Nearly 300 Arrests In 6 Months; Inside Mamata Banerjee's War On 'Fake News'

Piyasree Dasgupta and Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
·21-min read
ASANSOL, INDIA - MAY 10: Image used for representational purposes only. (Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
ASANSOL, INDIA - MAY 10: Image used for representational purposes only. (Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Kolkata, WEST BENGAL — When BJP youth wing worker Kaushik Chakraborty posted a photoshopped image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee inside a large pothole on Facebook, three police vehicles soon arrived at his house and took him to the Barabani police station in Asansol. Chakraborty had picked up the news of a road caving in, and stated that illegal mining promoted by the Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was the reason behind it.

“The officers wanted me to hand over my phone but I did not want to do that. Last time, they seized both my phones and I am yet to get them back. Then they asked me to delete the photo, which I had to do to avoid being arrested again,” said Chakraborty, , who spent 20 days in jail before getting bail.

This was Chakraborty’s second arrest in 2020 over a social media post. In March, he was booked for another Facebook post in which he claimed Banerjee’s government was secretly cremating the bodies of Covid-19 victims to suppress the state’s coronavirus case count – a claim the government denied.

When Chakraborty was released from jail the second time, a couple of BJP workers turned up to receive him and shot a video extolling his virtues. A video of Chakraborty in a yellow t-shirt, a massive marigold garland coiled like a muffler around his neck, standing quietly as a colleague praised his ‘bravery’ started doing the rounds of social media in Asansol, a Bengal town which shares a border with Bihar.

The 25-year-old is one of at least 300 people arrested in West Bengal over the past five months on charges of spreading fake news, a significant number of whom are from the opposition BJP.

Fake news is a serious problem in India; in 2018, fake WhatsApp messages about child-trafficking rings triggered a spate of mob lynchings. Yet efforts to contain fake news are complicated by the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party is a major source of misinformation. As HuffPost India has previously documented, the BJP employs a dedicated in-house propaganda unit called the Association of Billion Minds (ABM), and controls a vast paid network of trolls who euphemistically call themselves the BJP’s IT Cell.

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Separate investigations by Boom Live and HuffPost India have documented how the BJP and ABM set up websites made to look like media webpages with the express purpose of spreading fake news durinng the Karnataka elections.

In Bengal, there is now a dangerous dynamic between well-resourced opposition BJP workers pushing out a torrent of palpably false and inflammatory information, and a West Bengal chief minister willing to use the state police and India’s draconian laws to crack down on any perceived criticism.

Political analysts pointed out that Banerjee’s blunt crackdown has also ensnared some people who have been intimidated or arrested by her police force for simply sharing jokes and satire – revealing how a cat-and-mouse game between the BJP and the TMC will possibly play out as the West Bengal assembly elections draw near.

Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking website Alt News, said that just like West Bengal became a prime target for misinformation ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, he expects another surge in fake news 2-3 months ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections.

“The spread of misinformation depends on political priorities. In 2019, West Bengal was a political priority for India’s ruling party. The state will again turn into a political priority, especially with the BJP emerging as the second-largest party in the state, ahead of the Assembly elections,” Sinha said.

While several senior BJP leaders and MPs told HuffPost India that their workers have been arrested for even cracking jokes on Banerjee, Gyanwant Singh, additional director general of Bengal Police said that the extent of spread of fake news aimed at creating communal turmoil in Bengal was “very high”. “This is not simple fake news that people shared because they were misled. This is purposeful, a concerted effort and aimed at creating something.” he said, though he did not accuse any particular political party of propagating it.

A POLL SUCCESS STORY

The BJP has made massive electoral gains in the years since Bengal last went to polls in 2016. That year, the BJP won only three of 294 seats; but in the general elections three years later, the BJP won18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats. As the Congress and once-powerful Communist Party of India (Marxist) struggle, the BJP is expected to give a tough fight to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) next year. With the coronavirus pandemic expected to pose restrictions on physical campaigning, social media will play an even bigger role in getting through to potential voters.

In West Bengal, BJP workers allege that they have been disproportionately targeted by the state government’s fight against fake news, while others, especially those belonging to the ruling Trinamool Congress, get off easy.

HuffPost India spoke to at least 8 BJP workers who have been arrested just this year alone over their social media posts, many of which contained palpably false information. While the police claimed that non-BJP workers have also been arrested, many are unwilling to speak openly about their experience, possibly due to fear that their case will be affected.

Arijit Roy, the BJP youth wing president of Asansol, a party stronghold which voted singer Babul Supriyo to the Lok Sabha two terms in a row, told HuffPost India that in 2020, at least 20 BJP workers from the Asansol constituency — several of whom are IT cell volunteers — have been arrested by the police.

“Not just the local police, the headquarters of Kolkata Police in Lalbazaar call up our party workers Arijit Roy, BJP youth wing president of Asansol

“Not just the local police, the headquarters of Kolkata Police in Lalbazaar call up our party workers,” he said, while admitting that most of these IT cell workers put up posts without verifying the information first. However, he brushed off the BJP’s responsibility in the matter, blaming the police for failing to find the root of the fake news.

“I want to point out that in most cases of arrest of our IT cell members, the police failed to trace the source of misinformation. Instead of trying to find out the source, they arrested our members. It is nothing but politics of vendetta,” said Roy.

Several BJP IT cell workers admitted to HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that they did share unverified and false news on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, though they claimed they weren’t aware of this at the time.

COMPLAINTS FROM MANY QUARTERS

Earlier this year, Bappa Chatterjee, a young BJP IT cell worker uploaded photos showing a signboard in Asansol Municipality — run by the TMC — with the information on it written in Hindi, Urdu and English. The post alleged that the state government has now ‘replaced’ Bengali with Urdu.

Chatterjee’s post came at a time when the TMC has pushed the pedal on Bengali sub-nationalism, trying to stoke ‘Bengali’ sentiments against the BJP, whose biggest leaders are mostly Hindi-speaking politicians. Within two days of the post being uploaded, policemen arrived at Chatterjee’s doorstep and told him that he was under arrest following a complaint lodged by the civic body. The municipality then took to Facebook to post a photo which showed the actual signboard, which had Bengali on top, followed by Hindi, Urdu and English.

Chatterjee insisted he had himself seen the signs at Asansol municipality, though he denied taking the photos he posted on Facebook. He told HuffPost India that the police grilled him for several hours, asking him where he got the photos from but he couldn’t give them the information. “I received so many WhatsApp messages every day from unknown numbers that it is difficult to keep track of who sent which photo. Besides, I keep deleting images. So, the source of the photo could not be ascertained,” he said.

When HuffPost India asked why he did not take his own photos when he claimed to have seen the signs, he said that was his “one big mistake”. “I should have kept the photos of the whole building,” he said, accusing the civic body of quickly replacing the signs after his Facebook post went ‘viral’.

A Trinamool Congress worker in Malda told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that after BJP won an unprecedented number of seats from Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Bengal, party workers reached a consensus that BJP’s social media machinery had entered spaces they had least expected them to. Complaints against BJP’s IT cell workers have been filed by the police, the cyber crime department of the Kolkata Police, the Detective Department, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), municipalities and TMC grassroots workers, implying that the entire government machinery and the party’s state units have been employed to keep BJP workers under surveillance.

“Those working in the BJP’s IT cell are facing pressure from both the police and the TMC,” alleged Chakroborty, an IT cell convenor himself who has three Facebook accounts with a total 15,000 followers. He updates his accounts daily, with his timeline in sync with the national social media slant of the right wing in India. For example, one of his latest posts reiterated an unverified claim about Bollywood actresses: “Finally I got to know that the secret to actress’ glowing skin is not Lux, but drugs,”

Manotosh Mondal, a 28-year-old BJYM worker, was picked up by the police at 2 am on 7 August 2020. On 5 August last year, the Supreme Court of India awarded the disputed Ayodhya land to a temple committee directing the Uttar Pradesh government to find 5 acres of land for a mosque elsewhere. When the bhumi pujan for the Ram Temple happened this year, Mondal, who grew up training in RSS shakhas as a child, put up a status message on Facebook, invoking a mosque in the municipality. “Now that the Ram Mandir issue has been resolved, will the Adina Temple also be locked?” he said in the Facebook post, which got around a hundred likes, and roughly 25 shares.

Mondal told HuffPost India that he was referring to the Adina Masjid in Gazole, which he claims was “definitely built on the land of a temple”, an issue raised by local Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists a few times in the past. When the officer-in-charge of Gazole police station turned up with a few policemen and “5-6 men in army fatigues”, Mondal said the officer refused to state his business but just asked him to get dressed and come with them. “No one was up at that time to question the police. So I dressed up and went with them. I kept asking, where they were taking me, but the officers would simply say they had orders from above,” he said.

Mondal alleges that he was not taken to the local Gazole thana but instead to the English Bazar police station, 30 kilometres away. It is there he was told that the Cyber Crime Department of the English Bazar police had filed a complaint against him based on his Facebook post and he was being arrested under the IT Act for spreading fake news and creating communal disharmony.

Adina Mosque, Pandua, West Bengal, India. (Photo by: Amit Pasricha/IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) (Photo: IndiaPictures via Getty Images)
Adina Mosque, Pandua, West Bengal, India. (Photo by: Amit Pasricha/IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) (Photo: IndiaPictures via Getty Images)

Mondal was in police custody for two days, and on 10 August got bail on the condition he turns up at the police station every two weeks. The incident, the youth wing worker said, has now made him think twice before posting anything on Facebook. He also thinks hard for ways to get his point across without running into trouble. An example of his ‘revised’ Facebook strategy is a photo story he shared a few days after the alleged rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras.

The album, comprising around 20 photos, has been shot and conceptualised by a fellow BJP worker and shows a girl being born in a Hindu home, where she is loved and celebrated. Once she is a teenager, she is harassed by two young men, one of whom then strangles and kills her. The girl’s mother then takes the form of Goddess Kali and kills her daughter’s murderer. While it’s difficult to make out the religion of the harassers, in one close-up shot, one of the harassers is shown wearing a hint of surma, which is worn by many Muslim men.

“I am on Facebook nearly all day, except the 5-6 hours I sleep,” said Mondal, who studied till Class XII in a local Bengali medium school.

FROM LOCAL POLICE TO CID

While the CID, a specialised department of the state police force, usually investigates serious crimes such as murder, smuggling and extortion rackets, it has stepped up its monitoring of social media posts ahead of the assembly election.

“We have created a database on fake news, morphed images, and distorted video clippings and keep a watch on past offenders. However, in many cases, the offender is initially warned and asked to remove their posts. It is only when matters become serious that we make arrests,” said an officer at CID who did not want to be identified.

The agency’s officers were involved in the arrest of a BJP youth wing worker for his Facebook post on the demolition of a temple in Keshtopur, an upper middle-class neighbourhood in Kolkata’s eastern fringe. Jyotirmoy Chakraborty, a resident of Baidyabati, a small bustling town 50 kilometres from Kolkata, had never been to Keshtopur, nor had he ever seen the temple. However, a fellow BJP party worker — a resident of Keshtopur — sent a photo of the temple demolition to him on WhatsApp, which Chakraborty posted on Facebook, saying that the Banerjee government was on a temple demolition spree to please minorities.

He told HuffPost India that he later realised that the temple was being demolished under court orders to widen the road. “The photo appeared genuine to me because under Mamata Banerjee’s rule, Hindus were in any case discriminated against,” he said.

Chakraborty said that the police did not arrest the person who sent the photo, which was sent to him as an individual message and not in a group. At the Serampore police station where Chakraborty was held, two CID officers, a sub-divisional police officer and several senior officers of the police station interrogated him for hours. He said that though the police were polite and did not treat him like a “common criminal”, they insisted that he reveal his private Facebook messages and other activities. Chakraborty said he refused and told the police he was ready to go to court. He was kept in police custody for four days and in judicial custody for five days before he got bail.

Several BJP workers arrested by the police told HuffPost India that the police treated them well and fed them good food but interrogated them for hours and refused to let them off easy. The arrests have sometimes become opportunities for bonding or even badges of honour for some BJP workers.

Purnima Gorai, a BJP youth wing worker in Balarampur town in Purulia district, shared a photo of herself and another BJP worker on Facebook with the caption in Bengali: “What is the similarity between the two of us? We both had meat and chapati in jail for social media posts.”

Nearly 100 comments on the post seem to celebrate Gorai’s arrest, with BJP workers sharing their own brush with the police and jail. While one man commented he only got “soyabeans and chapati” in a Kolkata police station, another said he had “egg curry and rice”. When one BJP worker commented they were fed “biryani”, others congratulated him. Some others, detained from rallies, rued that they had just been sent off with tea and water and were waiting for “mutton in jail”.

Gorai, a young BYJM worker spent four days in jail in September after she posted a photo of the corpse of a young woman found in the forests of Gahrbeta, in West Midnapore district, alleging that it was a case of rape and murder. Gorai is a resident of Balarampur, 170 kilometres away from Gahrbeta, in a different district Purulia and had received the photo in a forwarded message.

When contacted by HuffPost India for a comment on her arrest, Gorai asked, “Why couldn’t you find people from other parties who have been arrested for fake news?”. On being told that several senior BJP leaders and party workers have told HuffPost India that the state government was specifically targeting BJP workers, she refused to elaborate on her case.

Debasish Das, a sub-inspector at the Garhbeta police station, told HuffPost India that the dead woman’s post-mortem had not even been completed by the time Gorai posted the message.

“She posted the status with the intention of spreading rumours and creating disharmony. Prima facie evidence says there was no rape and we are still investigating if this was a case of murder. She somehow accessed the photos locals had taken when they discovered the body, and shared it with whatever message came to her mind. So we had to arrest her and get her to this district,” Dey said. He said that the police had filed a suo motu complaint against Gorai on noticing the post doing the rounds of social media.

A post by West Bengal police on Facebook warning against spreading fake news. (Photo: )
A post by West Bengal police on Facebook warning against spreading fake news. (Photo: )

Gorai’s Facebook post signals that though senior BYJM and BJP leaders have specifically asked grassroots workers to be careful, they are sometimes unable to reign them in. A senior BJP youth wing leader from a West Bengal district told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that they had explicitly asked the youth to only post promotional material shared by the Delhi or Kolkata party headquarters, but “these young boys get excited and don’t listen at times”.

Mondal said that a fellow party worker from Gazole was picked up by Kaliachak police, 50 kilometres from his home, for saying in a Facebook ‘LIVE’ that the Banerjee government was not going to let the Durga Puja take place in Bengal. On being asked why his colleague had made such a claim, Mondal said, “tokhon ekta oirom troll cholchilo (this was the word doing the rounds around then)”. Some of the biggest BJP leaders, from Amit Shah to Narendra Modi, have also frequently made false claims in the past few years that the Banerjee government would obstruct Durga Puja.

The narrative survives through current MPs. Khagen Murmu, who quit CPM last year to join BJP and won from Malda, told HuffPost India that some of his men were arrested for saying that Mamata Banerjee won’t let Durga Puja be organised in West Bengal. “They were not entirely misleading. Banerjee announced a lockdown the day the Ayodhya judgment came so that we can’t take out a rally. So when our boys said a few things based on that, they got arrested,” he said.

STATE VS BJP

In September, the West Bengal police arrested at least two dozen men for posting a list of fake ‘guidelines’ on Durga Puja which claimed that the Banerjee government was going to impose curfews to make sure people don’t step out and spread COVID. The men arrested were mostly unknown to each other, and some of them are not even BJP party workers. Raju Shaw, an employee of a small mobile repair shop in a North 24-Parganas village, was arrested for sharing the guidelines on Facebook. His lawyer told HuffPost India that Shaw was a “victim” of fake news and had posted something he had received.

“The police however have claimed in court that Shaw created the fake post himself, that is not true,” his lawyer told HuffPost India.

Shaw’s experience raises questions about whether the Banerjee administration is acting against people who post messages criticising the CM and TMC. BJYM’s Mondal said that though he had not expected the police to file a case against him, he was in the crosshairs of the TMC and was “being closely watched”. Last year when Mondal participated in demonstrations expressing support for the CAA and was once seen with Adivasis holding a hanshuli — a curved blade used to harvest crops — he was summoned by the BDO, who asked him why such pictures of him were doing the rounds. “I had randomly posed with the hanshuli,” he said.

Sourav Santra, a TMC youth wing president in Burdwan district in south Bengal, said he once filed a complaint against a man he knew to be a BJP worker. He said that though he had not himself seen the man’s post first, members of the TMC’s IT cell regularly scanned social media activities of locals and known BJP workers and found the offending post.

“I promptly lodged a police complaint, providing screenshots of his post, link to his Facebook ID and his residential address

“I promptly lodged a police complaint, providing screenshots of his post, link to his Facebook ID and his residential address. Earlier, we had warned several local youths against spreading misinformation. We never wanted to harm their lives and so did not take up the matter with the police. But this time, the post was sensitive and the police needed to be involved,” he told HuffPost India.

Apart from the social media monitoring cell of the CID, which looks after such cases under the jurisdiction of West Bengal Police, every police commissionerate has a cyber police station attached to its detective department. The cyber police station in the detective department of the Kolkata Police looks after the cases in the megacity. There are teams of police staff in every district dedicated to monitoring social media.
Offenders are usually arrested under Sections 504 and 505 (1) (a) and 505 (1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code, which deal with intent to provoke breach of peace and statements conducing to public mischief.
Police officers told HuffPost India that they usually manage to trace people behind the spread of fake news only when the posts are made on Facebook and Twitter, whereas they can do little when these are shared on WhatsApp.

“Apart from information gathered by our social media monitoring teams, we also receive inputs from common people, often leaders and supporters of the TMC, and in some cases even from Left supporters,” said a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A senior police officer said that chief minister Mamata Banerjee has also warned the police administration of an impending spurt in the spread of fake news and has asked the police to strengthen their mechanism of monitoring social media.
Gyanwant Singh said that an important distinction the police under him made while making an arrest was to determine the intention of the person who shared a post.

“Often, a person shares a piece of fake news or communal propaganda with his or her own comment or message. We look into that to understand what the person’s intention was,” he said, adding they do take into account that a lot of people may just be victims of fake news. Singh refused to respond to allegations that caricatures against chief minister Mamata Banerjee lead to arrests but those of Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders don’t. “Abusive or deeply misogynistic content can lead to arrest, mocking someone doesn’t,” he said.

“At times, we have seen a person arrested refrains from posting fake news after getting pulled up by the police for a few days. And after a few months, they are back to the same grind,” he added.

Advocate Bivas Chatterjee, who specializes in cybercrime and often acts as the state police’s special public prosecutor in matters related to cybercrime, said there has been a visible increase in the flow of misinformation over the past few years. According to him, fake news on religious issues has the worst impact on people.
“Also, in cases of fakes news regarding political and religious matters, social media giants often deny sharing the IP address and other details of the accused with the investigating agencies, thus hampering the investigation,” Chatterjee said. Singh added that all Bengal districts now have a cyber crime cell headed by a tech savvy police officer. “In fact during the new batch of recruitment this year we chose young officers with science backgrounds and interest in social media to be a part of these cells across the state,” he said.

Ahead of the assembly election, Sinha of Alt News predicts that the most of the fake news will be related to religion. “The flow of misinformation will primarily target the minorities, who make a significant share of Bengal’s population (27.01% according to 2011 Census), and the narrative will be that Muslims are taking over the state and the Hindus are in great danger.” The battle, it seems, is on.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.