From Prime Minister Narendra Modi down to the average citizen, the scourge of fake news is ravaging India's public discourse.

As with many other parts of today’s web-connected world, India too frequently is rocked by spurious and outright fake news. Worse, mainstream politicians use adulterated information to score a political point or win arguments. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week picked out, what he probably thought was a juicy quote from the former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir Omar Abdullah during a speech in Parliament to the effect that a massive earthquake would divide Kashmir from India if the special status to the “state” were revoked.

For Modi and the ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP (Indian Peoples’ Party), Abdullah’s quote came in handy as the prime minister used it to justify the controversial detention of the former chief minister.

The only problem? Abdullah never made that statement. 

It turned out that Modi had taken that information from a satirical piece on a website called “Faking News”. It was carried in May 2014, the year the prime minister was voted into power, and a full five years before the special status to Kashmir was abrogated.

On August 5 last year, in a dramatic move, the federal BJP government removed the special status for Kashmir. Simultaneously, it cut off all internet and communication links in Kashmir and arrested scores of mainstream politicians. Among them were three former chief ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. These three and most others continue to remain in detention. 

On Wednesday, the Modi government announced the three would continue to be held in custody under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a harsh law that in the past had been used to detain suspected militants and protesters in Kashmir.

What is significant is the use of the fake quote that initially stunned the opposition in Parliament. For that moment, its purpose was served. After that, when independent fact-checkers found it was a false quote, the media did cover it extensively, but the original damage had been done.  

Since 2014, India has seen a surge in fake news effectively contaminating the flow of information to a point where consumers of news do not know what to believe and what to discount.   

In fact, in today’s political discourse, fake news no longer evokes strong reactions, and instead, most are resigned to this as part of everyday existence. 

However, it has caused massive damage, and people have been murdered over fake news. In mid-2017, a scare over child kidnappers spread like wildfire across India. The result: at least 33 cases of murder and over 99 cases of attacks triggered by rumours of child-lifting alone in 2017-18.  

Incidentally, before 2017, only one incident was reported in 2012, according to the data-centric portal, IndiaSpend.

Political parties, unfortunately, have used fake news to their advantage without qualms. For example,  the term “tukde-tukde” gang (literal meaning, a gang that breaks up)  has become part of the dialect of the ruling establishment – the BJP, its affiliates and its supporters. 

The terminology arose from a student demonstration at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016. A group of students had organised a protest questioning the judicial hanging of a Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru for masterminding the armed attack on the Indian Parliament building in 2016. A section of India’s intelligentsia, including students, have always expressed doubts over whether real justice was done in that case. 

During the protests organised by a left-leaning student’s organisation, the opposition right-wing students alleged that some among the agitators had called for the “break up” (tukde in Hindi) of India.  

A few were arrested based on these allegations. However, there was no video footage corroborating the claims, and eventually, all those arrested were released on bail. The police, until now, have not been able to file their findings to support the allegations.  

During the furore that the event triggered the students were termed the “tukde-tukde” gang. Even though no evidence has been found to corroborate the allegation, the term is used pejoratively against anyone who opposes the BJP, or its government. 

Interestingly, an individual recently under the Right to Information (RTI) sought an official response from the Home Ministry (the ministry of interior) wanting to know details about the “tukde-tukde” gang. The reply categorically stated it had no information on it. Which obviously means that the ruling BJP and its supporters have been using this disregarding the fact that no one made any such statement in the first place.

Not that fake news did not exist before, but with its massive amplification through social media, many of the false news stories that were created long ago but remained in limited circulation, have today soared reaching fresh audiences and playing a massive role in influencing public opinion.

In the case of the tukde-tukde issue, a few mainstream media channels played out a video where the students were purported to be shouting these slogans. But it was quickly debunked as doctored footage. This part of the story has quietly been buried and even now, four years since the event at the university, many believe that such “anti-national” slogans were indeed raised.  

In television debates and articles, the term tukde-tukde is used by BJP or other right-wing panellists to push the opposition on the defensive.

There are countless other spurious news nuggets that today roam cyberspace filling many a  gullible mind with wrong information. Another widely circulated nugget questions the antecedents of the Nehru family which ruled India for several years after Independence.  

A pet hate figure for the Hindu right, sections of the BJP alleged that the Nehru family is actually Muslim. During a recent debate in parliament, a BJP member referred to former Congress president and member of the Nehru family as “Rahul Feroze Khan”.

While there is nothing wrong if Rahul was indeed Muslim, the reference is a complete lie. The Nehru family’s history is well documented, and the members of the family belong to the Hindu “Pandit” community from Kashmir. However, the false news about the family’s background has been in circulation for years, and the BJP MP’s reference in parliament only shows that the information is still doing the rounds, misleading many.

Unfortunately, until now, it has not been possible to punish those who spew fake news and wilfully circulate them. With representatives of the ruling BJP establishment, including those right at the top, seemingly benefiting from the circulation of false news, it is no surprise that the laws continue to remain lax. 

The result: when the prime minister is leading the charge on disseminating fake news, then anyone can say anything about anybody, never mind if its fake, often with catastrophic consequences.

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