Why India is awash with anti-Palestine disinformation

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Disinfo Matters

Shougat Dasgupta

Hello again,

In the last incarnation of this newsletter, Coda’s editor-in-chief Natalia Antelava worked each week to examine the disinformation being generated around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Deliberate distortion of the truth had long been a weapon in Vladimir Putin’s arsenal, but the war laid bare just how ineffective we were at countering it. Fact-checking alone is of little use in the face of targeted lies intended to sow division and advance particular narratives.

We relaunch now as the war in Gaza appears to have destroyed any lingering optimism about citizen journalism, open-source intelligence and the free flow of information helping to dispel disinformation rather than be hijacked by bad actors. In this newsletter, we will continue to scrutinize narratives and the way information is deployed by people in power.

I’m based in New Delhi, which is fast becoming one of the disinformation capitals of the world. We will be watching India closely, but the Coda team is scattered around the globe — in Rome, Istanbul, London, Washington, D.C. and beyond. The patterns of misinformation we will examine here are global as are their impacts.

The online discourse is dominated by unreliable narrators as never before. 2024 is an election year in India and the United States, and sophisticated disinformation is likely to play major roles in both. Understanding and shedding light on how narrative is manipulated and why is work we all have to be prepared to do.

Why India is awash with anti-Palestine disinformation

Talk of unreliable narrators brings us with a sad inevitability to India’s Hindu nationalist troll army. On Sunday, October 29, near the coastal city of Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses was bombed. Three people died and more than 50 were injured.

Almost immediately, Hindu nationalists — including those within India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party — went online to cast blame. At the time the bomb went off in Kerala, the state’s chief minister was in Delhi at a protest to express solidarity with Palestine — India’s traditional position, albeit one that is now contrarian because the BJP stands firmly with Israel. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, wrote on X that the Kerala chief minister’s “shameless appeasement politics” meant he was “sitting in Delhi and protesting against Israel, when in Kerala open calls by Terrorist Hamas for Jihad is causing attacks and bomb blasts on innocent Christians.” Chandrashekhar, despite his important role as a government minister, seemed to have no qualms speculating about the Kochi bombing and assigning guilt.

Kerala is governed by a left-wing coalition, making it a favorite target of Hindu nationalist scorn. Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s National Information and Technology department, followed his party colleague’s lead. The Kerala chief minister “seems more worried about Israel defending itself against Hamas, a terrorist group,” wrote Malviya, than Christians being attacked in Kochi. Alongside the BJP bigwigs, a chorus of Hindu nationalists made their feelings clear.

The day before the bombings, in another part of Kerala, a pro-Palestine rally had been held. Khaled Mashal, the former head of Hamas, addressed the crowd virtually from his home in Qatar. “Together,” he said, “we will defeat the Zionists.” Posting a video of the rally on X, a popular Hindu nationalist account drew a link with the bombing of the Jehovah’s Witness meeting. “Jews are targeted,” the account claimed falsely. “Do we even need an inquiry to know who did it???” Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Jewish and, as it turned out, the Kochi bombing had nothing to do with Muslims, much less Hamas.

A former Jehovah’s Witness confessed on Facebook and then to the Kerala police that he was behind the bombings. The police are currently verifying his claims. But Chandrasekhar, the cabinet minister, doubled down. Quoting former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he wrote on X: “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors. You know, eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.” In 2011, Clinton warned the Pakistani government about harboring terrorist networks. Chandrasekhar used her words to argue that “appeasement politics” – shorthand for the supposed liberties extended to minorities, particularly Muslims, at the expense of Hindus – had somehow led to the Kochi blast.

Blaming Muslims for the Kochi bombing, regardless of the facts, is in keeping with the disinformation techniques frequently used by Hindu nationalists. Hindu nationalist trolls have been prolific and persistent spreaders of false anti-Palestinian information about the war in Gaza. It advances their narrative that Islam and terror are synonymous and that India, with its large Muslim minority, is in the same boat as Israel.

This is a new, specifically Hindu nationalist position, and it has never been the official Indian position. In fact, India, with its long standing desire to be a leading voice of the decolonized Global South, has always supported the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. India  was first among non-Arab countries to forge diplomatic relationships with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (as far back as 1975) and promptly recognized Palestinian statehood in 1988, after Arafat’s declaration of independence.

It wasn’t until 1992 that India formally established diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2017, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, signaling his desire to forge a deep friendship between countries that he said had much in common. Modi’s warmth towards Israel reflected both India’s relatively recent reliance on Israeli defense and cybersecurity products — spyware among them — as well as the admiration that Hindu nationalists have for what they see as a muscular state unafraid of militarily asserting its interests. Israel, Hindu nationalists say, is a model for their own dream of establishing India as a Hindu nation.

It’s an ideological position that helps explain why on October 27, India chose to abstain rather than vote, like most other countries, to pass a non-binding resolution to seek a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza. Sharad Pawar, a veteran politician, criticized India’s abstention as “the result of total confusion in the Indian government’s policy.”

The Modi government’s official line is that it has suffered intensely from terrorism and now takes a “zero-tolerance approach to terrorism.” But Islamophobia is at the heart of Hindu nationalist support for Israel’s war in Gaza. And India’s Hindu nationalist trolls appear to be willing to tell whatever lie is necessary to advance their single-point agenda. “What Israel is facing today,” posted the official BJP account on X on October 7, “India suffered between 2004-2014. Never forgive, never forget.”

This is politicized misinformation by the governing party of India. The years referred to span the two terms of Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, the message being that without the BJP India is vulnerable to Islamic terror. Not surprisingly, a BJP member later argued that “Hindu nationalists see Israel’s war on Gaza as their own.”

Past Indian governments have labeled insurgents of all religions (and none) as terrorists at one time or another, and terrorist activity in India far predates 2004. But it suits the BJP to act as if it alone can protect Indians from terror. By claiming that Indian Hindus are in the same existential struggle as Israeli Jews — both facing down Islamic terrorism — Hindu nationalists, including those in government, are advancing their narrative that India must abandon its constitution and become a Hindu nation. War in Gaza gives them the opportunity to use misinformation tactics that have been perfected in domestic politics on the global stage.

The BJP’s chokehold on information

Last month, the X account belonging to the Indian American Muslim Council was censored in India after a request from the Indian government. This effectively means that users in India will be barred from seeing any IAMC tweets, as well as those of the IAMC’s ally, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Hindus for Human Rights. Both organizations have been critical of Indian government policies and drawn attention to minority rights and caste issues that Modi sweeps under the carpet on his visits to Western capitals. “We were not expecting it,” IAMC’s Executive Director Rasheed Ahmed told my colleague Avi Ackermann about being booted off X in India. “But we were not surprised.” By “complying with these censorship requests,” Ahmed wrote in an email, “X and Elon Musk have effectively abetted the Indian Government’s effort to expand its authoritarian censorship campaign overseas.”

The Indian government is trigger happy when it comes to depriving people of access to information, shutting down the internet a world-leading 84 times in 2022. It has blocked the social media accounts of credible if critical sources, including journalists, on the grounds of national security. At the same time, the government ignores trolling and the spreading of disinformation by its Hindu nationalist supporters. And — in the words of Apar Gupta, founder of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation — has framed digital data laws to “enable unchecked state surveillance.” The Modi government is a disinformation triple threat.

WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • This piece by Nilesh Christopher in Rest of World is simultaneously funny and scary, though by the end more scary than funny. In India, Instagram reels are being made with voice cloning tools powered by artificial intelligence that show Modi singing hit songs in numerous Indian languages from Punjabi to Tamil. As Christopher points out, “the videos, though lighthearted, serve a larger political purpose.” By cloning his voice, Modi can be made accessible to parts of the country where most people don’t speak Hindi, the language in which Modi gives most of his speeches. With elections coming up next year, this could be a boon for him in south India, where Modi has little support.
  • “Taking a side in a war does not require taking positions on a work of fiction,” wrote Pamela Paul in The New York Times about the decision to not publicly honorthe Palestinian author Adania Shibli at the Frankfurt Book Fair for having won a German literary prize. In a different life, I edited a couple of short stories by Shibli for a little magazine. When I reached out to her, Shibli was gracious enough to thank me (twice!) for my concern. As for the cancellation of the ceremony — we truly live in morally vacuous times.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

The article was published in ‘coda.