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Communalism

How Pro-BJP WhatsApp, Facebook Groups Are Using the Israel-Hamas War to Stoke Islamophobia

From claiming there are hundreds of Gazas in India to saying that only Narendra Modi can save Indian Hindus from a Hamas-like attack, these groups have little time for facts or evidence.

Mumbai: From alleging there are hundreds of “Gaza Strips” within India and claiming Hindus face an imminent “Hamas-like” Islamist attack and insisting that only Prime Minister Narendra Modi can save India from it, to expressing glee at the deaths of Palestinians and claiming the Congress was behind the attacks, pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) right-wing online spaces are furiously peddling Islamophobia and targeting the BJP’s rivals with disinformation, by using the Israel-Hamas war as cover.

Within pro-BJP WhatsApp groups as well as Facebook pages and groups, named after BJP leaders, social media users have weaponised the ongoing war to push their Hindutva agendas deeper by training their guns at a familiar target: Muslims.

Using photos and videos, along with text messages, the messaging in these groups seeks to convince users that Islam and Muslims were to be singularly blamed for the war. Simultaneously, it dehumanises the sufferings of Palestinians by branding them as “jihadis” and “terrorists”.

Since October 7, when Hamas launched air and land attacks against Israel, over 1,400 Israelis and nearly 6,000 Palestinians have been killed. Among the Palestinians are over 2,300 children who were killed in Israeli bombing.

Yet, across these groups, jokes about their deaths as well as mocking their suffering were common.

Posts expressing glee at the plight of Palestinians.

Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, said such messaging was part of a broader trend concerning propaganda in Indian right-wing spaces. “There has been a definite tendency over the last few years in India to try to incorporate global events into the constant narrative that paints mostly Muslims but sometimes even moderate Hindus as an enemy or a threat,” said Waghre.

Much of this, Waghre said, was owing to the “religious angle” of the conflict between the Jewish state of Israel and the Muslim-dominated Palestine.

This author accessed 13 WhatsApp groups, all of them expressing clear support for the Hindutva ideology, the BJP, Narendra Modi and the RSS through the names of the groups as well as the display photos, generally featuring images of Modi and Adityanath. The groups are not being named to protect the author’s access. The number of members in these groups range from anywhere around 50 to nearly 400. In addition, the author accessed multiple Facebook groups and pages, which displayed open affiliations to the BJP and its leaders.

Broadly, much of the propaganda in these groups falls under four different themes – from dehumanising Palestinian suffering and delegitimising support for them, to making the Israel-Gaza war relatable by drawing historical Indian comparisons to it, to warning Hindus about an Islamist attack and pitching the BJP and Modi as the country’s only hope to fight this. 

‘Just like Kashmiri Hindus’

A significant proportion of messages on these groups attempts to try and make the war more relevant to an Indian audience. It does this by drawing parallels to the situation, but selectively.

The plight of Israelis, these messages insist, is like Kashmiri Hindus. Circulating a video, ostensibly of an Israeli family held hostage by Hamas terrorists, the message asks readers to “look at the fear” on their faces. “This is the same what Kashmiri Hindus faced in 1990 (sic),” the message says. The purpose behind the comparison becomes clear at the end of the message: “Indian wokes will call it RSS propoganda, in reality ISLAM IS PEACE LOVING RELIGION (sic),” it says, sarcastically.

Similarly, Hamas is equated to “Islamic invaders” like Humayun and Babur, both of them ostensibly attacking non-Muslims with similar brutality. The corollary of these comparisons comes in a later bunch of messaging: referring to the violence by Hamas, the messages would remind readers of ‘Jauhar’, believed to be the practice of self-immolation by the wives and children of warriors in medieval times when the warrior was facing defeat. One meme shows a photo of a half-covered body, purportedly of an Israeli woman being dragged by Hamas terrorists. “To Avoid This Our Hindu Women Did Jauhar During Mughals Era,” reads a caption with the image. This is a commonly-circulated message.

On a Facebook page named ‘Yogi Adityanath for PM 2024’, with over 66,000 followers, the administrator of the page posts a similar message: “Hamas has made us understand why Hindu women committed Jauhar.”

‘A warning for you’

Having convinced members of these groups that the war was a relatable one, a large strand of messaging is focused on stoking fears of an imminent attack on Indians, but especially Hindus, by Hamas-like Islamist terrorists.

“In the future, India could also face conspiracies and attacks like Israel. The possibility of Hindu women facing cruelty can’t be ruled out,” the viral message warns. To avoid this, the message adds, Hindus needed to be alert and do two things: carry weapons and carry out a complete social boycott of Muslims.

Some messages claim Israel used to let 2,000 Palestinians from Gaza into Israel everyday. These 2,000, apparently, were secretly carrying out reconnaissance missions for the Hamas and “were terrorists in disguise”, the messages claim. Then, the message points to the Muslims within India, without naming them. “Now imagine, we have 15 crore terrorists amidst us, who we think share our DNA,” the message concludes.

The messaging in these groups doesn’t just stop at warning of impending attacks, but goes a step further and asks its audience to imagine how the conflict would even play out, and stokes anger against Islamic nations.

“When the civil war begins in India, do you think the 59 Islamic countries will stand by you? They will stand by the Muslims,” it insists. “You will always be the kaafir for them.”

Amidst these warnings, one popular strand of messaging launches stinging attacks on the Congress, using disinformation and outright manufactured facts.

One, for instance, found on both WhatsApp and Facebook, insists that the nation should, after the Israel-Hamas war, be grateful to Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi. “If not for him, India would have had a 3,000-kilometre long Gaza patti (strip) across the country,” it says, while being accompanied by an image the Indian sub-continent, showing a green corridor cutting through India, connecting Pakistan and Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan). These messages disparagingly call Gandhi “Ganduji” and claim that he had accepted this proposal by Jinnah for such a corridor. However,fact-checking sites have repeatedly debunked claims that Gandhi accepted such a proposal.

Many messages blame the Congress for these attacks by Hamas and claim that former PM Rajiv Gandhi had given Yasser Arafat, the chief of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a “peace prize”. This was a lie: Arafat received the ‘Indira Gandhi Award For International Justice and Harmony’ award in New Delhi, but this was given to him by the Indian Council of World Affairs. The award, in fact, was given in January 1992, while Gandhi had been assassinated in May 1991. V.P. Singh was the prime minister during the time of the ceremony, and the government was, incidentally, supported by the BJP. But the messages make no mention of this.

Delegitimise support for Palestine

Most of these groups are full of videos and photos, purportedly of the war, showing the civilian casualties of the war, except they are almost exclusively meant to show the sufferings of Israelis, while mocking at the sufferings of Palestinians.

These groups joke about how Palestinians, conflated with terrorists, were going to be rewarded with ‘hoors’, beautiful girls when they go to heaven after their deaths.

Another viral image across many of these groups is a badly-damaged structure, in ruins, which resembles a stairway going nowhere. The groups, quoting the image, express glee at how Palestinians were now directly going to gain entry into jannat, heaven.

This constant dehumanising of their sufferings, then, also extends to expressing support towards them.

In constant messages and memes, those backing Palestinians are described as “snakes”.

“No shortage of snakes in India,” one message describes protests against Israeli air strikes targeting civilians.

‘I am just in the way’

A very frequent presence across these groups is of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

A popular, common message across groups was an image of a grim Modi, staring straight back and asking readers to realise “what’s happening in Israel can happen in Bharat!!”

The message serves both as a warning for Hindus and as an endorsement of Modi. The attack is imminent and Modi is the only person who can save Hindus from such an attack.

“In reality, they are not after me, they are after you. I am just in the way,” reads a caption around Modi’s photo.

Another viral piece of propaganda has photos of Modi, home minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, asking people to be grateful “before you sleep tonight” to these three, for keeping India safe. It does not make mention of any terror attacks that occurred during the last nine years.

Such endorsements of Modi go hand-in-hand with messages stoking hate and anger against Muslims.

A video, featuring Modi, is repeatedly circulated across these groups. In the video, undated, Modi is seen talking about Muslims. “They have divided the world into three parts,” Modi says, going on to talk about ‘Dar al-Aman’, ‘Dar al-Harab’ and ‘Dar al-Islam’, which he explains as ‘land of peace’, ‘land of conflict’ and the third being “to convert the whole world into Islam”.

This video is accompanied by the same caption in all these groups: “I will vote for Modi 100 times for a Safe India what ever may come in the way. He explained this before 20+ years (sic).”

Similar messages, while warning of an impending Islamic attack on India, pitch Modi as the perfect counter for this. Messages ask supporters to forget about concerns like “cheap petrol” and “free ration”, warning that there were “countless traitors inside the country”. It asks readers to remember the plight of Ukrainians.

Without naming Modi, these messages ask voters to vote for a “STRONG LEADER”.

Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, writing on politics, gender, development, migration and the intersections between them.