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In UP, WhatsApp forwards starring Hindu god Hanuman as a Dalit are sparking outrage

Meena Bharti, the district head of the Most Yuva Enlightenment Organisation, a local Dalit rights mobilising outfit, is an avid social media user. A few days ago, she posted an image on Facebook, in which the Hindu god Hanuman was touching the feet of Dalit activist and scholar, Dr B R Ambedkar. This seemingly innocuous image is one of many that have spawned overnight, on various social media platforms, after members of the BJP, including UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, called Hanuman Dalit. 

“I made this post on Facebook because I got it as a forward on WhatsApp. I’m part of a lot of Dalit groups like Bhim and Most,” she said, “There I saw the news that Yogi ji had declared that Hanuman is Dalit. So I did the same thing with the post of Hanuman ji and Dr Ambedkar.”

WhatsApp has 200 million users in India. As internet penetration and mistrust in mainstream news is on the rise, WhatsApp has become the go-to source for information. Research conducted by BBC showed that the app’s users in India relied more on the kind of images in a message, or who sent them as qualifying markers — messages from friends and family are considered trustworthy, regardless of source or information verification. The platform is perfectly geared towards instantly sharing multimedia messages of all kinds, with a vast majority of people, through groups, that can soon become viral. And with the trigger-happy instant forward function, it becomes nearly impossible to trace the original sender. 

While on one hand that could mean something funny like the app freezing across the country, because of too many ‘good morning’ messages, on the other, it could mean the lynching of one Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, UP, because of a WhatsApp message that alleged he had cow meat in his house. For Bharti, sharing this WhatsApp forward has resulted in an FIR being filed against her.

“The most important thing to do right now, is to find out where this post came from, and where the rest of such posts and jokes are coming from,” she said. But her protests are in vain — she has become an infamous household name in Chitrakoot, irrevocably tied to her post.

Narendra Mishra, a shopkeeper in the same district, recognised her name and post immediately. “This post has caused me a lot of pain. I am a Brahmin and I belong to the Hindu Sanstha. I don’t think you should create posts like this that attack the modesty, respect and Gods of the Brahmins,” he said, clearly aggrieved, “This is rubbish, you shouldn’t do things like this.”

“These kinds of posts have no impact on religion or faith,” said social worker Kailash, “In fact these posts are being created by the RSS and BJP to target the poor and illiterate to instigate them.”

It has been notedhow important BJP’s online presence was, for their victory in UP and the country. President Amit Shah himself bragged about the BJP IT Cell’s reach. He said in Kota in September 2018, “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true of fake,” and added, “It is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels. Keep making messages go viral.” Propaganda shared through WhatsApp and Facebook intends to put down opposing political parties, subtly and obviously position BJP as their replacement, and spread “information” that is in line with their Hindutva politics — be it about Hindus murdered in Kashmir, or love jihad or cow protection.

BJP’s Chitrakoot IT cell, hence, has 352 active workers, and 3,204 volunteers while its Banda cell has 450 active workers and 6,000 volunteers. Chitrakoot’s cell has 80 WhatsApp groups, while Banda’s has 280. Other political parties are late to the game, and are struggling to catch up. While Congress’s IT cell in Chitrakoot has 600 active workers and volunteers with 100 groups, they only have four workers and seven groups in Banda. Regional parties like BSP and SP don't even have formalised IT departments.

Kailash rightly pointed out, “Votes are what determine the ruler in a democracy”, and comments like Yogi ji’s are but another attempt at vote bank politics — rebuilding Ram Mandir in Ayodhya was one of the party’s central campaigning points in 2014. It is no coincidence that he called Hanuman a Dalit while campaigning in Rajasthan, when the state was going to the polls on 7 December. He has since been called out for his comments, but there has been no response from him.

The BJP district head Lavlesh Sinha had only this to say in response: “To date, not a single Dalit or Dalit activist has come to us to tell us that this statement is false.” He also said smugly, washing his hands off any outrage, pain, or turmoil, these comments were causing, “There may be a variety of conversations in society, but nobody has told us that this statement is wrong.”

Shivdas Mishra, a mahant at the Hanuman Mandir in Chitrakoot, laughed at the validity of the CM’s statement. “He must have seen in some text or something — how can someone say something without seeing it somewhere?” he said and added cheekily, “And if he’s seen it somewhere, then he should cite it accordingly. That way we will all learn something, because I didn’t know that Hanuman was Dalit and this is big news.”

Clearly, this is not an attempt to end caste hierarchies in Hindu society, nor to empower Dalits within religion, explained Kailash. “B R Ambedkar said to the people of society to capture the Parliament. Because they’re unable to capture Parliament, these parties are intentionally trying to draw the people’s attention away to news like this,” before adding matter-of-factly, “There will be many more statements like this, because this is a conspiracy.”

“Just because Yogiji said Hanumanji is Dalit, Dalits are now being so infuriated,” said Mishra, with clear distaste, “I heard this news yesterday that Dalit community members showed up to capture a mandir in Lucknow. They’re claiming that Dalits are now priests.” He unwittingly demonstrated just how effective the online rumour mill can be. It doesn't take much to guess that this “news” he heard was probably from WhatsApp or some other social media platform. And with general elections just around the corner, it is incidents like this that shore up support for the ruling party in an all-important state in the Hindi belt by playing on the right religious sentiments.

As for whether this “news” — of Hanuman being Dalit or of Dalits storming any temple — is going to result in any violent pushback, district head of the Hindu Yuva Vahini Rajesh Giri said, “Nothing will happen. But even Hanuman knows that his devotee will never do any wrong”, he continued with a calm albeit threatening smile, “and if anyone does anything wrong, they will be in trouble.”

Perhaps the cry for Meena’s blood – there are now several WhatsApp messages doing the rounds, demanding an FIR against her – is what Giri has in mind.

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

 

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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2019 14:33:54 IST