New Delhi: Last week, when Union home minister Amit Shah defended the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (now Act) in parliament, he dismissed concerns that it was targeting India’s Muslims and asked the community not to have any fears.
Instead, he went a step ahead and responded to an opposition leader’s comment by saying said, “..this country will not be free from Muslims even if you want it to be.”
But away from the glare, inside India’s WhatsApp networks, most run directly or indirectly by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates, the messaging is clear and quite the opposite – that the CAA is a major step towards making India a ‘Hindu Rashtra,’ and that the Act is a weapon to rid India of its Muslims.
The investigation found that over the last one week, an organised campaign has been mounted on these WhatsApp groups to stoke Islamophobia and hatred against Muslims and immigrants in the country. In contrast to Shah’s public utterances, a systematic flood of messages have sought to advertise the CAA as a tool to ‘kick Muslims out of India’ and ‘halve India’s population, without any effort.’
These groups demonise the Muslim community through unverified statistics and ‘data’, call for violence against them and celebrate the prospect of Muslims losing citizenship after the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The groups are also abuzz with congratulatory messages for Modi, Shah and the BJP, even as they cast the opposition parties as anti-Hindu.
The profile of these groups
For the last one week, at least ten political WhatsApp groups run by BJP sympathisers and close aides of its leaders, were accessed by the author. All these groups either have Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name or photo, or are named after the BJP and its Sangh parivar affiliates, suffixed with the area that its administrators hail from. The exact names are being shielded to protect this author’s access.
One group even claims that members can directly interact with the prime minister through that group. The group, it says in the description, also has the PM’s special representative who will convey sentiments of the group to the PM. The Wire could not independently verify this claim.
Most of these groups only see members forwarding texts, memes, photos and videos, there is little conversation that happens unless there is a major event or a talking point. For instance, news of CAB being passed in both houses was received, on one group named after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, with messages of “Jai Shri Ram” by a few members.
Four steps to Hindu Rashtra
One major theme that a majority of the messages echo is that bringing the CAA and, then, the NRC, will automatically imply that India’s Muslim population will be reduced. The messaging conveys little doubt that India’s journey to being a Hindu Rashtra has begun.
The messages also reveal how. They list a ‘four-step’ process for India becoming a Hindu nation – starting with the CAB, followed by the NRC, then a law to control population, ultimately followed by a Uniform Civil Code. The language employed in these posts is blatantly Islamophobic—the NRC is captioned as a ‘Check and Throw,’ while the law for population control is captioned ‘No pig breeding.’
These messages justify their Islamophobia by throwing in dubious statistics and making unverified claims – one message that was shared frequently called Muslims a ‘burden’ for the country, throwing false statistics like the community comprises 45% of all patients in government hospitals (the government does not maintain such records) or that Muslims form 32% of all those incarcerated in India (whereas they form 15% of all prisoners) while members of the community committed 44% of all crimes in India (the National Crime Records Bureau does not publish religion-segregated data).
The ‘statistics’ make incredulous claims – “Muslims form only 1% of those who chant pro-India slogans but 95% of those who chant anti-India slogan”, or that 67% of the community is engaged in repairing punctures, the messages say.
These messages and memes use this ‘data’ to argue that a ‘Muslim-free’ India would only be beneficial to the country. One meme even makes calculations about the number of trees that could be planted by reclaiming all Muslim burial grounds.
Another big chunk of messages fuels anger and violence against India’s Muslims by spreading conspiracies about Muslims being on a ‘war’ to take over India. These memes quote unverified figures to say that Hindus were down to 78 crore while Muslims were at 23 crore; in fact, Census 2011 had said the Hindu population was 96.7 crore while Muslims were at 17.2 crore. Such posts go on to stoke fears that Muslims are waging a war against India and that the CAA would thwart such plans.
Yet another strand of messaging, strategically, seeks to pitch all opposition to the CAA as support for “Jihadis” and “Rohingyas”, painting all such stances as being “anti-Hindu.”
There was one common message in almost every group – one that said that Hindus would “never forgive” the Congress for opposing citizenhood for Hindu refugees and demanding it for Rohingyas, instead. These messages painted the BJP as the only party truly fighting for the Hindus. “The BJP and NDA alone, are fighting this onslaught by all Jihadi infiltrators and opposition parties; the BJP alone wants to protect Hindu refugees.”
In fact, on at least four groups, one common image, with a fake quote attributed to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was found. In that image, Gandhi is quoted as having tweeted that he opposed India becoming a Hindu Rashtra because his family has always been focussed on making an ‘Islamic Rashtra’.
The message goes on to castigate non-BJP voters, asking them to shun voting for the opposition parties. “Because of your vote, these (opposition) MPs are supporting Jihadis openly; only the BJP is standing like a rock with Hindus. Foolish Hindustanis, at least now understand who is your own and who isn’t,” it says, before ending with “Shabaash BJP” (Well-done, BJP).
In fact, many messages even ask voters to not consider any other issues like the economy or unemployment, but instead, back the BJP.
WhatsApp and India
What makes such systematic messaging dangerous is the enormous reach that WhatsApp has in India. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market, with over 400 million users in the country. In 2017, the country had 468 million smartphone users, which means over 85% of smartphone-using people are using WhatsApp.
WhatsApp disinformation has, often, assumed dangerous and even fatal proportions—over 25 people have died in lynchings driven by rumours circulated on WhatsApp of child-kidnappers being on the prowl.
The BJP has been early and efficient in harnessing this growing tide of users—before the Lok Sabha polls, it appointed 900,000 cellphone pramukhs for the over 920,000 electoral booths in the country, and whose role revolved around forming WhatsApp groups among voters of those groups.
Research by the London School of Economics explains the reasons behind the BJP’s efforts. The research revealed that citizens are more likely to forward misinformation due to their own prejudice and ideology, rather than due to the lack of literacy, digital and otherwise.
The same research also revealed that disinformation and propaganda is, often, well-timed. “During elections, or during incidents of cross-border military action, simmering sentiments become high-intensity situations where the quality of disinformation and propaganda becomes immediately inflammatory.”
This occurred in February this year, when, soon after a suicide bomb attack on a convoy of para-military personnel in Pulwama, a similar flood of Islamophobic disinformation was unleashed on WhatsApp. The messages, then, tried to stoke anger against Muslims, especially Kashmiri Muslims and fuelled war-mongering. Soon after, Kashmiri students across the country were assaulted and evicted from their rental properties.
Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, writing on politics, gender, development, migration and the intersections between them. He is an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.