August Madness: For the Record
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

The tragic past of couple of months culminated with an insecure UPA, led by Sonia Gandhi, blocking twitter handles, blogs and websites. National security was cited as the reason behind this move.

The censorship issue clearly separated the wheat from the chaff as twitter celebrities and New Delhi’s TV channel anchors started waffling on the issue of free speech. Nitin Pai, Editor of Pragati Magazine, supported free speech first but then also justified this censorship citing “extraordinary situations”. Barkha Dutt first feigned ignorance & then displayed cynicism despite Kanchan Gupta and Sadanand Dhume providing her the evidence on twitter. But all was not gloomy. Sadanand Dhume, Venky Vembu & Salil Tripathi with their columns and Rajiv Mantri with his blistering tweets gave something to cheer. But what were these “extra-ordinary situations” which could have justified blocking twitter handles & blogs of right wing activists, bloggers & journalists? To understand these “extra-ordinary” situations, we must revisit the events of the recent past.

This brief review of recent history is heavily secularized in anticipation of Kapil Sibal’s censorship and to avoid offending religious sensibilities of a few minorities who in the words of their apologists, cower in fear. My government on the other hand tells me that not secularizing facts can lead to riots. So here’s a quick recap.

1. July 21, 2012: ——- vs Delhi Police & New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC, New Delhi)

A ——- mob clashed with cops & NDMC officials overseeing a court mandated demolition of an illegal structure. 10 policemen were injured during these riots which saw youth setting a police motorcycle on fire. They also set fire to two NMDC buses. (Source) 

2. July 22, 2012: ——- vs Bodos (Kokrajhar, Assam)

The riots began with the killing of four Bodos by ——-, suspected to be illegal
Bangladeshi immigrants. This made the Bodos retaliate. The ensuing riots led to death of more than 70 people while lakhs were displaced. (Source)

3. August 1, 2012: Indian Mujahideen (IM) vs the People of Pune (Pune, Maharashtra)

Terrorist group IM unsuccessfully tried to set off multiple bombs on a busy road in Pune. Fortunately, the bombs were defective and didn’t cause much damage. Aashish Dixit, a TV anchor with IBN Lokmat alleged that this was the handiwork of “Hindu terrorists”. Another reporter, Neeta Kolhatkar promptly responded and agreed with the claim that Pune blasts were the handiwork of “Hindu Terrorists”. Despite repeated requests by people on twitter, both Neeta and Aashish have not apologized for indulging in irresponsible speculation even as the investigations were in progress. As more details emerged, the needle of suspicion pointed towards IM which draws its support from disgruntled ——-. (Source) 

4. August 8, 2012 ——- vs Students from Northeastern States

Perpetually outraged —— youth in Pune viciously attacked students from northeast.  Since they couldn’t tell the difference between Bodos and non-Bodo northeasterners, they went after everyone who they thought could be from Assam.

 5. August 11, 2012 ——- vs Mumbai Police, monuments & vehicles (Mumbai, Maharashtra)

A rally organized to protest the Kokrajhar riots & Burma riots…oh yeah. I forgot to mention. Somewhere in Burma, Rohingya Muslims  clashed with local Buddhists and the resulting riots spiraled out of control. The tragic incident cost many lives. Coming back to Mumbai; to protest the killings of their co-religionists in Burma and Assam, a large number of ——- protested in Mumbai. The protest turned violent and the mob brutally attacked Mumbai Police, molested female cops, tried to blow up a bus full of cops, snatched a policeman’s rifle, tried to take a policeman hostage and desecrated the Amar Jawan memorial (memory of the unknown soldier) with a cross batted pull shot (Photo of the perpetrator on the right has been secularized to avoid incitement).

6. August 14, 2012 ——- vs Tibetan

Again, perpetually outraged ——- youth in Mysore viciously attacked a Tibetan confusing him for a Bodo from Assam.

 7August 15, 2012 SMS enabled ——- vs Northeasterners

While India was celebrating its Independence Day, rumors started to spread about threat to people from northeastern states working/studying in Bangalore, Pune & Hyderabad. Scared, northeasterners started fleeing these cities to head back home. Hindu Nationalist organizations like the RSS and VHP swung into action & tried to persuade the fleeing north easterners to stay back. This gesture came as a big shock to Islamic apologists who have for long nurtured a particular brand of public discourse and loath every effort made to change it even slightly. Sensing a Sangh-led PR coup, the apologists launched their own devious counterattack. There are three main characters who attempted this counter attack:

  • S Vardarajan of The Hindu: He did not like what he saw. So he acted & acted quickly. He got hold of a Marxist, Rajkumar Johnson (Rajkumar claims he’s a Marxist on his twitter profile) to weave a different narrative and the comrade obliged. The Hindu, through this interview and with Rajkumar Johnson’s help insinuated that the rumors were spread by the Sangh Pariwar. Funnily, Rajkumar Johnson admits in the same interview that his own landlord (from the same cowering minority community) asked him to “stay away for two or three weeks”.  While the landlord’s intention may be good, it makes it abundantly clear that the landlord himself does not have much faith in his coreligionists to not create a problem. On being countered on twitter by veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta, S Vardarajan backtracked a little and pointed a finger at Pakistan’s ISI. Coincidentally, the Government of India also blamed the western neighbor for starting the rumors and asked it to curb provocative hate content posted on Pakistani websites which could incite Indian ——-. It is not clear if a dossier was provided or not.
  •  Barkha Dutt of NDTV: While facts were still hazy, controversial media celebrity and TV anchor Barkha Dutt, in her characteristic style introduced her own theory that right wingers on social media (and who by pure coincidence also happen to be her sharpest critics) were to be blamed. Barkha Dutt tweeted to Dhanya Rajendran (latter was at Bangalore railway station while the action was happening): “sadly I think twitter fanned the flames“. Dhanya seemed much more balanced and trashed Barkha’s theory. For more on Barkha’s reactions, please refer to this four part “Strorify” series: http://storify.com/barbarindian.
  • Mihir Sharma of Business Standard: Mihir picked up a tweet by a certain…..,okay, I am not going to name the youth lest I reveal his religious identity. So Mihir picked up this random tweet from a random tweeple and without ascertaining facts, retweeted it. This tweet blamed RSS for the Bangalore exodus. See BarbarIndian’s “Storify” post for the actual tweets. 

 To be fair, these three weren’t alone. A few other TV anchors and reporters like Sagarika Ghose and Nikhil Wagle also chipped in with their wild theories blaming the RSS for spreading rumors. Since then, S Vardarajan, Barkha and Mihir (and the others) have been facing one setback after the other. Police in Pune, Bangalore & Coimbatore have arrested a dozen youth belonging to the, yes, emotionally sensitive —— community both for physical attacks as well as for sending threatening text messages (sms) to northeasterners. These arrests have completely demolished the narrative that the trio might have hoped to build. Besides, no security agency seems to have pointed a finger at twitter yet. All investigations seem targeted at text messages and videos transmitted through MMS.

8. August 17, 2012 ——- vs Idol of Mahavir

After their prayers on this ill-fated day, ——- let loose their wrath on a statute of Mahavir besides destroying public property. The youth thought it was a statue of Gautam Buddha (the Burma-Buddhist connection) and tried to deface it, very similar to how Rahul Gandhi’s Youth Congress tried to burn copies of Times of India to protest a scathing cover story on PM Manmohan Singh not knowing that the story was actually published by the Time Magazine.

This torrid journey has revealed some very interesting facts:

  1. ——- in large numbers rioted across various cities (not limited to the ones listed above) for some real and some really imagined atrocities eventually leading to exodus of thousands of northeasterners from Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.
  2. Barkha Dutt, S Vardarajan, Mihir Sharma and others like them, without ANY evidence, spread canards blaming the RSS for sending threatening messages to northeasterners.
  3. The Hindu community in general (except the Bodos) did not get provoked despite some serious provocations including desecration of two very sacred symbols, the Mahavir statue and the Amar Jawan Memorial.

Mainstream journalists critical of the government like Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor, and right-wing/center-right bloggers like BarbarIndian and Dosabandit were blocked for a yet to be determined reason. It is ironic that blogger BarbarIndian was blocked shortly after he proved how Barkha Dutt and Mihir Sharma were spreading rumors. Interestingly, he also nipped a false video in the bud just a day before his twitter account was blocked (the video showed a graphic incident in Indonesia but was being attributed to Assam.)

So let me ask the question again. What extraordinary circumstances are these that justify a block on not those who were spreading vicious canards, but on those who were busting them? I think the answer is pretty clear. These are extraordinary circumstances not from a national security perspective but a political perspective. It is nothing but political vendetta.

The jury is still out on the theory that some mainstream journalists and twitter celebs colluded in drawing a hit list which led to 20 twitter handles being blocked but it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

Update (August 26, 2012):  Soon after this blog went online, three very important developments have taken place:

  1. Arvind Kejriwal and his 100 followers were tear gassed and lathi charged for protesting the Coalgate scandal near the PM’s residence in New Delhi.  Some IAC protestors in Bhopal also got the same treatment. Compare this with the 30,000 Mulsims who went on a rampage across India. Tear gas and water cannons were not used because the police feared a “flare up”. In fact, the Mumbai Police commissioner was caught on tape asking his DCP to release a man who was nabbed red-handed during the rioting.  Teesta and Javen Anand promptly wrote a column praising the Mumbai police for Mumbai Police’s magnanimous gestures. There is absolutely no doubt that thrashing Arvind Kejriwal’s followers will not lead to a “flare up” just like there was no “flare up” after the cold blooded murder of Rajbala last year when Delhi police rained blows on sleeping protestors.  The fear of flare up is pretty much restricted to the Religion of Peace. (Source)
  2. Barkha Dutt crafted a show on New Delhi’s Television to justify censorship of social media (read right wing bloggers) on a day when Bangalore police arrested a Muslim for sending a whopping 8,000 threatening text messages to northeasterners. Try and beat that on the brazenness meter. Again, RSS was being blamed for this very crime and those who blamed the RSS or Tajinder Singh Bagga have gone into the Manmohan Singh mode. (Source)
  3. On August 25, 2012, former Additional Secretary (R&AW), B Raman, a bitter critic of right wing tweeple and bloggers, made some revealing points on twitter. He claimed that certain Hindu sites were blocked by the government to portray an “objective and secular” image (the root cause of all ills of Indian politics). He also tweeted that “intelligence agencies did not have a ready list since they were watching only Muslim and not Hindu sites. In trying to prepare a Hindu list for blocking in a hurry, they made fools of themselves”. A few hours later while responding to Sadanand Dhume’s tweet (The real scandal of #India’s Internet crackdown is not the government targeting its opponents, but journalists opposing free speech),  B Raman tweeted: Real scandal is role played by some so-called secular journos in getting some Hindu tweeter sites blocked. I see the jury heading back in, we may get a verdict soon.

Finally, a message to TV anchors and newspaper editors: In the long run, there are no secrets (apologies to Keynes). One day, like the radia tapes, the ugly role of TV anchors and newspaper editors in censoring social media will also tumble out.