Bringing hate video perpetrators to book

BY ARITRA BHATTACHARYA| IN Digital Media | 08/06/2018
The fact that Bangla Sanskriti Mancha activists were primary informants for most stories in the media highlights the role that city-based NGOs can play in bringing such issues to light,
The video posted on Facebook


On 14 May this year, 27-year old Jamal Momin, a native of West Bengal’s Malda district, was on a train from Howrah to his hometown in Malda when he was abused and slapped by four youths for not knowing the name of the country’s prime minister and the national anthem. The youths shot and uploaded a video on social media, where they are seen questioning Momin—a seasonal worker in Gujarat since 2006—and slapping him repeatedly when he fails to answer their questions.

 He says “Mamata” in response to a question on who the prime minister is, and is able to mutter the beginning of the national anthem. Who is Nawaz Sharif, they also  ask him. He does not know.

The video, which went viral via Facebook and WhatsApp groups, shows Momin being abused and slapped for being a Muslim and knowing how to offer namaz, yet not knowing the PM’s name or country’s national anthem; he is also forced to repeat Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai after the attackers.

Such videos, involving the public shaming, abuse, attack and lynching of Muslims and Dalits by ‘patriotic’ Hindus, have been surfacing on social media with increasing regularity. Several of them, like the killing of Afrazul Khan in Rajasthan on 6 December 2017, go viral, and help draw our attention to such crimes. Yet, in the absence of pressure groups and citizens’ organisations, the makers of such hate videos and the perpetrators of the acts of violence in the videos are rarely tracked down and punished.

The case of Jamal Momin (who also goes by the name of Md Monirul Sheikh)  was different. He hails from the same district as Afrazul, and is a resident of Kaliachak town, which was rocked by communal rioting in 2016. Yet, the communal undertones in the attack on him, as seen in the video, scared him into silence. He did not utter a word about the incident to his family on reaching home, or over the two days he spent there before leaving for Ahmedabad, where he works. Activists of the Kolkata-based NGO Bangla Sanskriti Mancha—which works on communal harmony, migrant labourer’s issues and women  empowerment—came across the video on social media, were outraged, and managed to track down the victim's family. They helped his wife lodge an FIR, brought Jamal back to West Bengal and are helping the family pursue the case with authorities and police so the guilty are brought to book.

Tracing the victim

The video featuring the abuse and attack on Momin started being shared on WhatsApp groups in North Bengal the day it was created. By 20 May, the video had started circulating among Kolkata-based WhatsApp groups, including some in which the author is a member. It also surfaced on Facebook, lending itself to virulent communal propaganda, to comments regarding how Muslims were uneducated and unpatriotic, and needed to be taught a lesson.

Bangla Sanskriti Mancha member Samirul Islam, Chemistry professor at a college in Kolkata, said they chanced upon the video on 22 May. “We were taken aback as soon as we saw the video. A lot of fake videos have been circulating of late, so our primary concern was to investigate whether the video was genuine,” he said.

Activists from Kolkata alerted their companions in Malda, where the Mancha has a district unit, on the same day. “In the video, Jamal Momin says he is from Kaliachak (town), so we asked our activists to go down to Kaliachak and verify if the victim was indeed from the town and if the video was genuine,” said Islam.

Activists of the Mancha’s Malda unit fanned out across the Kaliachak town and showed the video to a range of people to check if they were able to identify the victim. By the next day, following leads generated on the ground, they managed to trace the victim’s family to the Sher Shahi neighbourhood of the town. Jamal  had not shared his ordeal with his family, lest they feared for his safety. “When our activists showed the video to his wife Julekha, she was taken aback and in tears. The family then contacted Jamal, who acknowledged that he had, in fact, been attacked,” noted Islam.

Once Julekha recognised her husband, Mancha activists in Kolkata uploaded the video on their Facebook page on 23 May, alongside a note detailing Jamal Momin's  difficult circumstances and struggle to eke out a livelihood.

“Upon inquiries, we found that he had recently taken a loan of Rs 15,000 to repair his house (with a tiled roof in Naya Basti in Kaliachak’s Sher Shahi neighbourhood). He was working for Rs 200 a day in Ahmedabad, struggling hard to repay the loan. In fact, he had started working at the age of five (Jamal is 27 now) at a tea stall, for a measly monthly salary of Rs 5,” said Prof Srikanta Nandi, member of Bangla Sanskriti Mancha. “Since the Afrazul case, young, uneducated men from the minority community who work as seasonal migrants in other states have been living under a spell of fear. An incident like this, if left unaddressed, would hamper their security all the more, exposing them to further such attacks.”

Mancha activists accompanied Julekha to the Kaliachak Police station to lodge an FIR about the incident on 24 May. The group’s Facebook post sharing the FIR copy says police initially refused to register a complaint, but relented after the intervention of some well-known persons and following the directions of the local Superintendent of Police. The FIR, among other things, provides the name and number of the person who first shared the video on a WhatsApp group on 14 May.

“We took a look at all groups here this video was shared, and that we had access to. Our data mining shows a person named Sufal Karmakar first shared the video in a pro-Hindutva WhatsApp group on 14 May. This is what we communicated to the police,” said Nandi. Thereafter, on 28 May, Mancha activists lodged a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission, and shared a copy of the same on social media.

The group’s efforts to bring back Jamal also bore fruit on 29 May, when the young man returned from Ahmedabad to Kolkata. Activists from the group had contacted the contractor under whom Jamal was working after speaking to the latter’s wife, and had managed to convince the contractor to send Momin back fearing for his safety.

On 1 June, at a press conference organised by the group in Kolkata, Momin narrated how the ordeal he suffered at the hands of his attackers was much worse than what is seen in the hate video that went viral. “They beat me up mercilessly before shooting the video, such that by the time it was shot, I could no longer hear in one ear,” the visibly shaken man told media persons.

Media coverage

Media coverage of the case started picking up once the NGO shared the video with a detailed note on the case on their Facebook page on 23 May. The NGO also shared a copy of the FIR in the case on its page on 24 May.  On 25 May, Bengal’s highest circulated daily Anandabazar Patrika carried a story on its front page titled ‘Slapped for not knowing the Prime Minister’s name’. On the same day, Times of India’s Kolkata also carried a story in its Nation page titled ‘Malda labourer thrashed for ‘ignorance’ on PM, CM’. The TOI story mentioned how the migrant worker  was abused for being a Muslim, and how religion was the ground for the attack on the migrant labourer.

Bengali Tabloid Ebela, owned by the Anandabazar Patrika group, also carried a story on the case on 25 May. A day later, the case was picked up by news agency Press Trust of India, and its report was carried by several outlets like NDTV.  on 26 May. On 27 May, the case featured on Times Now’s Newshour. Some news reports also appeared in the Bengali media after the Manch registered a complaint with the SHRC on 28 May. On 1 June, the Mancha organised a press conference with Jamal Momin addressing the audience, which was covered by some local newspapers.

Anandabazar Patrika also ran a long story based on an interview with the victim. This story was the only one that tried to understand his case from within his own context. It narrates how he comes from a very poor family, and has not had the privilege of an education beyond few months in class 1. Those few months introduced him to Jana Gana Mana, and in the story, he remembers singing the song with his school mates during Independence Day. After that, however, Momin dropped out from school, and started working to make a living. Consequently, he did not have occasion to sing Jana Gana Mana again, or know that it was the country’s national anthem.

The pattern of media coverage of the case, and the fact that Bangla Sanskriti Mancha activists were primary informants for most stories in the media about the case highlights the role that metropolitan city-based NGOs can play in bringing such issues from the distant hinterland and border areas to the notice of the urban middle classes and the mainstream media.

The Bangla Sanskriti Mancha has 600 followers on Facebook—a small number when it comes to gaining traction on social media. Yet, the presence of a few proactive activists in Kolkata and Malda ensured the case progressed on the ground, and details of the same were shared without delay on social media. This, and the fact that its activists are based in Kolkata and often interact with journalists in Kolkata helped push up media coverage of the case.

Punishing the guilty

There has been little progress in the case in the two weeks since the FIR was registered in Kaliachak. Mancha activists wonder why, despite their providing the police with the name and number of the person who first shared the video on social media, the accused have neither been arrested, nor questioned.

“Towards the latter part of the said video, one of the four attackers can be clearly seen. Yet, the police has not taken any action,” said a concerned Islam, who has been pursuing the case with government authorities and police personnel. “I spoke to the SP of Malda some days ago, who said the case had been handed over to the Government Railway Police unit in Bandel near Kolkata.” The incident had occurred on a Malda-bound train that departed from Howarah on 14 May, and falls under the jurisdiction of the Bandel unit. The Railway Protection Force, in association with the Crime Branch, has called the complainants for a meeting on 11 June. Bangla Sanskriti Mancha plans to move the High Court if there is no progress in the case by then. 


Aritra Bhattacharya is  an independent journalist and is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.



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