Cyber assault

Print edition : November 29, 2013

In Chicago, supporters of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi listen to his address through a videoconference organised by the Overseas Friends of the BJP on November 3. Photo: PTI

Saba Dewan, film-maker. She found it strange to be flooded, on Eid, with cartoons, photographs and posts criticising the sacrifice of goats and other animals. The posts were made from a seemingly innocent vegetarianism angle. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

The Hindutva brigade’s Internet campaign has taken propaganda to new heights of incredulity.

The Internet, in particular the social media, has been a priority for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar in the past decade and a half for the advancement of its political and ideological interests. Several organisational documents of the RSS and its fellow outfits point to how the Hindutva combine’s early moves in this area in the mid-1990s were strengthened with the crafting of an Internet and social media strategy in the closing years of the 20th century as part of the preparation of its Vision 2020 document. These documents show how the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Parivar’s political arm, used its stint in power at the Centre and in several States between 1998 and 2004 to set up and bolster manifold outfits across the globe with nuanced Hindutva agendas.

As a result, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP are miles ahead of their political and ideological adversaries in the use of cyberspace. It is a rounded campaign that the Hindutva combine runs in this arena through multiple establishments located around the world. Some of these establishments focus on political and ideological issues directly, while others resort to virulently anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu propaganda. Also part of this agenda are the lampooning and character assassination of social and political leaders who oppose the Sangh Parivar.

These outfits run a consistent campaign throughout the year but sharpen it during the run-up to elections or when the Sangh Parivar or any of its outfits wants to give momentum to a social protest or an act of communal polarisation. Indeed, the activity of many of the Internet-based Sangh Parivar organisations in the past six months underscores this point.

A lot of these campaigns are pronouncedly insidious in terms of content and packaging. The manner in which Thakur Sangeet Singh Som, BJP MLA from Sardhana in Meerut, posted a fake video titled “killing of Hindu youths by Muslim mob” on his Facebook page in September and thus aggravated the recent communal conflict in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar is part of the official records. He had picked up an old video that apparently depicted an assault in Pakistan and passed it off as something that was shot in Muzaffarnagar.

On November 6 and 7, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited Jammu and Kashmir. Even as he began his tour, the so-called United Hindu Front posted on its website photographs of Rahul and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah with the question, “look at this photo and comment why should [sic] they look so similar”? “Is it coincidence or is it part of history?”. The post also had comments, which any right-thinking person would see as objectionable, on the families of the two leaders and suggesting that Rahul Gandhi promoted only the interests of Muslims.

Through October and November, several Hindutva platforms ran a concerted campaign against the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (PCTV) Bill, which is expected to come up in the winter session of Parliament. The posts claimed that former Union Minister Subramanian Swamy, who joined the BJP recently after winding up the Janata Party he headed, had said in his analysis of the Bill that it is of “the presumption that all Hindus are criminals and rioters” and hence that “the law can be invoked only against Hindus by minorities”. The analysis further stated that as per the Bill a mere complaint against a member of the majority community would be enough to file a first information report (FIR) and arrest that person, who is assumed guilty unless proven otherwise, contrary to the normal criminal procedure, where an accused is assumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Swamy is also credited with having stated that the Bill could trigger a new wave of extortion by minority groups and that this would have huge negative repercussions for the Indian economy. Having put forth this “analysis”, the campaign went on to add that the Bill seeks to make India “just like Pakistan, Bangladesh or Kashmir, where Hindus will be left with three options: Convert, flee or suffer entire life”. Apparently, this campaign has found a large number of takers in the cyberworld, including many who are not committed activists of the Sangh Parivar.

Another campaign held that “Muslim will become absolute majority in India in 2035” and that “the community is using ploys such as conversion, threatening, rioting, slaughtering, terrorism, intrusion, polygamy and no birth control as the major tools to reach this figure”. Though the argument lacks scientific basis, it was made out to be the most important campaign in the microblogging website Twitter by thousands of Hindutva followers in October 2012.

Clearly, Twitter and Facebook have become the most important platforms for such hate-mongering campaigns as they reach a much larger audience than many Sangh Parivar websites. Interestingly, there are more than 100 websites in India alone that promote Narendra Modi as the future Prime Minister and project the Hindu community as under attack.

Talking to Frontline, the independent film-maker and researcher Saba Dewan said the Hindutva campaign was being spread camouflaged as independent voices, and rabid racial and communal sentiments were advanced through this camouflage. Saba Dewan found it strange to be flooded, on Eid, with cartoons, photographs and posts criticising the sacrifice of goats and other animals. These posts were made from a seemingly innocent vegetarianism angle.

Saba Dewan said this was another dimension of deviousness and added that she had not seen such criticism in earlier years or during festivals such as the one in the Kamakhya shrine in Assam or in other Kali temples, where too animals were sacrificed. Saba Dewan posted her observation on her own Facebook page with an appeal to viewers to pause and think before forwarding such posts, whether one was becoming a party to the insidious anti-Muslim, Hindutva campaign flooding the social media in the run up to elections. This post, too, evoked an animated debate.

Similar pattern

The Hindutva campaign on the Internet has various themes and fora but the pattern is broadly similar. To start with, much of it is alarmist in nature and creates an illusion of Hindus as victims under the regimes of the secular parties. The path adopted to propagate this theory is threefold. First, stray attacks on Hindus are projected as communal violence and blamed on an “apathetic state”.

Sample these headlines in a website called hinduexistence.org: “Muslims are not in need of a reason for rioting against non-believers at any time”; “Allah and his Prophet are the only reason for Jehad against non-Muslims.” Most of these reports falsify facts and are written on the basis of stray killings. The website claims to be a “liberal Hindu think tank”. However, it makes sweeping generalisations about Islam and frequently quotes the Quran out of context to project Islam as an intolerant religion. These articles are posted in the social media by its supporters.

Secondly, the campaign targets the Congress government (which in their understanding is an “underground communist group”) and accuses it of “minority appeasement”. It is shown as allowing “defamation” of Hindu gods and goddesses. These campaigns are led by groups such as the Hindu Jan Jagruti (http://www.hindujagruti.org/denigrations/). Images of various media posters, exhibitions, and other artistic works carrying images of Hindu gods and goddesses are shown and interpreted as “defamation”. These same organisations were responsible for vandalism of various art exhibitions in the recent past.

Thirdly, international examples are cited in such a way that it appears as if Hindus are being persecuted everywhere and that the faith needs protection. Sample this news item in hinduismtoday.com from Bangladesh published on November 5: “Members of Hindu community in Lalmonirhat on Monday came under targeted attack again, for the third time in a week of escalating sectarian tension and violence in the region.” Another one goes like this: “An angry mob vandalised at least 26 houses and a temple of the Hindu community in Pabna’s Ataikula upazila today following a rumour that a Hindu boy posted something on Facebook demeaning Prophet Mohammad.” These items are picked from here and circulated in the social media. The September 21-24 terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where some Indians were killed, was projected in the social media and on Sangh Parivar websites as persecution of Hindus.

Saviour of Hindus

Once the “victimhood of Hindus” is established, the next step is the projection of Narendra Modi as the saviour of Hindus. News items like “Gujarat showed India that a united Hindu community can be a vote bank’ are used to play on the minds of readers. Simultaneously, a campaign for a casteless society is given credence in these websites. Similarly, a massive canvassing for vegetarianism features as a top priority in most of these websites to indirectly point fingers at minority groups. This is done by highlighting benefits like a healthy lifestyle and spiritual elevation, or by showing victimhood of animals. A news item in hinduismtoday.com says: “A public school in Flushing, NY that was the first in the nation to offer a 100 per cent vegetarian lunch menu reported recently that students have improved attendance, test scores and energy in the wake of the change.”

The Sangh Parivar seems to have developed a filial relationship with the American Freedom Defence Initiative (AFDI), a vitriolic anti-Islam organisation in the U.S. which it often quotes in most of its Internet propaganda. The AFDI is known to have campaigns similar to the Sangh Parivar in India. In fact, one of the main projects of the 1998-2004 BJP when it led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre was to strengthen these international alliances by setting up and strengthening overseas units of Parivar outfits. Thus, every outfit of the Parivar has an international wing, which helps in campaigns and fund-raising.

The Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), with its vast network of branches in countries that have a sizeable non-resident Indian (NRI) population, is the key organisation internationally. It works closely with the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS), the RSS’ overseas branch. The OFBJP has an extensive network in the U.S. and Britain. While it started as an international outreach outfit of the Sangh Parivar in 1991, its Internet-based operations were concretised in 1998. Its leaders state openly that the organisation seeks to present the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in a positive light to international policymakers, administration officials, members of various think tanks and the media.

The OFBJP claims to fight leftist and liberal propaganda against the BJP. But, evidently, this fight is not a tussle characterised by objectivity or intellectual integrity. The campaign one witnessed during the Muzaffarnagar riots and the one that is currently in circulation against the PCTV Bill are filled with lies, half-truths, calumny and hate. As a popular article in the United Hindu Front platform and the comments around it stated, the Internet Hindutva campaign does not believe in democracy for all, but only for those informed with the so-called Hindu world view.

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