India has long experience of terror and how to deal with it. So it came as a bit of a surprise on Friday when the Delhi Police used an unidentified Twitter account purporting to belong to Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the Lahore-based Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, as an example of “seditious anti-national rhetoric”.
The tweet by @HafeezSaeedJUD expressed support for “our pro-Pakistani JNUites brothers”, seemingly a reference to the incident at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University last week at which “anti-national” slogans were allegedly chanted. Those slogans resulted in Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar being arrested on charges of sedition.
It didn’t take long for people to point out that the tweet itself looked like it had come from a fake or parody account, making the common jingoist argument that JNU’s student body was pro-Pakistani, anti-national and so on. A report by Praveen Swami in the Indian Expresspoints out that intelligence and police sources had no evidence to link the @HafeezSaeedJUD to the real Hafiz Saeed. Most glaringly, the Twitter account used by Delhi Police misspelt Saeed’s own name, using “Hafeez” instead of the correct “Hafiz”.
Soon after, however, Home Minister Rajnath Singh also divined the insidious hand of Hafiz Saeed in the JNU protest. “What happened at JNU has been fully supported by Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed,” Singh said. Requests by the Opposition to provide a source for the intelligence met with the opaque reply that they were “based on inputs from different agencies”.
This non-answer obviously left many quite unsatisfied. The Delhi Police, on its part, refused to reply to queries about whether they knew that the account they used was really Saeed’s.
The final act came on Monday when Hafiz Saeed himself put out a video statement of him denying that he had tweeted out anything in regard to the JNU protest and denying any involvement in it at all.
In spite of this, the Delhi Police got back into the game and ominously announced that it was monitoring Twitter for “blasphemous” tweets. After the arbitrary arrest of Kumar for sedition, what the Delhi Police considers “blasphemous” is still uncertain.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power as a result of a hugely effective social media campaign. Unfortunately, it seems that after assuming office, social media has come to dominate governance itself. The Delhi Police’s act of publicly broadcasting a tweet without any verification was highly irresponsible. Even more so was the home minister’s attempt to connect the JNU protests to a known Pakistani terrorist.
Attempts to spuriously involve Hafiz Saeed in what is ultimately a minor matter of a few students shouting slogans could cost India’s credibility dearly. The widespread scepticism of the home minister’s claims within the country itself does not bode well for India’s case against Saeed internationally. The fact that Saeed actually put out a statement on this shows how he thinks the Delhi Police’s use of an unconfirmed tweet to jump to conclusions in the JNU case is working to his advantage.
Moreover, the hysterical reaction of the Delhi Police and Union government has set of a chain reaction that might prove difficult to contain. Already, a gang of men in lawyer’s robes beat up journalists, students and professors at Delhi’s Patiala Court on Monday afternoon as Kanhaiya Kumar was produced in court. One of the assailants was a BJP MLA.
Social media and BJP politics
This isn’t the only case where the BJP and the Union government have mistaken Twitter for the real world. In the January violence in Malda, West Bengal, tweeters drove the initial reaction to it, painting it as a massive incident of communal violence, rather than the criminal act it was. Moreover, the BJP has openly endorsed Twitter trolls, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with a few abusive but influential pro-BJP tweeters last year.
As the economy slows down and poll season approaches (four major states have elections scheduled in April), the BJP is obviously banking on identity politics to boost its chances. In this, Twitter, it seems, will play a big part – even if that needs to involve fake Hafiz Saeed accounts as a bogeyman to fix political rivals.