How misleading narratives stoked Ram Navami violence & created communal chaos in India

By: ilma hasan&
April 11 2023

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How misleading narratives stoked Ram Navami violence & created communal chaos in India

Source: ANI via Reuters Connect

Communal clashes on March 30 on the occasion of Ram Navami, a Hindu festival to celebrate the birth of Lord Ram, were preceded by Islamophobic narratives and followed by coordinated attacks targeting ruling political parties in the states where violence erupted. 

With increasing intensity in religious tension year on year on the occasion, in anticipation of potential situation on the day of the festival, several local authorities had issued orders restricting movement in Muslim-majority areas. The orders ranged from imposing Section 144 to denying permission to hold processions in sensitive areas. In response, right-wing accounts made false or misleading claims about India's Hindu community being targeted. 

The preemptive measures could not curb clashes that broke out in several parts of Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Two people died in the incidents. 

On Ram Navami in April 2022, violence had broken out in nine states, and was uncharacteristically widespread compared to previous years. A report prepared by a collective of lawyers and citizens found the religious processions targeted Muslim-owned properties, businesses, and places of worship and were at a "seemingly coordinated scale than previous years." 

In the foreword to the report, Justice Rohinton Nariman, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, wrote: "Ram Navami processions, in particular, have been taken over by militant Hindutva organizations over the years, as the figure of Ram is central to the political imagination of the Sangh."

This year as well, clashes were reported from Muslim-dominated areas or places of worship important for Muslims, who are incidentally observing the month of Ramadan (Ramzan in Urdu) at this time.

Charged narratives in the build-up to Ram Navami

In March, narratives targeting India's Muslim population by right-wing accounts gained widespread traction amid multiple Hindu festivals including Holi and Ram Navami. 

After a video of men throwing water-filled balloons on two Burqa-clad women went viral, and the behavior of certain individuals assaulting women under the guise of Holi celebration was criticized, accounts falsely claimed a larger conspiracy against Hindus. Accounts showcasing bot or bot-like activity used tweets from verified users to undertake 'copypasta' campaigns (coordinated behavior where multiple accounts copy and paste the same text, often revealed because they all have the same errors). 

Twitter screenshot. Translation: The community which throws stones at the Kanwar Yatra and Ram Navami procession, which                            tries  to lynch any DJ playing in front of a mosque, is today writing 'Hindu Terrorist' worried about two burqa-clad people being hit with balloons.


Twitter screenshot. Translation: The community which throws stones at the Kanwar Yatra and Ram Navami procession, which                            tries  to lynch any DJ playing in front of a mosque, is today writing 'Hindu Terrorist' worried about two burqa-clad people being hit with balloons.

Translation: The community which throws stones at the Kanwar Yatra and Ram Navami procession, which tries  to lynch any DJ playing in front of a mosque, is today writing 'Hindu Terrorist'  worried about two burqa-clad people being hit with balloons.

In March, #Hindusunderattack had over 128,000 mentions on Twitter. Apart from online campaigns to ban Indian brands for allegedly propagating Hinduphobia, criticism against unlawful activities during Holi festivities in early March was used to spin false and misleading narratives of coordinated "targeting" of Hindu festivals in the days leading up to Ram Navami. 

For instance, when Rajasthan's Barmer district issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – a widely-used measure in India where authorities have reason to believe there is a threat to public order in a particular region – creating restrictions on Holi celebrations in the district, the issue led to a strong reaction on social media and by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders. 

According to News 18, the orders said that the festival should not be celebrated in the district, located near the India-Pakistan border, in a way that hurt the sentiments of people of other religions, including by putting colors on those who did not wish it, playing inflammatory songs (details on the phenomenon here and here), drinking alcohol in public and carrying weapons in public places. Right-wing accounts, however, claimed the Congress, the ruling party in state, was against Hindu festivals. Tweets by verified accounts, including members of the BJP claimed the party caters to Muslims, others tried to claim Hindu festivals are not going to be allowed despite India being a Hindu-majority nation. 

Similarly, objections were raised when preemptive measures were taken days before Ram Navami in opposition-ruled Jharkhand's Nirsa and Govindpur towns. During peace meetings, when authorities announced religious processions in these cities would not be allowed to cross a mosque, or have a DJ play loud music, online narratives took a communal tone. In previous years, some processions have become notoriously famous for going through minority areas, assembling outside mosques, with crowds occasionally holding weapons like swords and dancing to provocative and communally charged music. Last year, Logically had written on the songs that stoked such tension eventually leading to violence. 

The Delhi Police denying permission for a procession on Ram Navami in Delhi's Jahangirpuri area was met with similar criticism. Violent clashes in the area on Hanuman Jayanti last year had left nine people including police personnel injured, with reports of looting and arson. However, a crowd of 2,000 reportedly defied police orders this year, with an attendee telling The Print, "On Fridays, roads are blocked every time for namaz. No one is permitted to do that but they (Muslims) still go ahead and yet we ask for one day to celebrate our religion and we don't get that."

It should be noted that this statement was also misleading as there are no general prohibitions against the offering of prayers in public spaces in India, although these are subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by public authorities, in line with constitutional provisions, as Logically Facts has previously explained.

Narratives furthered using misattributed content 

While on Koo #Hindusunderattack consistently gained traction in the days after the communal clashes, on Twitter #StoptargettingIndianMuslims was also widely used, along with opposing narratives. Logically Facts monitored online interactions using these hashtags and several other keywords to find dated videos and photos were being used with false claims targeting both communities. Posts broadly were used to exaggerate the widespread popularity of the festival, or some to vilify revelers, and others to target Muslim communities in which the processions went awry. 

Old visuals from Karnataka, for instance, were falsely claimed to be from Bihar, where communal clashes and rumors about them had created a tense atmosphere. Logically discovered that a post with two photos showing a massive crowd carrying saffron flags that went viral on Koo and Twitter alleging that three lakh devotees gathered on the streets, was from a different celebration dating back to 2019 at the very least. Photos were also digitally manipulated to show that Dubai's Burj Khalifa was lit up with an image of Lord Ram, and was used to promote political narratives about "New India."

A video that gained significant traction on Twitter was shared with the claim that it shows a saffron flag hoisted on the top of a mosque in Rajasthan's Ganganagar during the Ram Navami celebrations. A voice in the video can be heard shouting that a "saffron flag" has been hoisted on the top of the mosque. However, Logically Facts analyzed the structure of the building had no features akin to mosques in northern and western India, and we were able to confirm with local police that the video was actually of a flag being hoisted in someone's home.

Politics following the clashes

Clashes in the cities of Howrah and Hooghly in West Bengal, in which both the state's ruling party Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP took out Ram Navami processions as a show of strength before local civic polls, led to widespread misinformation online. While the state's CID has taken over the probe into violence in Howrah, the BJP has accused TMC of sharing 'fake' videos of violence-promoting processions. Narratives targeting West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the TMC claimed the state favors Muslims and is anti-Hindu

In Bihar, stone pelting and torching of shops and vehicles were reported from Sasaram and Bihar Sharif towns on March 31 and April 1. The police imposed Section 144 to restrict movement and suspended internet services in the two districts. The police told the media that the violence started after a political leader allegedly provoked a group of people to install a loudspeaker near the mosque. A 110-year-old library housed in a madrassa was also allegedly torched by the rioters who placed saffron flags on shops and attacked homes. 

On April 2, the police said a minor was shot dead in Bihar Sharif. Till April 3, the police had lodged 12 FIRs and arrested 77 persons in connection with the clashes. Logically Facts found narratives about Hindus leaving their homes in Bihar or Hindu places of worship being attacked have surfaced online – which have been denied by the local police. Amid these clashes, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was targeted for hosting an iftaar meal days after the clashes. 

The rise in violence on Ram Navami has been found by researchers to be a recent trend. While the exact effect of the misleading narratives in the build-up to Ram Navami in 2023 remains to be researched, their prevalence and coordinated nature, as well as the swift spread of false and misleading narratives about what actually happened, demonstrate a significant challenge for authorities in the years and festivals ahead.


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