India’s social media “peace force”

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

A month has passed since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India, and brought the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party) back into power. Much has been written about his government, with observers either hailing him as an economic messiah who will fix India’s dwindling economy or a divisive politician who has built his career on the back of communalism.

Those watching freedoms, especially of free speech and the media, are among the people apprehensive about life under Modi’s government. While the prime minister himself has blogged about the importance of free expression, recent arrests, including of citizens directly critical of him, paint a worrying picture. Additionally, the rise of “communal posts” on social media, real or planed, have lead to violence on the ground, and a debate about how best to police social media and free speech online.

In June, a young Muslim IT graduate lost his life to an angry mob in the city of Pune, Maharashtra, due to violence that erupted after morphed pictures of a historical figure appeared on Facebook and WhatsApp. The pictures were said to be triggers for crowds to damage shops and public transport, ultimately resulting in communal violence and the loss of an innocent life. However, reports from the Anti Terror Squad of the Maharashtra police indicate that the outbreak of violence following the uploaded picture does not seem sporadic or unplanned.

The state government has issued familiar warnings about the misuse of social media by groups that are looking to incite communal tension. Home Minister, R. R. Patil, was quoted as saying that “anti-social elements are posting inflammatory posts to stoke hatred, bitterness and disharmony between sects”, warning that such posts could result in action not just against those who post the photos, but also those who “like” them. Of course, this was the same state which saw two girls were arrested last year for allegedly sparking communal violence — one for writing a Facebook update, and the other girl simply for “liking” it. Therefore, any action by the government needs to be tempered by what the fallout could be for ordinary citizens and their right to free speech.

But authorities are not alone in seeking a solution to the problem of potentially inflammatory social media postings — civil society groups are also trying novel ideas to counter the trend. Ravi Ghate, a social entrepreneur and founder of a community SMS newsletter in Maharashtra, has banded together with like-minded folks to form a group on Facebook called “Social Peace Force”. Amassing over 18,000 members in ten days, the mission of the group is to “stop anti-social messages on Facebook” by reporting them as spam. “It’s the easiest and technological way to fight the culprits who are spreading anti-national messages/images and stopping ourselves from development!” is the logic the group adheres to. Many of the new members have posted comments indicating their genuine desire to help stop the spread of abusive and communal messages. Therefore, once identified, all members of the group will report a message or posting to Facebook thereby pressurising them to remove the post before it can do any more damage. The group has also instituted a panel of experts who are meant to examine any troubling post and give the go-ahead for the group to act.

What has spurred this move? “How many times can you go to court,” Ghate told Index. “It is too expensive. And the problem is that by the time the police takes down the content, the riot has already taken place.” For them, “suppressing content at the source” in a timely manner is key. A technological solution within the boundaries of Facebook’s own rules of engagement seems to some a far more pragmatic solution than going to the courts again and again.

Seen from a broader lens however, the group’s solution seems to be to shift the onus from the courts to decide the parameters of free expression and “objectionable” content, to big, profit-making, multinational corporates. What might seem today a no-brainer because of some obviously mischievous content, could in time, pose an interesting dilemma: Should social media giants control the boundaries of (social media based) speech in countries such as India, based on their own internal policies, and not the laws of the land? And all this, because of a push by the citizens themselves, to bypass courts and go directly to the corporates.

It is ironic that “Big Brother’ – which is what some newspaper headlines called the group – when translated into Hindi could be interpreted as “elder brother”, indicating a protective instinct, which certainly seems to be the case here. The current mandate of the group is only to focus on religious content to keep “social harmony”. That in itself is not a straightforward task; just ask Wendy Doniger, author of ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’. However, this and the many spinoff groups they will inspire could morph into something they did not intend. Legitimate art, literature, satire and other forms of expression could become victims of the mob. Then there is danger of more organised groups and political parties taking to social media directly to suppress content — especially political critique — on a regular basis. And finally, those who wish to subvert social media platforms to have an excuse to incite violence on the street, will certainly find more creative ways to do so.

There is of course, the other side of the coin. Will Facebook remove content that has been pre-determined to be objectionable when faced with a large number of people reporting it? The simple answer is, we don’t know. Facebook has its own community standards, and these cover a broad range of topics, including the following: “Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”

And a recent experiment by an Indian think-tank revealed that Facebook did not necessarily remove content flagged as objectionable by users, solely on the basis of it being flagged. As Facebook told them: “We reviewed the post you reported for harassment and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” It is quite possible that the newly formed Social Peace Force will feel let down by Facebook as well, if content is not removed immediately. What happens then?

However, this latest development harks back to the problems with India’s current legal mechanisms. India’s IT Act has become infamous for a certain Section 66(A) which can be used to arrest people for information used for the purposes of “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will”. Public outrage at wrongful arrests led to the courts passing an order that no person would be arrested without “prior approval from an officer not below the rank of inspector general of police”. At the same time, the establishment is not above slapping graver charges (such as inciting communal violence) under other sections of Indian law — including the Indian Penal Code — for fairly innocuous activity. This has lead to some amount of distrust at the government’s own commitment to freedom of expression.

Of course, citizens have a right to appeal to social media platforms if they take offense to any content posted there. The point remains, however, that maintaining communal harmony and law and order is a tricky and layered problem. The role of the state, and the loss of confidence citizens have in it, must be addressed as well. Earlier solutions have included the state governments of Jammu and Kashmir preempting violence by switching off social media and YouTube for a few days, in the wake of burgeoning riots around the world because of the video “The Innocence of Muslims”. At another time, the government of India restricted text messages to five a day to curtail vicious rumours targeting a minority community settled in south India. India’s National Integration Council met in September 2013 after social media posts had been blamed for causing riots in Uttar Pradesh, and many states are setting up social media monitoring departments to raise “red flags”, much like the Social Peace Force itself.

A coherent and honest study of the abuse of social media platforms by fringe groups to incite violence should take place. Given the fast paced nature of the medium, the question for a country as prone to communal riots as India is: how can one control them? Is counter-speech to drown out hate speech a strategy to be employed? Is clamping down on free speech effectively going to reduce religious intolerance? Does bypassing legal routes and going straight to the “source” help? A national dialogue on the matter might be more fruitful in the long run than the flowering of surveillance groups cutting across the board — be they citizen or state-led.

This article was published on June 30, 2014 at

India: Man facing criminal investigation over anti-Modi Facebook comments

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat amid tight security on April 6. (Photo: Nisarg Lakhmani / Demotix)

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat amid tight security on April 6. (Photo: Nisarg Lakhmani/Demotix)

An Indian man has found himself in trouble for allegedly posting a Facebook comments against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The incident raises serious doubts over online freedom in the world’s biggest democracy

On March 23, shipbuilding professional Devu Chodankar posted in the popular Facebook group Goa+, that if Modi became prime minister, a holocaust “as it happened in Gujarat”, would follow. Modi was the Gujarat chief minister during the 2002 pogrom in which more than 1000 people — most of them Muslims — were killed in communal violence. Chodankar also wrote that it would lead to the Christian community in the state of Goa losing their identity. He later deleted the post. In another Facebook group he regretted his choice of words but stood by the substance of his argument, calling it his crusade against the “tyranny of fascists”.

The incident was reported to the police in March by former chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industries in Goa Atul Pai Kane, who was close to Modi’s party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He filed a First Information Report (FIR) to the police, under sections 153(A), 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 125 of the People’s Representation Act and 66-A of the Information Technology Act. Under the former, it is a crime to promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., as do acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony. Meanwhile, the latter makes it a punishable offence to send messages that are offensive, false or created for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience.

In his complaint, Kane said that Chodankar had threatened the group members not to vote in favour of the BJP, as it would virtually make Narendra Modi the prime minister of India. “I made this complaint as Chodankar issued inflammatory statements and tried to create communal hatred. He even refused to withdraw those comments. You cannot make such comments on a public forum. There has to be a limit.”

Police summoned Chodankar for the first time on May 12, and a trial court on 22 May rejected anticipatory bail. Chodankar has left Goa to evade possible arrest. Police want to interrogate him to find out whether he had any broader intentions with his comments, and whether he had plans to “promote communal and social disharmony”.

Social activists and opposition political parties feel that lodging a police complaint over a Facebook comment is an attempt to curb individual freedom, and that such cases would become the order of the day under Hindu nationalist BJP rule. Activists also believe that this type of police action is tantamount to curbing freedom of expression, ultimately meaning that you should either stay away from social media or stop speaking your mind on such platforms.

Amitabh Pandey, a media freedom activist, said: “The message is very clear. You should know how to behave in the cyber world. If you dare to write against Narendra Modi on any social media platform then you should be ready to face the consequences.”

Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumnus Dr. Samir Kelekar has been actively working for the case against Chodankar to be dropped. “I feel arresting a person for making a comment against someone is too much. We don’t agree with his comments but we don’t agree with police action either. His comment is not going to affect the society in any way,” he said.

This isn’t the only such case in recent times in India. On 15 May, author Amaresh Mishra was arrested in Gurgaon, in the northern Indian state of Haryana, for posting content on Facebook and Twitter against Modi and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu organisation associated with BJP. Charges alleged he had incited violence against Modi.

Along with social activists, many netizens are opposing the police action against Chodankar. “In a way we are living in a country which claims that we have freedom of expression, but in reality it doesn’t exist,” said Facebook user Animesh Upadhyay, adding that people don’t know which comment will be treated as an offence and might get them arrested.

However, some feel that there has to be a limit. Ashutosh Jaiswal, convener of hardliner Hindu organisation Bajrang Dal said: “The police should deal sternly with such public comments.”

Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar has refused to interfere in the case. In a written statement he said: “As per Supreme Court directives, it is compulsory to register all complaints. A prominent citizen has filed a complaint and judiciary has refused to grant anticipatory bail to the accused person, which proves that there is substance in the complaint.”

He has also stated that there was “no intention” to arrest Chodankar. “He was issued two summons after which he did not appear before police, and his lawyer went for anticipatory bail…Police opposed the bail as a regular process.”

This article was posted on May 30, 2014 at 

India obsessed with social media role in elections

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Indians, ever a chatty lot, are obsessed with the idea of being obsessed with social media. That is why, as the BJP’s stunning victory in the Indian general elections was declared, the news media immediately began to examine the impact of social media campaigning in the elections. Numbers aside, the victory over social media has revealed the fault lines of Indian society as it stands today.

India’s online population is small as compared to its offline population – about 213 million users to 1.2 billion people – but it is growing. Though these figures expand and contract depending on whom you ask, we do know that 33 million are on Twitter and Facebook has hit the 100 million-user mark. Given these statistics, it is indeed impressive that India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has 4.2 million followers on Twitter already. The would-be leader of opposition, Rahul Gandhi, whose party did not win enough seats to actually assume the seat as leader of the opposition in parliament, isn’t on Twitter. However, his party has an account, with about 181,000 followers. There are other political stars on social media, including individual members of various parties, and notably, members of the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party.

However, when asked the question: “who won the social media war” – because, to be sure, there was one – the answer can only really be Narendra Modi. In fact, his own campaign machinery was so well oiled that his personal profile overshadowed his party.  “Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar” (this time, a Modi government) was arguably the catchiest slogan on the campaign and it inspired many a joke, including a takeover of the nursery rhyme – “twinkle, twinkle, little star, ab ki baar, Modi sarkar!”  And according to reports, the BJP was mentioned on Twitter, on average, about 30,000 times a day, with the Congress trailing behind at between 15,000-20,000. Modi’s victory tweet promising a better India after election results were declared was retweeted 69,872 times.

Truthfully, there is no way that social media could have supplanted the traditional route. Modi’s tireless campaigning – 437 rallies, 5,827 public interface events across 25 states that is a distance of 300,000km – is impressive. But, equally impressive was the BJP’s entire digital campaign effort; a “social media war room” that reportedly cost Rs 35 lakh (35,000 GBP), with 30 computers and about 50 volunteers, tracking activities across India’s 92,000 villages. And accounts from insiders, young professionals, many whom took sabbaticals from their jobs to participate in this campaign, talks of a breathless environment, where Facebook was used to crowdsource ideas for speeches, and ‘Mission 272’ (in terms of how many seats they were aiming to win) became a reality. In fact, many creative contributions from BJP’s supporters – videos, jingles, songs and poems – can be found on the website.

At the same time, social media has been very revealing about the state of the Indian majority. The tonality of political discourse over the internet, which was very polarized between the Hindu rightwingers and secularists saw vicious language, trolling and hate speech dotting the landscape. However, the Hindu right, abused as communal in the time of the Congress government have emerged victorious and unapologetic about their political leanings. In public groups on Google Plus, cyber Hindus declare that a “pro Hindu lobby is not an option, but a sheer necessity.” In fact, the ‘liberal’ discourse that sweeps much of the mainstream English media was taken aback at the sweeping victory that the BJP has earned in this election. There is nervousness that the BJP, supported and guided by the RSS – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—a right-wing, nationalist group espousing strict discipline, martial training and self sacrifice in defence of the Motherland, often derided for being extremist – will work towards a majoritarian agenda where minorities will find less space to exist. These fears are compounded by the RSS’s beliefs – formalized in annual reports – that seek to impose a strict moral code that frowns upon live-in relations, homosexuality and also keeping an eye on minority communities. The RSS has being heartened by educated Indians joining their cause via social media, thereby signaling that their views might no longer be frowned upon as extreme or communal. They do not want to apologize for representing the view of the Hindu right.

And on cue, Narendra Modi, in a rousing speech formally accepting his role as the leader of the majority party in Parliament, promised his fellow BJP MPs that by the birth anniversary of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya in 2016, co-founder of the Bharitiya Jan Sangh that later became the BJP as known today, India shall rise to its promise of being a great nation. Tying down his campaign promises to his deep association with the RSS, the signal is clear. Indeed, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Prime Minister, had affirmed proudly that “the Sangh is my soul”. The Hindu is back in Hindustan (another name for India).

An analysis in India Today magazine has declared the Indian cybersphere ‘saffron’ (the color associated with the Hindu right) writing, “But their agenda is a mix of post-modern and traditional. They oppose dynasty politics, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi clan and its allies such as Shiv Sena. They call minority appeasement ‘pseudo-secularism’ with such fervour that their sentiment could easily be interpreted as Hindu supremacist or anti-Muslim. They are against lower-caste reservation, particularly because it is poorly implemented. They are concerned about internal security. But above all, they are against corruption.” In deconstructing the ways of the Hindu saffron social media user, the article offers certain clues, such as the words “proud”, “patriot” and “Hindu” appearing in their bios, and often uploading images of Hindu gods as their display picture.

The people have spoken. The media is filled with analysis that people have either embraced Modi for his Hindu leanings, or ignored them in order realize the dream of “development” that is has promised to deliver. The number of Muslim MPs in parliament is down to 21 from 30 in the last session, the lowest number since India’s first elections.  The Congress and its allies, who built careers on carefully constructed platforms of secularism – in their first term, they had a Muslim President, Sikh Prime Minister and Christian leader of the party – have been set aside in favour of a openly religious and Hindu BJP. Whatever be the reasons for the vote, for the everyday people tweeting and Facebooking, it appears that being pro-Hindu is slowly being disassociated with being communal. For many, this is a relief.

It seems it might finally be hip to be Hindu.

This article was posted on May 21, 2014 at

India: Religious electioneering damages secular fabric

Modi invoked Lord Ram while addressing a meeting in Faizabad, barely six kilometres from Ayodhya. He shared the stage with the Faizabad candidate Lalu Singh who was issued a notice by the EC for displaying religious portraits.

Modi invoked Lord Ram while addressing a meeting in Faizabad, barely six kilometres from Ayodhya. He shared the stage with the Faizabad candidate Lalu Singh who was issued a notice by the EC for displaying religious portraits.

“The Ram- Rahim ideal and the secular ideology are often the stuff of an Indian politician’s election haberdashery, not his soul-stuff.” Justice Krishna Iyer of India’s Supreme Court was scathing in his criticism of those electoral candidates who canvass votes in the name of religion or by instigating polarisation among different religious and ethnic communities. Besides violating India elections law, they also damage the country’s secular fabric.

The law is Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, which deems candidates’ or their agents’ appeal for votes on the basis of religion or religious symbols as a “corrupt practice”, and if found guilty, entails disqualification.

On May 6, while campaigning for Lalloo Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate from Faizabad, Narendra Modi, with the picture of Ram, a mythological king of ancient India, revered as a god by the Hindus, adorning the background, promised to bring about “Ram Rajya” (kingdom of Ram) if voted into power. The Election Commission was quick to order an investigation for a violation of the election law as well as the Model Code of Conduct–a set of guidelines which aren’t legally binding.

As it has become de rigueur for a Hindu Right party like the BJP, bellicose arguments about violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression were relentlessly trotted out.  The truth is quite different, because the Supreme Court has held that the restriction on religious electioneering doesn’t impinge upon any such right.

When the constitutional validity of Section 123 (3) was challenged in 1954, a bench of five Supreme Court judges while upholding the provision held that it does not prevent a man from speaking and merely prescribes conditions which must be observed if he wants to enter parliament.  The right to contest an election is not a common law right but a special right created by a statute and the statutory provisions have no bearing on the fundamental rights.  Then when a similar challenge was mounted again in 1965, the court affirmed its earlier decision and stated that the law acted as a wedge against the secular, democratic process being vitiated by bigotry and violence. It must be mentioned that both these judgements hold ground to this day.

Going back to Modi’s speech, take a look at the photograph, and some more facts. “Ram Rajya”, which the BJP so desperately tried to pass off as a moniker for good governance, is an exclusive Hindu term, and no one professing any other faith would ever use that expression.  The setting in which the speech was delivered makes Modi’s actions all the more egregious. He was speaking at Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, which is only a stone’s throw away from Ayodhya, which has attained permanent notoriety for the site of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 by hordes of militant Hindus swearing fanatical allegiance to the BJP and its associated parties.  In fact 6 December 1992 marks that watershed moment when communalism became an inalienable and vicious part of Indian politics. Things have only slid downhill from there, and who can forget the carnage in Gujarat in 2002 (under Narendra Modi’s watch)?

And the fact that Lalloo Singh is one of those arraigned as accused for razing the mosque to the ground leaves no one in any doubt as to Modi’s real agenda- to whip up Hindu communal passions and garner as many votes as possible.

Modi’s increasingly strident bigotry has bared its fangs open in the last lap of the election campaign. Only on May 5, he tried to charm his Uttar Pradesh supporters by thundering that only those who worship Durga–a Hindu goddess–are true Indians, and all Muslim migrants will be deported once he came to power.

It remains a mystery and one of grave consternation as to why the Election Commission finally went easy and took no action. But a fitting reply to the last Modi apologist would be -the promise of building a Ram temple over the pulverized mosque occupies pride of place in the BJP’s election manifesto.

This article was posted on May 15, 2014 at