Tension prevailed in Pune, after an angry mob went on rampage in the town over morphed pictures of the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackery, Chhatrapati Shivaji and other Hindu gods which were shared on Facebook on Saturday, and later re-circulated on WhatsApp, according to reports in the Indian Express and Hindustan Times.
A Muslim IT professional, who was no in way connected to the circulation of the pictures, was attacked by the mob and killed, say the news reports. The Indian Express report says, "Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, a 24-year-old from Solapur district was beaten to death by a mob after he was returning home" from offering namaz.
His friend Riyaz who was with him when the attack took place told the paper, "Moshin was targeted because he was wearing a skull cap and had a beard."
The police arrested seven people associated with the Hindu Rashtra Sena (right-wing fringe group) and the chief of this outfit Dhananjay Desai, adds the IE report.
This isn't the only incident of violence that the pictures have caused. According to Indian Express, the photos have triggered communal tension in the city as "activists of Hindu outfits and political organisations indulged in violence and arson and more than 200 public transport buses and private vehicles were damaged in the past two days."
This kind of response is exactly what the Facebook content itself is trying to provoke. According to the Hindustan Times, the morphed material was created with express purpose of provoking communal riots.
The Cyber Crime Investigating Cell (CCIC) officers of the Mumbai crime branch told the paper that, "the page on Facebook was created in 2013," and had close to 50,000 likes.
A source in CCIC told HT, that the creator used a fake identity to start the page and then, "initially put positive contents so that the page attracted followers." The offensive content was uploaded nearly a year later, over the past weekend.
For now the page has been deleted and police is waiting for Internet Protocol (IP) details to know which computer or mobile was used to commit the crime.
Meanwhile Desai has denied that his outfit had anything to do with the murder and said, "We understand that circulating derogatory pictures is a cyber crime but the problem cannot be solved by killing innocent persons."
The incident once again highlights the potential of how social media posts in India can be used to create communal mischief. In case of the Muzaffarnagar riots, there were reports that a fake video of two boys being beaten up by a mob did the rounds on WhatsApp, social media pages before the riots broke out. The video was actually two years old and from Afghanistan but it has already spread on social media like wild-fire and added to the already prevailing communal tensions.
At the time, police officers were caught off-guard due to their ignorance of technology, saying at the time, "we did not imagine so many people would have access to the net on their mobile phones and WhatsApp."
In the 2012 Azad Maidan riots in Mumbai too there was evidence that SMS and MMS messages were shared to spread communal tension. According to a Times ofIndia report then, police had said that "video clippings of killings of Muslims in Burma were available with most of the young boys on their mobile phone."
Then of course in August 2012, online rumours that people from North-east would be attacked by Muslims over the violence in Assam. The government of India was forced to asked Facebook and Google to remove “inflammatory and hateful content”, which was seen as spurring this mass-exodus. Tens of thousands of panic-stricken students and workers from northeast left their homes in cities like Bangalore, Pune, spurred by rumours they would be attacked in retaliation for communal violence in Assam.
In this case, there is no evidence as yet of police negligence or incompetence. Over the past few days, police called mohalla and peace committee meetings to defuse tensions, and were quickly on the scene after the attack on Shaikh. But none of this has helped squelch either the rumours --the latest claiming that Muslims pelted a Shivaji statue -- or the threat of violence.