Anti-Muslim Social Media Posts: India is the Epicenter of Global Islamophobia

 India has just 5.75% of global Twitter users but the country accounts for 55% of all anti-Muslim tweets, according to a recent report entitled "Islamophobia in the Digital Age" published by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV). It also found that the US, the UK, and India contributed a staggering 86% of anti-Muslim content on Twitter during a three-year period. It should be noted that both the US and the UK have a sizable  Indian diaspora infected by hateful Hindutva ideology. 

India Accounts For 55% of Islamophobic Tweets. Source: ICV

Individuals and organizations connected to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) are active users of social media. They are working to promote India's divisive Islamophobic politics among the Non Resident Indians (NRIs) and their children. Hundreds of the RSS shakhas (branches) are now found in at least 39 countries around the world. Hindutva is a Hindu supremacist ideology inspired by 20th century Fascism and Nazism in Europe; it is very different from the ancient Hindu faith, according to American history professor Audrey Truschke who teaches Indian history at Rutgers University in the US state of New Jersey. Top Indian economists have raised alarm about it.  

India has only 23 million Twitter users, 5.75% of 400 million Twitter users worldwide, but Indians generate more than half of all Islamophobic tweets in the world.  Numbers published in Twitter’s advertising resources indicate that Twitter had 3.40 million users in Pakistan in early 2022. ICV counted 15,766 Islamophobic tweets geolocated to Pakistan in a three year period.

Executives at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, recently told human rights groups that they wouldn’t release the full India Hate Speech study for their own security. An earlier 2020 company study concluded that Hindutva groups support violence against Muslims and Christians & should be banned from the platform, according to the Wall Street Journal. Here's an excerpt of the Wall Street Journal story:

"Meta has for years faced criticism from rights groups and has been probed by authorities regarding the presence of hate speech on its platforms in India, where more than 300 million people use Facebook and more than 400 million are on its WhatsApp messaging service. Meta has said it invests significantly in technology to find hate speech across languages in India. In 2020, Meta’s safety team concluded that a Hindu nationalist organization in India supported violence against minorities and likely qualified as an organization that should be banned from Facebook, the Journal reported that year. Facebook didn’t remove the group following internal security-team warnings that doing so might endanger both its business prospects and staff in India". 


Rana said…

Rana Ayyub
Dear Indian Hindu, including the silent well meaning, you are as complicit in the genocidal hate against Muslims in India coz you see it every single day and yet you do NOTHING. You see your best friends, your neighbours who are muslims being dehumanised and yet you remain quiet
Riaz Haq said…
Rana Ayyub
To the world that continues to give Narendra Modi a free pass. Indian foreign minister
says that the western press is out to discredit Modi. In the last two days in India, there have been calls for economic boycott & genocide of Muslims by government lawmakers.
Riaz Haq said…
Hindutva and the shared scripts of the global right

The forum on “Hindutva and the shared scripts of the global right,” curated by Supriya Gandhi (Yale University) and edited by Mona Oraby (TIF editor and Howard University), examines the rise of far-right movements and actors through a global lens with Hindutva and the Hindu right at the center of this inquiry. As Gandhi states in her introductory essay to the forum, “these movements do not exist in silos but, rather, frequently feed into each other.” On the other hand, Gandhi also makes clear that differences between emerging forms of authoritarianism are significant to scholarly and public debate on this topic, suggesting that “the questions and problems examined here include asking how supremacist projects, such as Hindutva and white nationalism, may reinforce each other even as they also diverge.” The contributors to this forum urge scholars and the public to consider how far-right movements are born in local environs but also converge into a global phenomenon.


Dr. Audrey Truschke
Like white nationalism, Dr. Gandhi points out, Hindutva crosses borders. The gravest consequences are in India, and she highlights here Hindutva persecution of Muslims, environmental degradation, and more.


Dr. Audrey Truschke
In introducing a series of essays, Dr. Gandhi argues for identifying convergences and divergences between "supremacist projects, such as Hindutva and white nationalism."

Contributors to this forum will write on Turkey, Brazil, and other sites of authoritarian projects.


Dr. Audrey Truschke
One really important point that Dr. Gandhi makes is positing the analytical place of Hindutva in understanding other supremacist movements --

"Hindutva holds up a multifaceted mirror reflecting the complex web of connections between the global right." #Hindutva

Riaz Haq said…
Dr. Audrey Truschke
The below tweet is steaming pile of Hindutva nonsense. I haven't done this in a while, but let's unpack, shall we?


Dr. Audrey Truschke
First of all sources -- Those making this ahistorical statement are not historians. Both men are Hindu Right ideologues, and the individual to whom the statement is attributed is a plagiarist and Savarkar sycophant.

What are they claiming and how does it hold up to scrutiny?


Dr. Audrey Truschke
There seems to be a claim of a single Islamic conquest of India. That's wrong.

Real story -- There were many Indo-Muslim dynasties who ruled parts of South Asia over the centuries. Some came from outside the subcontinent, and others did not. Nobody ever conquered all of India.


Dr. Audrey Truschke
I think we're talking here about early political conquests, because of the mention of Nalanda.

Here "Khalji" is said to have sacked Nalanda. Khalji is a dynastic name, so this would be a bit like saying "Tudor" or "Mughal" did something. Which Tudor? Which Mughal?


Dr. Audrey Truschke
I'm guessing (because some of us know both real South Asian history and Hindutva mythology pretty darn well) that he means Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji, a general who conducted raids and other military activities in Bihar in the late 12th–early 13th centuries.


Dr. Audrey Truschke
Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar hit various Buddhists sites, although there isn't especially strong or clear evidence that he sacked Nalanda specifically (a Buddhist monastery and site of elite learning).

I go into the evidence on this point here:

"I agree with Hodgson’s assessment of the lack of evidence for the proposition that Islam killed off Indian Buddhists or Indian Buddhism and also with
his contention that this narrative relies mainly on prejudices rather than facts.
Here I take up Hodgson’s call for “active revision” of the presumed destructive relationship between Islam and Buddhism by interrogating premodern
and modern limiting preconceptions.
I am far from the first scholar to take issue with the “Islam killed Indian
Buddhism” narrative, but my interests and interventions stand apart from earlier work in a few key ways. Several scholars have tried to undercut the assumption of a single-mindedly destructive relationship between Islam and
Buddhism by drawing attention to little known interactions between medieval Buddhists and Muslims. Johan Elverskog’s Buddhism and Islam is especially enlightening in this regard, but it ultimately takes us away from the
question of what happened to Indian Buddhism circa 1200, a query in which
I am invested. Scholars such as Jinah Kim and Arthur McKeown have presented new evidence about Indian Buddhist patronage and monks, respectively, in the early to mid-second millennium.11 I cite the insightful work
of both scholars here, but my lens is larger and more attuned to historiographic
and narrative issues. The idea that Islam violently undercut Indian Buddhism
cannot be overturned by new research alone because the theory does not rest"
Riaz Haq said…
Violent ethnic clashes in Leicester last year were stoked by Modi's Hindu nationalist party | Daily Mail Online

Ethnic community tensions on Britain's streets have been stoked by Indian political activists linked to Narendra Modi and his ruling Hindu nationalist party, UK security sources say.

The Mail on Sunday can reveal that elements close to Indian prime minister Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are suspected of having incited British Hindus to confront Muslim youths in last summer's explosive riots in Leicester.

A UK security source said there was evidence of BJP-linked activists using closed WhatsApp groups to encourage Hindu protesters to take to the streets.

But the source warned that this was only the 'most egregious' example of Indian Hindu nationalists using private social media posts to interfere in the UK.

He warned: 'So far, it's mainly local politics - Modi and his BJP doing that they would do in Gujarat [Mr Modi's home state] to get this or that local councillor elected.

But it has to be stopped before it spreads to attempts to influence our national politics.'

The claims are likely to provoke a diplomatic storm between London and New Delhi at a time when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – himself a practising Hindu - is trying to seal a lucrative post-Brexit trade deal with India.

Last summer's ethnic disturbances in Leicester followed months of simmering tensions between newly-arrived Hindu immigrants and the city's settled Muslim residents, tarnishing its reputation as a beacon of racial harmony in Britain.

Violent clashes broke out between Hindu and Muslim youths after an India-Pakistan cricket match in late August, grabbing international media attention, particularly in India where it was spun as Muslims attacking Hindu residents.

This newspaper was told that India-based BJP activists then started to issue messages and memes which were widely circulated within WhatsApp groups among Hindus in Leicester.

Since the India-Pakistan cricket match on August 28, there were several nights of protests in Leicester until September 22, with marauding youths marching on the streets shouting 'Jai Shri Ram,' [Victory to Lord Ram], which has become the rallying cry of the BJP in India.

There were reports of attacks on Muslims and their homes, as well as attacks and vandalism against Hindu temples and homes.

The security source said the alleged interference appeared to be part of Mr Modi's desire to pose as the leader of Hindus across the world.

After last year's riots, several studies were done in examining the role of social media in stoking up the Leicester disturbances.

Think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a study showing, as the clashes broke out in Leicester, the Indian media depicted the trouble as Hindus coming under attacks from Muslims, with the violence blamed on 'Pakistani organised gangs.'

On Twitter, a new hashtag emerged, #HindusUnderAttackInUK, which was a variant on the well-known BJP mantra, #HindusUnderAttack.

The report also mentioned that, within days of the cricket match fallout, pro-BJP activists and influencers framed the clashes as Hindus being the sole victims.

Separately, a report conducted by the US-based Network Contagion Research Institute also showed evidence of so-called bot-farms operating out of India, which were retweeting messages on the Leicester disturbances on an industrial scale.

Charlotte Littlewood, an expert at the Henry Jackson Society think tank which investigated the riots, said that the disturbances begun as a result of tensions between newly-arrived Hindu youths from India and the more settled Muslim community.

Ms Littlewood said that, although the reasons for the clashes were local, when they hit the international media, foreign pro-BJP elements began escalating the tensions for their own ends.
Riaz Haq said…
Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

By Gerry Shih

MUDBIDRI, India — At first, the WhatsApp messages touted roads paved, schools built, free food distributed to the poor — all the usual pitches from a government during election season. But as May drew closer, the messages turned darker.

One viral post that landed in Sachin Patil’s iPhone listed the names of 24 local Hindu men it said were murdered by Muslims. Another mass message warned of Hindu girls being groomed by Muslim men to join the Islamic State. Yet another viral post that reached Patil made an urgent appeal to vote: “If the BJP is here, your children will be safe. Hindus will be safe.”

By the time election day arrived here in south India’s Karnataka state, Patil, a 25-year-old bank teller in a sleepy village outside Mangaluru, said he was receiving 120 political messages a day in six WhatsApp groups. “They were definitely a reminder,” Patil said, to cast a ballot for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that governs India.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept into power nearly a decade ago. Since then, he has repeatedly rallied voters in this vast democracy and entrenched his party’s power by exploiting differences between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority.

The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and affiliated Hindu nationalist groups have been in the global vanguard of using social media for political aims — to advance their ideology and cement their grip over the world’s largest electoral democracy. They have perfected the spread of inflammatory, often false and bigoted material on an industrial scale, earning both envy and condemnation beyond India’s borders.

Central to the success of the BJP, a party with 180 million members, is a massive messaging machine built on top of U.S. social media platforms. It is part of a wider effort by the right-wing forces aligned with Modi to wield technology in various ways — and restrict its use by opponents — in pursuit of a Hindu nationalist agenda that seeks to marginalize religious minorities and suppress criticism.

As hate speech and disinformation in India have grown in recent years, Silicon Valley giants have at times tried to police this incendiary content. But often they have struggled — or willingly turned a blind eye.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has been aggressively courting India as a counterweight to China even as Modi has accelerated his country’s descent into autocracy. Just this month, the world’s attention was urgently focused on the conduct of the Modi government, after Canada alleged that Indian agents may have assassinated a prominent Sikh separatist on Canadian soil, again raising questions about the efforts of Western countries to draw closer to New Delhi.

This spring, Washington Post journalists spent several weeks in Karnataka as it was gearing up for elections and gained rare access to the vast messaging machinery and the activists who run it. In extensive interviews, BJP staffers and the party’s allies revealed how they conceive and craft posts aimed at exploiting the fears of India’s Hindu majority, and detailed how they had assembled a sprawling apparatus of 150,000 social media workers to propagate this content across a vast network of WhatsApp groups.
Riaz Haq said…
Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

Using this infrastructure, the party was able to send messages touting the BJP’s accomplishments and denigrating its opponent, the Indian National Congress party, directly into the pockets of hundreds of millions of people.

But beyond the party’s official online efforts, there was also a shadowy parallel campaign, according to BJP staffers, campaign consultants and party supporters. In rare and extensive interviews, they disclosed that the party quietly collaborates with content creators who run what are known as “third-party” or “troll” pages, and who specialize in creating incendiary posts designed to go viral on WhatsApp and fire up the party’s base. Often, they painted a dire — and false — picture of an India where the nation’s 14 percent Muslim minority, abetted by the secular and liberal Congress party, abused and murdered members of the Hindu majority, and where justice and security could be secured only through a vote for the BJP.

Today, India is WhatsApp’s largest market, with more than 500 million users. Social media researchers, government officials and WhatsApp itself have acknowledged the platform’s potential as a tool to fan polarization and stoke violence. But precisely what goes on within the BJP’s WhatsApp ecosystem has long been a mystery to political scientists and opposition parties, which have struggled to replicate the party’s digital success.

Part 1: Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalist allies have built a massive propaganda machine, with tens of thousands of activists spreading disinformation and religiously divisive posts via WhatsApp. Parent company Meta says WhatsApp cannot monitor content, no matter how inflammatory.
Part 2: Social media giants have been reluctant to police Indian content that violates their terms of service. After Facebook discovered a vast influence operation using fake accounts secretly operated by the Indian army, some company employees moved to shut it down, but executives in the New Delhi office stalled the action.

Part 3: A new generation of Hindu vigilantes frequently stream their armed attacks against Muslims on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, amassing large followings and winning BJP protection. While rights activists have repeatedly flagged hateful influencers to social media companies, the accounts are rarely removed.
The Indian government has become increasingly aggressive in restricting online criticism and dissent, frequently ordering social media companies to take down posts and blocking the internet altogether in areas with significant dissension. More stories to come.

“Other parties in India have tried this. We’ve seen it in other countries like Brazil. But WhatsApp was really mastered first, and at scale, by the BJP,” said Rutgers University professor Kiran Garimella, who has studied WhatsApp’s role in Indian politics. “It requires resources, planning, investment, a top-down belief in building this infrastructure. But 99 percent of what’s happening in these groups is off-limits. We have no visibility at all.”

On the breezy, palm-lined coast of Karnataka, few trolls had more influence than “Astra,” which means “weapon” in Sanskrit. Most BJP party workers said they did not know Astra’s real identity, but many spoke glowingly about his fiery reputation.

Astra cranked out polarizing WhatsApp posts that would be shared over and over in coastal Karnataka — like those that eventually reached Patil, the bank teller. Astra was courted by local BJP candidates whenever they launched their campaigns, although he rarely spoke at rallies. Astra was such a militant voice on the internet that even BJP leaders feared being accused by him of being too moderate toward Muslims.

“Pages like Astra are much bigger than the official BJP accounts,” said Sudeep Shetty, who heads social media for the BJP in Udupi district. “They’re our secret weapon.”

Riaz Haq said…
Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

“Pages like Astra are much bigger than the official BJP accounts,” said Sudeep Shetty, who heads social media for the BJP in Udupi district. “They’re our secret weapon.”

On a sultry morning in April, with the election still a month away, Astra emerged from his office, an airless, converted college dormitory overlooking a dirt cricket field. He pressed his palms together in a traditional Hindu greeting and introduced himself.

In person, Astra wasn’t as fearsome as he was by reputation. He was a willowy, bespectacled 28-year-old, and his name, he said, was Sunil Poojary.

A vast army
Wedged between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountain range, the twin cities of Mangaluru and Udupi boast top universities and historic temples. Along tidy village roads, Muslim women cloaked in body-length black niqabs walk past Hindu priests resting under sacred fig trees. Ethnically and culturally diverse but conservative, affluent yet a hotbed of religious friction, the coast has always stood apart from the rest of Karnataka state.

In the 1980s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the paramilitary volunteer organization that serves as an umbrella for Hindu nationalist groups, swept in. The RSS built homes for poor tribes and fed the needy. It sent aspiring politicians into the BJP, its political wing. It established camps for youngsters and indoctrinated them in Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist ideology.

It funneled them into hard-line activist groups, most notably the Bajrang Dal, a group that accosted and beat up Muslims accused of smuggling cows, considered sacred in Hinduism. Gangs of Bajrang Dal members tracked down and forcibly separated interfaith couples, often accusing Muslim men of waging “love jihad,” and frequently clashed with Muslim activist groups.

While young men roiled the streets, political parties jockeyed at the ballot box. In the past seven years, the BJP and Congress — the two biggest parties — have battled on WhatsApp. (While Congress attracts some Muslim voters, its leadership happens to be predominantly Hindu.)

It was approaching noon one day this spring, and Ajith Kumar Ullal, the BJP’s social media head in Mangaluru, had been up for seven hours, barking orders over a droning air conditioner that struggled to match the south India heat.

Ullal, 59, worked out of a “war room” in the BJP’s gleaming downtown office, commanding a social media “cell” of nine volunteers responsible for an area in coastal Karnataka inhabited by 1.5 million people. The cell included his deputy, who serves as copywriter, and three graphic designers who combined text with photos and logos to craft rectangular picture posts, widely considered the most attention-grabbing and shareable format on WhatsApp.

Volunteer fieldworkers, who had combined phone numbers from voter registration rolls with information collected going door to door, added as many residents as possible to WhatsApp groups. All told, the BJP had 150,000 workers staffing WhatsApp just for the state election, according to Vinod Krishnamurthy, a former head of BJP social media for Karnataka.

Ullal, himself, belonged to 200 WhatsApp groups. Within an hour of seeding a new WhatsApp post, Ullal expected it to be spread to hundreds of thousands of residents in his coastal district. “Each and every BJP volunteer who has a mobile is a social media warrior,” he said.
Riaz Haq said…
Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

A revolution begins
This revolution in political communications started to stir in 2016, when the Reliance conglomerate entered the telecommunications sector and offered new customers unlimited free data, sparking a price war. Within three years, India’s mobile data went from among the most expensive to among the cheapest in the world.

Late that decade, BJP officials began assembling huge databases of phone numbers and seeking ways to streamline the messaging process, three former campaign officials recalled. During an election in Gujarat state, the party used software written in Python code that could hijack WhatsApp’s web interface to spread attack ads to tens of thousands of recipients with just a few clicks, according to an internal presentation seen by The Post.

WhatsApp’s engineers in 2018 introduced new limits on message-forwarding in India after witnessing the rise of fast-spreading rumors, which had led to mob killings and other tragic consequences. They also made technical changes to curb mass messaging.

So the BJP turned to its biggest strength: organizational discipline. “Everyone who wants to know how the BJP operates looks for hi-fi, extraordinary tech, and some of that exists,” said a former BJP campaign manager. “But the reality is, it’s mostly brute, manual labor.”

According to a field study conducted in 2020, Indian users told Meta researchers they “saw a large amount of content that encouraged conflict, hatred and violence” that was “mostly targeted toward Muslims on Whatsapp groups.” “Anti-Muslim rhetoric ... is likely to feature in upcoming elections,” warned the internal study, which was shared with The Post by whistleblower Frances Haugen. One former Meta employee who examined Indian elections said that the problem has been recognized internally for years but that executives have not found a solution to monitor or moderate a platform that is by design private.

In response to questions about what measures parent company Meta has taken to address divisive political material on WhatsApp, Meta spokeswoman Bipasha Chakrabarti said WhatsApp has limited message-forwarding and used spam-detection technology to prevent automated mass messaging.

When asked whether the company was aware of the online campaigns in Karnataka, Chakrabarti said: “WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption by default to protect people’s conversations, and that means that nobody — including WhatsApp — can read or listen to your message.” She declined further comment.

At the start of the campaign season, Ullal added The Post to one of his WhatsApp groups, and in the ensuing weeks, his team mostly disseminated traditional campaign messages about public services and government achievements. But as election day neared, the tenor of the campaign changed dramatically, and the WhatsApp group became strewn with incendiary posts and appeals to religious bigotry. Ullal compared it to cricket strategy. “In the last few overs,” he said, “that’s when you do the big hitting.”

One post likened Congress politicians to Tipu Sultan, an 18th-century Muslim king who is often vilified for allegedly butchering Hindus. Another post defended as a “victim of conspiracy” a Hindu vigilante who was arrested in March for allegedly beating a Muslim man to death.

Typically, BJP staffers didn’t create the inflammatory content, said Akshay Alva, Ullal’s deputy. But they spread it, anyway. “There are things we may not say, but the troll pages say it,” Alva said.

Riaz Haq said…
Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

A string of viral hits
Sunil Poojary pounded on his office desk.

“I don’t want beautiful videos. I want only content!” he shouted toward the next room, where Ashwini, his video editor, was struggling to keep up with the pace.

On this day in April, the BJP’s nominees for state assembly were registering their candidacies, officially kick-starting the election season, and Poojary, who led a team of four, was overwhelmed. New computers and streaming equipment for YouTube were still sitting unboxed in his windowless office. Using his three Android phones, Poojary needed to churn out a steady stream of image posts, stamp them with the Astra logo and blast them out to 30 WhatsApp groups.

In the past few days, Astra had scored a string of viral hits. Poojary had compared the election to a struggle between nationalists (the BJP) and terrorists (the Congress party). He disseminated a photo of a Muslim man groping a statue of a goddess worshiped by a community that’s considered a swing vote in the state. He also edited down a speech of a local Congress candidate, he admitted, to make it falsely seem that he was praising Muslim kings.

Poojary didn’t make money from the Astra posts, he said. But his social media exploits and his reach helped garner him an unusual level of influence for a 10th-grade dropout who had never held a regular job: The chief minister of Karnataka shared Astra posts on Facebook, and Poojary said he would get calls from other top government and party officials.

A writer, not a fighter
Poojary, who hails from an ethnic group that traditionally tapped coconut trees for sap, never expected this kind of success. When he was 7, Poojary recalled, the RSS arrived at his family’s remote two-acre farm carved out of the jungle. They asked to recruit him. His father said yes.

In the local RSS branch, young Sunil learned Hindu chants and nationalist songs. He performed military drills and practiced yoga. His formal schooling was derailed in the 10th grade when his father died, leaving him adrift, he said. But he had already found a family in the RSS and purpose in hard-line Hindutva.

Elders in Poojary’s RSS chapter diverted him into the Bajrang Dal, but he quickly knew he did not fit in with muscle-bound bruisers. When his Bajrang Dal gang would start drinking by the highway to steel themselves for ambushing cow transporters, Poojary would not drink or join in the beatings. When they roamed around looking to break up cases of “love jihad,” Poojary would urge what he considered restraint: “I would tell others, ‘Don’t hit the women.’”

Instead, he turned to writing, penning lengthy essays about Hindu mythology and Indian history, and self-publishing three books.

But nothing gave him the attention he desired until he found WhatsApp. In 2020, Poojary launched Astra and three other troll pages and learned to craft headlines, insert images using the free Android app Blend Collage and tweak colors for maximum virality. He reveled in the fact that people assumed the man behind Astra was a “gangster.”

“If people see me, they’ll see I’m slim and diminutive,” he said. “But I have a gift from God: Goddess Saraswati holds my hand and tongue.”

Braying for revenge
In April, the BJP’s state leadership sent shock waves along the coast by tapping a local businessman named Yashpal Suvarna as a candidate for the state assembly. In 2005, as a local leader of the Bajrang Dal group, Suvarna had become known after stopping two Muslims transporting cows in a truck, stripping them naked and parading them before reporters while police looked on.

Given Suvarna’s past as a thug, his campaign team was hoping to use WhatsApp to soften his image and showcase his “humility.” But Suvarna’s personal assistant Yatish felt unsure, so he called up the best social media whiz he knew: Astra.

Riaz Haq said…
Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

Poojary told the campaign that the strategy would not work. Up to a third of voters were young men, who liked an aggressive candidate, he reasoned. Furthermore, the Congress party was hinting that if elected, it would ban the Bajrang Dal. Suvarna’s team pivoted. It began sharing to about 1,000 WhatsApp groups strident posts bearing Suvarna’s face next to a menacing Lord Bajrangbali, the deity after which the Bajrang Dal is named, and boasting of his ties to the group.

Poojary also jumped into action. To boost the BJP campaign, he exploited a number of communal killings that had rattled Karnataka the previous summer.

In July 2022, a Muslim teenager was killed in an altercation with members of the Bajrang Dal. That led to the revenge killing of a BJP volunteer by local members of an Islamist militant group, according to Indian law enforcement. Poojary and several other right-wing influencers then spread material agitating for the volunteer’s death to be avenged.

Days later, around sundown on July 28, Mohammed Fazil, 23, was hacked to death by four masked men as he walked near a busy highway crossing north of Mangaluru. Police said Fazil was randomly targeted as a Muslim. At a Bajrang Dal rally, a Hindu nationalist leader openly boasted that Fazil was killed out of revenge. The role of the heated WhatsApp discourse in the violence remains unclear.

A perpetual ‘civilizational battle’
Looking back months later, Poojary said he believed that the anger circulating on WhatsApp had contributed to the bloodshed and that violence could be justified in the service of Hinduism.

Santosh Kenchamba, who runs the highly influential Rashtra Dharma troll page, said he also called for the revenge killing. He explained that it was part of a perpetual “civilizational battle” by online activists to help remake India into a Hindu state where Muslims knew their place.

As the election heated up in April, Poojary doubled down on spurious claims on WhatsApp that Muslims, abetted by the Congress party, had killed dozens of other Hindu activists.

One of the voters who received these pre-election messages was Patil, the bank teller. Lounging with friends outside a barbershop not far from where Fazil was killed, Patil, a middle-class young Hindu man with a taste for flower-print shirts and new iPhones, said he had known Fazil from school.

Patil said that while growing up, he did not think Fazil, or most Muslims, posed much of a threat. But over the past five years, Patil had become increasingly troubled by what he was seeing on WhatsApp about the danger Muslims allegedly posed, he said. He had heard anonymous voice recordings on WhatsApp that purported to be of Muslim extremists plotting to kill Hindus. As the May election approached, he received warnings about more violence if Congress won.

Patil did not question any of this disinformation. Instead, he and his friends, who said they consumed news only from WhatsApp, arrived at an inevitable conclusion.

“Hindus are in danger,” Patil said.

An unending struggle
With the campaign reaching fever pitch at the start of May, Modi landed on the coast to lead a teeming rally. Poojary stood in the heat, mostly bored as his hero spoke about the economy. But after an hour, Modi’s voice began to rise. His arms reached for the sky. Finally, he unleashed his fury over the Congress party’s proposal to ban the Bajrang Dal.

“When you press the button in the polling booth,” Modi thundered, “punish them by saying, ‘Hail, Lord Bajrangbali!’”

Riaz Haq said…

Inside the vast digital campaign by Hindu nationalists to inflame India

The crowd, including Poojary, erupted in rapture.

But even with the prime minister’s last-minute intervention, the statewide election proved to be a disappointment for the BJP. Television analysts said the party had been weakened, in part, by infighting among its leaders, and the Congress party gained enough seats to take control of the state legislature in Karnataka.

On a quiet street north of Mangaluru, Patil — who ultimately had voted for the BJP — worried about Hindus’ safety. With Congress now running the state, he said, “Muslims will be emboldened.”

But the shrill warnings that left Patil so alarmed had actually helped carry the day for the BJP along the coast. In this part of the state, where operatives such as Poojary and Ullal had filled voters’ screens with their divisive content, the BJP swept all but two of the 13 contested legislative seats. Down by the sea, roads were blanketed every 100 yards by banners congratulating one of the region’s rising stars, “Yashpal Suvarna, Member of the Legislative Assembly.”

Up in the red clay hills, Poojary seemed relieved. Five local BJP candidates he had supported on social media all won. But he was also worried, he admitted, that with Congress now controlling the state police, he might be charged with libel or spreading fake information.

Still, Poojary could not help continuing to stir the pot. The election had barely ended, and he was already spreading posts that compared the new Congress state government to Tipu Sultan, the Muslim oppressor. He warned, using an image of splattered blood, that a Hindu holy man had already been murdered near Bangalore.

In his windowless office, Poojary was still giving directions to his video editor and graphic designer every few minutes. His phone was still lighting up constantly with WhatsApp notifications.

“The Muslims have won,” he said, “for now.”

He excused himself, pressed his palms together in front of his heart, and went back to work.

Mohit Rao and Shams Irfan contributed to this report.

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