Religious riots have swept over northeast Delhi, India for the last five days, with communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims being exacerbated by ‘fake news’ largely spread through WhatsApp. Thousands of people have been injured, and at least forty-three people have been killed in this wave of violence. Mosques have been set alight, and lynching mobs have targeted Muslims – one brutal video widely spread on social media shows a Hindu mob beating a Muslim man in broad daylight. Delhi police have also been accused of allowing, supporting and even participating in the violence.
This type of violence is not foreign in India; communal riots have sprung up since Independence in 1947. The past few years have seen a widening of religious divisions, especially between Hindus and Muslims. The 2014 election, and 2019 re-election, of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), is a demonstration of this. The BJP is a right-wing, nationalist party that envisions India as a Hindu – not secular – state. Modi was chief minister of Gujurat during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots, during which one thousand people died. The vast majority were Muslim. For his alleged role, Modi was banned from the U.S for a time – despite this, he has never apologized for the incident, even in his capacity as Chief Minister.
On Sunday evening, parts of Delhi were gripped with panic as rumours spread through WhatsApp about violence in the city. Several metro stations were even closed in response. The Delhi police force responded to the fake news, highlighting that reports of violence were unsubstantiated. Despite this, many shopkeepers and business owners in affected areas closed down early as shoppers also rushed home. Deepak Purohit, the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) in Delhi, stressed the need for everyone to “keep calm as the situation is normal and peaceful.”
A member of parliament for one of the areas affected by rumours of violence, Jarnail Singh, argued that the malicious rumours were deliberately designed to disturb the peace. Additionally, various leaders of Delhi’s ruling party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), also reiterated the fact that many rumours were being spread on social media and urged people to remain calm. In an attempt to quell rumours, various police and government officials took their Twitter accounts to quash fake news. In a novel strategy, senior police officials also took videos to demonstrate that areas were peaceful and spread these videos through WhatsApp as well. Sources state that Delhi police are treating the proliferation of rumours of violence as a deliberate, coordinated attempt to stoke violence in Delhi’s capital.
The outburst of violence in Delhi highlights concerns that democracies hold across the world. The intersection of religious division and fake news can be – and has been, in Delhi – tragic. Governments need to ensure they are not fostering divisions by reaffirming bigoted or divisive views through their governance. They also must facilitate greater trust between legitimate news sources and populations. Fake news and rumours spread on social media can only gain traction when trust in legitimate sources has been undermined.