levelled at her.

The relationship with Bimal Gurung and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha also did not take long to sour.

Mamata’s hankering for more power and an Opposition-less state led to drove her into registering cases against the Left, Congress, the Morcha, et al. The plan was to scare them into joining the Trinamul. If that didn’t work, money was thrown at them.

The chit fund scam and the arrests of proprieters of many Ponzi forms exposed how the ruling party used fear tactics into exploiting them for money. This money was then used for horse trading of MLAs and Opposition leaders.

Election after election saw the government use brute force and even the police to strengthen the ruling dispensation — be it the panchayat, municipal, Lok Sabha or Assembly polls. Such atrocities were not even seen at the height of “red tyranny”. Former Trinamul leaders had accused her of being a dictator, Mamata was living up to that allegation.

The first instance of this dictatorial trait coming to the fore was when she decided to ban all newspapers apart from those friendly to her government and party from public libraries. She even ordered the Opposition to sit silently for 10 years as she went about pandering to the lumpen elements in her party. The recent spurt in violence in Darjeeling was a direct fallout of this dictatorial trait. All of a sudden, Mamata imposed Bengali as a mandatory language in schools across the state, sparking resentment among the linguistic and ethnic minorities.

With industries unwilling to set up shop, and the existing ones shutting down, she offered tacit support to the syndicate raj that began to run amok in Kolkata and other parts of the state. Most of these syndicates are controlled by the Trinamul and consist of anti-social elements that come in handy to scare voters during elections.

As chief minister, Mamata has constantly blamed the previous government of saddling the state with a huge debt. Yet, she always found money to pay to local clubs, most of which are the breeding grounds for anti-social elements associated with the Trinamul. This diversion of public funds to local goons came at the cost of infrastructure development.

In order to keep the support of the Muslim community, she announced an imam bhata (stipends for imams), sparking widespread condemnation among leaders of other religious communities for such polarising tactics. There have been allegations of Mamata overlooking crimes committed by members of the community, inevitably giving rise to a sense of invincibility among their members. The ongoing communal riots in Basirhat, a town close to the Bangladesh border with a huge Muslim population, also has its roots in Mamata’s attempt to appease and the BJP’s plan to polarise. There have also been allegations that the local MLA tried to shield Muslims who had taken part in the vandalism of government property.

Instead of trying to increase literacy rates in Muslim dominated villages in the state’s backward areas, introducing them to secular studies or creating employment opportunities for them, she adopted a policy of appeasement, as many have claimed.

But the Hindus in Bengal are also not as secular as they are known to be. The Left Front had suppressed all kinds of communal polarisation during its 34-year tenure, but allegations of Mamata appeasing the Muslims have given rise to a new Hindutva brand of politics in Bengal. The chief minister’s desire to purge the threat to her government from the Congress and the Left led her to leave an open playing field for the BJP to flourish in the state, and that has sparked tensions even further.

The BJP’s agenda is simple — appeal to the upper-caste Hindu majority through fear mongering. The BJP began to hark back to times when the Bengali Hindus ruled as overlords. Its Ram Navami celebrations, armed with swords, was clearly aimed at fanning the communal divide, which Mamata began in the state, and use it to its advantage. This sets a dangerous precedent, the Calcutta Killings of 1946 still haunts many survivors from those times and the last thing that the state, already struggling with lack of jobs and infrastructure, needs is another communal violence.

If that happens, that will be the end of Bengal as we know it and Mamata and the BJP will both have to share the blame. It will be the unfortunate end of a cycle of events begun by Mamata, but brought to its natural conclusion by the BJP.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Protests like “Not In My Name” only strengthen RSS resolve against liberal values

Several cities across India reverberated with slogans of “Not In My Name” on June 28 as thousands thronged the streets to protest the spurt in lynching of innocents in the name of gau bhakti (cow reverence).

Crimes against Muslims have gone up leaps and bounds since the Hindu nationalist government of the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership came to power in 2014. Most of these crimes have strategically targeted Muslims, either in the name of the holy cow, or on the pretext of child trafficking (as in Jharkhand). But Muslims are not the only victims.

Last July, Modi and Amit Shah’s home state, Gujarat, erupted in an uprising after seven Dailt men in Una were publicly flogged by gau rakashaks (cow vigilantes) for skinning a dead cow.

Moreover, atrocities are not just limited to north India, the so-called cow belt, or states ruled by the BJP — the murder of a Dalit man for marrying an upper caste woman in broad daylight in Chennai highlights this.

If the attacks in Una exposed India’s gruesome underbelly of cow vigilantism, the Chennai murder shone light on the impact that caste still holds in a so-called progressive society.

To disregard these attacks would be to undermine the progressive polity that a majority of the educated Indian hope would dictate the discourse. Looked at from this point of view, the “Not In My Name” protests across India does more harm than good — it highlights selective outrage of the Indian elite. Moreover, Modi’s statement against attacks by cow vigilantes a few days after the protests should also not be taken as a victory. Modi has a habit of uttering a customary rebuke against vigilantism — he did it after the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015, he did it again at the height of the protests in Una, and he did it now.

Modi, very calculatedly, used the term “gau bhakti”, highlighting that there was nothing wrong in worshipping the cow and using it as a political tool. He even invoked Vinobha Bhave to drive home his point. It could be argued that Modi’s remarks about “Kabristan-Shamshan” in the run-up to the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh gives tacit support to these fringe elements, his silence provides further encouragement to them.

The Modi government’s tenure has been blighted by attacks on civil liberties, educational institutes, liberal and free thinking, press, to just name a few. Sporadic protests against the government will not yield dividends. It only works to further widen the already-existing divide between those who see Modi as the messiah and those who see him as the demon, responsible for all the atrocities that have occurred since his ascension to power.

There were no hashtags on Twitter and Facebook over the death of five farmers in Madhya Pradesh, allegedly in police firing. Several other farmers have since committed suicide, both in Madhya Pradesh and other states. Over 100 people died in queues while waiting to get their old notes exchanged following demonetisation. It may be true that the brutal murder of a 16-year-old for allegedly being a beef-eater sparked the protests, but India has been here before over the past three years.

India has not become communal all of a sudden because Modi is the prime minister, he is the prime minister because India is inherently communal. Protests like “Not In My Name” fan the communal hatred even further, especially in RSS sakhas. These protests consolidate the BJP’s hold on the upper caste. The RSS highlights these protests as a liberal conspiracy against the Hindus, and the liberals are playing into their hands. A standalone protest for the murder of a Muslim boy will not change anything, it needs to filter through to the absolute bottom layer if it wants to make an impact on the populace. The issues need to be broader, long-term policies and targets need to be fixed. Moreover, the protests need to be organised and cannot be selective.

The BJP wants to divide and conquer, the best way to defeat them is use the same policy against them. They don’t necessarily care about the Muslims, but they need the Dalits. The protests should include atrocities against the Dalits as well, they should not be left to fend for themselves, like what happened to them after Una and Saharanpur. This is a fight for the idea of India and all Indians must be included in the fight — the farmer and banker, Dalit and upper caste, Hindus and Muslims, the educated and the illiterate, the Malayali and the Gujarati.

Civil rights movements at the height of the Arab Spring brought down dictatorships inTunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, forced changes in Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman, and constitutional reforms in Morocco and Jordan. India, for the time being, still remains a democracy. And actions must be taken to preserve the values of that democratic, socialist, secular republic before it’s too late.

A few roaring protests, coverage in the international media will scare the government and its ruling party. And that will be the ideal moment to strike.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.