Updated: May 16, 2020
Avishikta Chattopadhyay & Manohar Samal
Tensions arose between Hindu and Muslim communities in India amidst Ramadan celebrations, as a result of the escalation in hate tweets from Gulf-countries. In India, the Muslim community took the centre stage after the Tablighi Jamaat incident. The incident heralded bad faith towards the Muslim community as it represented callousness during a global crisis. It showed a brazen disregard towards the incessant initiatives taken by the Government of Delhi and the Indian administration in curbing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). The incident was widely criticised. Several sources stated that the incident could potentially demolish all the efforts of the Indian Government to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The surge of hate tweets in the gulf countries was a result of the tweet on the 22nd of April, 2020 from an impersonated account of the Omani princess Sayyida Mona Bint Fahd Al Said which referred Indian treatment of the Muslims as persecution. The tweet also threatened that drastic steps would be taken against the Indian population in Oman if the situation continued. Later that day, the princess released an official clarification confirming that the tweet was fake and she was being impersonated. The Indian ambassador to Oman Manu Mahawar restated the stability of the relations between the two governments and appealed to the citizens to eschew fake news.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Countries realised and acknowledged that these activities were being conducted with an intent to draw a wedge between the two countries. Few citizens of Pakistan were said to have been associated with such a chain of events. Reverting to this event, the External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar in his tweet on 23rd of April inquired whether the interests of the Indian people were being taken care of and promised support for strengthening bilateral relations during this global crisis. The Gulf countries have provided assurance to India and have stated that they have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards attempts to create contempt and discord between country relations. Over the span of discussions between the external affairs ministries of India and the Gulf countries, India also displayed gratitude towards the Gulf Countries for going the extra mile to ensure the welfare of Indians. Furthermore, specific proactive measures were taken by Oman to ease the fear of suppression amongst its Indian community. But, at the same time, the human rights wing of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has urged India to halt Islamophobia.
In these times when the entire world is affected by the pandemic, fake tweets and hoax information shared on social media not only affect country relations and internal peace but also affect other aspects. This is because the many countries in the Gulf like Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Palestine and Saudi Arabia have requested India to supply essential medicines like Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol.
India is a democratic and secular republic consisting of a diverse population, not only in ethnicity but also in ideology. Despite this, traces of religious division and enmity between the Hindus and Muslims can be traced back to the pre-colonial period. Notably, the friction between these two fractions increased as a result of the divide and rule policy adopted by the British Government. Furthermore, the 1980 Moradabad Riots, 1992 Bombay Riots, 2002 Gujarat Riots, 2006 Malegaon Bombings, 2013 Muzzafarnagar Riots and various instances of cow vigilante violence have been disturbances fuelled by islamophobia. Therefore, it seems to be manifestly pristine that the existence of islamophobia is an antithesis to peace and development ideologies.
The pertinent question which arises from this is whether India is still undergoing a phase of Islamophobia and what can law and policy-making do to resolve such issues? Research indicates that Islamophobia is still a concern in India and therefore, fake tweets and false information can significantly disrupt and deteriorate Government efforts in maintaining peace, tranquillity and battling against the COVID- 19 pandemic. The recent exodus of the migrant workers after the declaration of a three-week lock-down is a striking example of chaos driven by fake news. In order to maintain the balance between State surveillance and privacy of an individual any law that strikes at fake tweets and the circulation of false information on social media, the difference between misinformation, disinformation, opinion-based comment and fact-based comment has to be clearly established along with the study of consequences each factor can have on the population of a geographical extent. Social media companies can certainly be mandated to remove content that falls under the category of misinformation and disinformation. An established framework would enable the ousting of Government discretion in such activities, something which cannot be relied upon, especially in a country like India.
The increase in activities in the virtual sphere has led to similarities between the virtual and the physical world. Expression, movement, existence and other interactions are some of the common elements shared by the physical and virtual world. Despite this, the gap in laws governing both seems to be extremely wide. In order to bridge this gap, law and policymakers have to approach problems of circulation of false information that leads to Islamophobia and other religious contempt with novelty. The gap between the apprehension of an individual or group when circulating false information in the physical sphere and apprehension of an individual or group in the virtual sphere can be reduced if the virtual arena is seen as another world capable of facilitating existence, identity and consequential interactions.
If availing of physical services requires the verification of identity then why not for virtual services? Ease of availing of services has been doing more harm than good. Identity verification in the digital sphere can curb any and all instances of fake accounts and multiplicity of accounts on social media platforms.
It is indeed indisputable that the recent instance of a tweet from a fake account was made from overseas and the free flow of information makes governance difficult. But, if the destination or affected country’s governance is strong and non- arbitrary then such propaganda and catastrophic agendas of Islamophobia and religious contempt could be defeated. To illustrate, “information” in the digital sphere can be equated with the digital version or digital reflection of goods or commodities. Just like goods can be legal and illegal, information can be expression or incitement. Governance and regulation of information that is expressive will truly be violative of fundamental freedoms and should be avoided at all costs. But, governance and regulation of information that is incitement will always be a legitimate State action taken for the maintenance of public peace, order and tranquillity provided that it is not based upon discretion but explicated instruments of law and policy.
Thus, it can be seen that law and policymaking can certainly pave the road for defeating the vices of Islamophobia and other religious contempt. The results and circumstances seen in the country today would’ve been extremely different from the presence of guided and resilient laws that aim to tackle false information on social media. Nevertheless, to avert situations of false social media information that disrupts public peace in the future, law and policymaking will have to be rethought.
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