By: ilma hasan
June 9 2023
Islamophobic narratives have once again gained prominence in the days following the June 2 three-train accident in Odisha that killed at least 280 people and injured over 1,000. Reports indicating that railways officials are suspecting “sabotage” and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) taking over the probe further exacerbated such claims denigrating Indian Muslims, citing “train jihad.”
We noticed a spike in the use of ‘#trainjihad’ on June 3, a day after the incident. Although limited in engagement, many social media users have used these narratives in speculation about the incident.
A now-deleted tweet by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member Praveen Dwivedi, which uses the word ‘rail jihad’. Source: Brandwatch
Social media posts alleging train/rail jihad
Following the accident last Friday, government sources alleged “deliberate interference” in the signaling system had led to the incident. A speeding Coromandel Express crashed into a goods train on the loop line, in turn severely impacting another passenger train traveling in the opposite direction. Initial investigations found a problem with the interlocking system that led to the train taking the loop line instead of continuing on the main line.
“Unless there is deliberate interference in the system, it is impossible that a route set for the main line is switched to the loop line,” PTI quoted a Railways official saying. Officials say that such preliminary inquiry necessitated a CBI probe, but it also catapulted misleading narratives online. Apart from targeting a particular community, citing other train-related incidents, right-wing accounts also alleged such acts were easier to pull off in southern India which has a larger share of non-BJP states.
A Twitter user alleged that despite having the 'Kavach system,' India's indigenously developed automatic train protection, the crash was not a mere coincidence and was part of a larger "conspiracy" by those who propagate "train jihad." However, the Indian Railways issued a statement that the Kavach system had not yet been installed on the railway line where the incident occurred.
Although thousands of online users alleged a larger conspiracy in the accident, many users also mocked the claims in anticipation of its emergence, given the current context of how 'jihad' is used.
The most widely shared post was a tweet questioning whether multiple railways incidents were a coincidence by entrepreneur Arun Pudur that had over 772k views and 3,600 retweets. To the comments below the tweet, Pudur replied, “They tried in Gujarat also and failed. In between non-BJP states are safer for these people to operate. 2024 is around the corner.”
In his tweet, Pudur listed the fire on the Alappuzha-Kannur Executive Express train last week in which a man called Pushwant Singh was arrested. While the police are probing the incident, the user’s claim that the “plan was a huge blast from the fuel tank that could flatten the area” remain unsubstantiated.
Another incident raised when claiming sabotage was the halting of Chennai-bound Kanyakumari Superfast Express after it hit one of the two lorry tires placed on a railway track in Tamil Nadu. Police officials said the occurrence of the incident shortly after the Balasore accident led to further rumor-mongering, The Indian Express reported.
Similarly, a 2022 video of an LPG cylinder found under a train went viral online, claiming it was placed there by a Muslim man. Narratives alleging plans to sabotage the railways nationwide went viral days after the tragic Odisha derailment. However, Haldwani Railway Police had registered a complaint against a person named Gangaram for throwing a cylinder on the track, Logically Facts found.
Another communal claim alleged a Muslim station master working near Balasore was on the run. While some falsely implied a “conspiracy” by misidentifying an ISKON temple near the railway tracks as a mosque.
For more, here is a round-up of claims Logically Facts debunked.
This is not the first time fringe groups and right-wing sympathizers have blamed Indian Muslims for an incident.
Love Jihad, the first among the conspiracy jihad variants, is routinely used to allege a pattern to interfaith marriages involving a Muslim man; or crimes of passion and patriarchal crimes involving Muslims. Love jihad is a far-right conspiracy theory that was first floated by Hindutva groups in the south Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka. The theory is based on the idea that Muslim men entrap Hindu women by feigning love and forcing them into marriage solely to convert them to Islam.
Fear-mongering and widespread reach of the conspiracy led to the passing of ‘anti-conversion’ laws in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Madhya Pradesh. The conspiracy theory is regurgitated repeatedly, and each supporting incident adds legitimacy. The spread of ‘love jihad’ as a narrative has given rise to the counter-narrative of a ‘Bhagwa Love Trap’ or ‘saffron love trap’ where Hindu men are accused of luring Muslim women. Recently, cricketer Yash Dayal shared a meme on his Instagram page on love jihad. He subsequently apologized and said that he respected all communities.
In April 2020, when the lockdowns were imposed, the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat was widely covered by mainstream media as a COVID-19 ‘super-spreader’ event. The Islamophobic narrative accompanying reportage included ‘thook jihad’ or jihad using spit.
Social media users called for a boycott of all Muslim fruit sellers and vendors, alleging they were purportedly spitting on fruits and vegetables to spread COVID-19. At Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar’s funeral, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan was accused of spitting on her body when he was actually offering prayers.
Such online narratives saw offline consequences. Two Muslim vendors were harassed and stopped from selling vegetables in Uttar Pradesh in months following the onset of the first wave of COVID-19, while others were accused of indulging in the alleged spit jihad, to name a few.
Political leaders and celebrities further legitimize these narratives by referencing them in their public statements. Speaking at a natural farming convention, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswas made a veiled statement referring to the Bengali-Muslim farmers of Darrang district engaging in ‘fertilizer jihad’ a relatively novel coinage of the jihad conspiracy theory to single out one of the largest vegetable growing communities of Assam.
The 2022 Silchar floods in Assam saw social media rife with the term ‘flood jihad,’ with Biswas repeatedly denying that the flood was a natural occurrence and was caused deliberately by breaking an embankment three kilometers upstream of Silchar.
In 2022, a Logically investigation found a network of Telegram groups creating a content repository targeting Indian Muslims. The groups were subdivided according to topics. While the first group enunciated the ill effects of love jihad, the secondary groups propagated ‘education jihad’ referencing the Mughal and Islamic history in school curriculums prescribed by the Indian government.
Other groups in the network were dedicated to ‘land jihad’ and hijab jihad. Land jihad refers to the land owned by Waqf boards, a religious body. Recently, Uttarakhand state Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhammi, while making a statement about land encroachment, said he would not allow ‘land jihad’ to succeed.
Similarly, the 2022 Karnataka hijab row over the rights Muslim girls to cover their heads in educational institutions was countered by Hindu extremists wearing saffron scarves on campus. The hate groups uncovered in our investigation highlighted narratives stating that Muslim women do not want to wear a Hijab but are being forced to.
Similar to Telegram groups, in March 2020 prime time news anchor Sudhir Choudhary had infamously notified a graphic explaining the various types of jihad for Zee News that Newslaundry reported was lifted from a Facebook group called ‘Boycott Halal in India.’
A Hindi version of this graphic was used on Chaudhary's prime time show
These polarizing narratives begin on closed forums and groups and then subsequently make their way onto mainstream social media, where it enters public discourse. As seen in the case of the train jihad incident, there is no truth to the theories purporting that this is an act of jihad. Instead, it serves as a convenient adaptation of a readily available conspiracy theory to spread falsehoods and hatred against Muslims in India.