Indian police, claiming “fake news” was being spread about anti-Muslim violence, have charged dozens of social media users in the northeastern state of Tripura — including members of private fact-finding groups looking into the violence.
Apparently reacting to attacks on Hindu temples and idols by Muslim mobs in Bangladesh in the second week of October, Hindu activists in Tripura ransacked and set fire to mosques and Muslim-owned homes and shops for about a week, starting October 21.
The fact-finding teams reported that dozens of homes and shops and 16 mosques were vandalized in the week of communal violence; four of the mosques and many of the shops and houses were also set on fire, according to some fact-finding teams, many of whose members took to social media.
The Tripura police have charged over 100 social media users under different Indian Penal Code sections, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, for promoting enmity between different religious groups, forgery, criminal conspiracy and other charges, alleging that the posts were intended to spur further violence.
Those accused include students, social activists, lawyers on the fact-finding team, the student wing of an Islamic organization, regular citizens and others.
“The accounts which have been booked were spreading fake news, using fake videos and photos having no connection with Tripura. In fact, many social media users have deleted their related posts in the past week, after the news broke that we had booked many social media users. Some posts carrying fake info are still active. In our ongoing process we are trying to gather their details. We will act against them, too,” a Tripura police officer who did not want to be identified because the cases are in court now said to the VOA.
While some of the posts did, in fact, carry images unrelated to the Tripura violence, such as a photo of a fire in a Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi, other social media users were charged even though their posts did not carry any misinformation.
Hindu activists retaliate
India’s largest Hindu organization, Vishva Hindu Parishad; its youth wing - the Hindu nationalist militant organization Bajrang Dal; and other Hindu groups had organized more than a dozen marches and rallies to protest the anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh. Some of the events, called “Hoonkar,” or “roar,” rallies, turned violent, vandalizing mosques and Muslim properties.
A shopkeeper from Panisagar town in Tripura state told VOA, “Hindu activists in a Hoonkar rally shouted abusive slogans” against Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad.
“They set ablaze two shops in the presence of police, I witnessed,” he said.
Soubhik Dey, the police chief of Tripura’s Panisagar subdivision told The Indian Express that activists from a VHP-led rally ransacked a mosque, houses and shops, before setting ablaze two shops in his subdivision.
However, Vinod Bansal, national spokesperson of VHP denied the charge of Hindu attacks.
“In the entire state of Tripura, no Hindu has attacked any mosque, Muslim-owned shop or house. No Hindu resorted to any violence. In social media the jihadists are spreading fake news that the Hindus vandalized or set ablaze Muslim properties,” Bansal told VOA. “VHP’s social media wing has begun a campaign to identify the [Tripura violence related] fake news in social media and expose them,” he added.
Although the Inspector General of Police of Tripura, Saurabh Tripathi, told Asian News International, an Indian news agency, that “No fire incident took place at any mosque in Tripura” during the recent violence, Delhi-based lawyer Ansar Indori, who visited Tripura after the violence, said he saw three burned mosques there.
“We reported about these burnt mosques in our fact-finding report. Our report carries what exactly we saw with our eyes. In the cases of the burnt mosques, we conducted our inquiry and cross-verification very well,” Indori, secretary of the Delhi-based National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations, told VOA.
“It’s difficult to believe that police have charged me under UAPA- a law generally used against terrorists,” he said.
On Thursday, Jyotishman Das Choudhary, the public relations officer of Tripura Police, told VOA that since all cases related to the violence are being directly supervised by the state’s High Court, no one from his organization could comment on them.
'Police actions to scare victims'
Supreme Court lawyer Ehtesham Hashmi, the leader of Indori’s fact-finding team said that his fact-finding team members have shared nothing that can be regarded as anti-national or unconstitutional.
“By filing the FIR,” he said, referring to a first information report, or registered police complaint, “the police want to send a message that if they can take action even against Supreme Court lawyers and journalists they can easily act against ordinary people,” Hashmi told VOA.
“The actions against us are meant to scare away the victims so that they do not come forward to lodge FIRs despite being affected by the violence.”
The Supreme Court has agreed to take up for “urgent hearing” a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the anti-terrorism law UAPA having been used against lawyers and journalists for their social media posts on the Tripura Violence. Lawyer Hashmi told VOA Sunday that his colleagues have already presented their fact-finding report to the Supreme Court for its perusal.
Delhi University teacher and writer Apoorvanand, who uses one name, said the Tripura police did not apply force when Muslims were being attacked because it was busy “lying to the world and hiding the fact of the violence.”
“Now Tripura police is upset that the lawyers' team and some independent journalists and citizens have brought out in the open the truth of the anti-Muslim violence in Tripura,” Apoorvanand told VOA.
“This is what the BJP governments have been doing in other states as well: first allow violence against Muslim and other marginalized communities and then persecute and penalize those who try to report it or help the victims,” he said.
“The violence in Tripura and the behavior of the police prove that India has turned into one of the most dangerous countries for Muslims, journalists and human rights workers.”