As dusk settled on May 2, and Trinamool Congress' thumping victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party in one of the most high-voltage elections seen in the state became apparent, social media was slowly inundated with hashtags like #BengalBurning, #BengalViolence and #PresidentRuleInBengal. Posts carrying these hashtags shared images of violence - of property being damaged and people being beaten up - with claims that TMC supporters were lashing out at BJP workers and other opponents in the state to mark their victory.
And there has been violence - as soon as the elections were concluded, reports of sporadic assaults on party supporters started appearing on the news. By the evening of May 3, over 10 people had already reportedly been killed across party lines. In the midst of this spate of violence, we saw a sharp rise in fake news, to either add false communal angle to inter-party violence, or add false political angle to unrelated crimes.
BOOM looked at all the incidents of violence reported on social media, and attempted to separate the verified incidents from those that are fake or misleading
Political Violence In West Bengal
West Bengal has a history of political violence. In 2011, just ahead of TMC's victory against Communist Party of India (Marxist), social science researcher Partha Sarathi Banerjee wrote on this subject, "The Congress did it earlier and the Communist party of India (Marxist) perfected it. Now the Trinamool Congress is challenging the ruling party using similar tactics."
The aftermath of the 2021 assembly polls were true to Banerjee's words. No sooner was TMC's victory confirmed, Abhijit Sarkar, a BJP worker from Beleghata was beaten to death by some unidentified assailants. His mother and brother were also reportedly beaten up, and their house was ransacked. They alleged that TMC workers were behind the attack.
Haran Adhikari, a 42-year-old BJP worker from Pratapnagar in South 24 Parganas was killed in the same evening, by a group of people, who broke into his house and beat him to death. A third incident also took place on the same day at North 24 Parganas' Duttapuku, where Indian Secular Front leader Hasanur Rahman was killed in a bombing. Rahman and Adhikari's families had blamed TMC supporters for the murders.
A day after the results came out, Bangla daily Ananda Bazar Patrika reported about a BJP worker named Manik Moitra being murdered by unknown assailants in Sitalkuchi. Local BJP leaders claimed that they were under attack from TMC supporters.
That night, Srinivas Ghosh (54), a TMC panchayat member of Ketugram was reportedly stabbed to death, allegedly by BJP workers, while he was returning home. Saju Sheikh and Bibhash Pal, two TMC workers, were reportedly killed in a clash with BJP supporters in Jamalpur. In East Bardhaman's Samaspur area, TMC worker Ganesh Malik was attacked by some assailants, following which he succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
By Wednesday, the death toll had reached 14, according to a report by the Indian Express. A leader of the Indian Secular Front was reportedly killed on Monday, while the BJP claimed that nine of its workers had been killed by Tuesday. The TMC, on the other hand, claimed that four of its workers had died in the two days following the declaration of the results.
Kishor Mandi, a BJP Kisan Morcha leader from Khatkhura village in West Medinipur district was reportedly killed on Wednesday evening.
On Thursday, taking cognisance of the incidents of political violence, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a compensation of Rs. 2 lakh for each victims of political violence, irrespective of political alliance.
Meanwhile, Assam BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma had claimed that over 400 BJP workers from West Bengal had escaped into Dhubri district of Assam. Dhubri Superintendent of Police Anand Mishra confirmed to BOOM that BJP workers had indeed crossed over from Bengal seeking refuge from possible retaliation. Mishra, however, denied any communal angle to the incident, as claimed by many posts on social media.
Claims Of Gangrape Of BJP Workers Denied By Authorities
A day after poll results were announced, BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta took to Twitter to claim that Hindu families in Nanoor village of Birbhum district were under attack, and also claimed that there were "reports of molestation or worse of women".
Social media was soon filled with claims of gangrape of BJP workers and poll booth agents in Nanoor constituency. BOOM was not independently able to verify these claims.
Meanwhile, the West Bengal police called out these allegations as fake. Election Commission-appointed SP of Birbhum Nagendra Tripathi gave a statement to the media, where he denied these incidents of gangrape, and called them fake. "We are trying to find from where this fake news originated on the social media. We will take appropriate action against them," he said.
The Fake News Factory At Work
While inter-party violence marred the conclusion of the gruelling elections in the state, there was no dearth of fake news on the topic either. As hashtags like #BengalBurning and #PresidentRuleInBengal were pushed on social media, we noticed a thriving mis/disinformation campaign around the post-poll violence in the state.
By Thursday evening, BOOM had done nine unique fact checks on such false and misleading posts.
A video showing a mob attacking a police was viral with the claim that it showed Muslim TMC workers attacking the authorities following the party's victory. We found that the video was from January, 2021, and shot in a village in Odisha. It showed an angry mob attacking a police van, and chase a police officer, following the custodial death of a youngster who was allegedly a suspect in a crime.
Many BJP members, including BJP Mahila Morcha social media in-charge Priti Gandhi, and general secretary of BJP Delhi Kuljit Singh Chahal tweeted a video of a group of people dancing with guns and swords to the tune of TMC's poll song Khela Hobe. We found that the video existed online since 2020, and was unrelated to the assembly elections in West Bengal, and that the 'Khela Hobe' remix was edited into the video.
As reports of gangrape and molestation of BJP workers started trending on Twitter, a photo of a young woman became viral with the claims that she is a young BJP worker from West Bengal who was gangraped and murdered by TMC workers as retaliation for her political connections. Hashtags calling for justice in her name was trending on the micro-blogging platform. The image of the girl along with the claim was also shared by BJP MP Saumitra Khan. BOOM found that the girl in the image was a 20-year-old victim of gangrape and murder from Pingla village in West Medinipur district. We contacted the girl's family and the officer-in-charge of Pingla police station, who told us that the political angle pushed by social media posts were entirely fabricated. They alleged that that the crime was committed by three masons who were hired to do a construction job next door.
A disturbing video of woman being harrassed was then shared with the claims that it showed a BJP booth polling agent being taken away by TMC supporters to be raped and killed. Posts shared the name of the woman as the 20-year-old girl from Pingla who was gangraped and murdered. We found that the video being shared was from Bangladesh, and showed a Hindu woman being harassed for converting and marrying a Muslim man.
We came across a set of photos of injured children, with the claim that they were victims of post-poll violence. BOOM found that these images were of a victim of a train accident in Bangladesh from November 2019.
On May 5, BJP's West Bengal unit posted a video from its official Facebook and Twitter handles, where it passed of an image of Abhro Banerjee, an India Today journalist, as Manik Moitra, a slain BJP worker from Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. Banerjee later took to social media to state that he was not Manik Moitra, as claimed by the caption in the video, and clarified that he was alive and safe.
A heart-wrenching video showing a girl trying to give water to a dying man, was viral on social media with captions alleging that the man was attacked by TMC supporters following the party's victory. BOOM found that the original video is from Andhra Pradesh where a girl tried to give water to her dying father, despite protests from her mother. According to news reports, the family was ostracised by the village, and asked to isolate themselves in a thatched hut away from the villagers.
A photo of a severely injured woman became viral with the claim that she was injured during the post-poll violence. We found that photo originated from an incident from Bangladesh from November 2020, where the woman in the photo and her family were attacked by land grabbers in Chittagong.
A set of two images - one showing young woman standing with Home Minister Amit Shah, and a disturbing photo of a woman's lifeless body drenched in blood, are viral with claims that the girl pictured with Shah was raped and killed during the spate of post-poll violence in the state. We traced the photo to a family of a BJP worker in Bankura district of Bengal, whose home was visited by Shah during a visit to the district in November 2020. Bibhishan Hansda, the father of the girl in the viral photo, told BOOM, "Both my family and my daughter are safe. There was no post poll violence in our area. The viral reports with my daughter's image are fake."
Social media continues to be flooded with unverified images and videos to show instances of post-poll violence in West Bengal. We would like to urge our readers to share with us any such media for verification on our WhatsApp helpline number +917700906588, before sharing it on social media or WhatsApp with your friends, family or colleagues.
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