Kerala’s WhatsApp hartal

BY N. P. CHEKKUTTY| IN Regional Media | 25/04/2018
Kerala youths were drawn into violent protests over the Kathua case by anonymous WhatsApp calls made by shadowy forces with ulterior motives
N. P. CHEKKUTTY reports


The Kerala police are now investigating an unusual incident of a public hartal, called by unnamed forces,that triggered huge violence in many parts of the state a few days ago over the rape and murder of the eight year girl from the Bakharwal community in Jammu. The hartal took place on April 16, Monday, immediately after the auspicious occasion of Vishu, the Hindu new year’s day, April 14.

Hartals are quite common here.  The latest count suggests that more than 200 hartals have taken place in recent years. They are generally organised by political parties, communal organisations, professional and trade bodies, and other groups. On such occasions, people normally keep indoors to avoid moving around. Outbreaks of violence are stray and generally kept under control by the authorities.

But the April 16 hartal was unusual: it was planned and executed by a few individuals using WhatsApp and it caused a serious eruption of violence and damage to public and private property. It also provoked a clamp down of prohibitory orders for a few days by the police in a number of towns and cities in the northern parts of Kerala, such as the municipal towns of Tanur, Tirur and Parappanangadi in Malappuram district and the city of Calicut in Kozhikode district.

Violence was reported from almost all the northern districts and, according to local media reports, more than 2,000 cases have been registered by the police and around 1,000 youngsters rounded up and put in jails in districts like Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kannur.  

The incidents are unusual in many ways and call for a serious study of the impact of social media platforms in a communally volatile region like Malabar where a major flare-up of violence  erupted. The police have now established a pattern to the incidents of violence and it appears they were engineered with a view to triggering a communal conflagration in a state known for good relations among Hindus and minority Muslims and Christians.  

"It was not surprising that the mischief-mongers could play havoc in the brief intermission of 48 hours when the daily newspapers were away from the scene"


The second aspect that emerges from the way things played out is the significance of traditional mainstream newspapers in upholding and maintaining the values of social unity, based on the principles of secularism and communal peace.  It was not surprising that the mischief-mongers could play havoc in the brief intermission of 48 hours when the daily newspapers were away from the scene.

A third aspect is the failure of the visual media, despite the presence of more than half a dozen news outlets (focused largely on sensation and trivia) in identifying the rumblings in the aftermath of the sensitive developments over the Kathua crime at the national level earlier in the week and countering the communal propaganda on social media in order to protect people from scandal mongers and their divisive tactics. 

April 14th being Vishu holiday, no morning newspaper printed in Kerala had come out the next day and hence there were no reports on the plans already afoot for the next day’s hartal. The police intelligence department and the round-the-clock news channels in the region also failed to take note of it on Sunday.

In fact on Monday, the day started rather normal despite rumours of violence in some places, but soon unruly crowds took over the streets, stoning shops and buses and in a short while it was a complete shut-down in many northern towns. It was only then the police swung into action, chasing away the trouble-makers and persuading shoppers and bus operators to remain in business, that calm returned.

The WhatsApp messages came from a few groups such as Justice for Sisters and Voice of Youth, purportedly demanding justice for the Kathua vicitm. Originally, the social media group set up on April 14 was named after the Bakharwal Muslim girl, but was changed later when the Delhi High Court’s notice to some news organisations against naming the victim became known.

The messages called for a hartal in protest and once the public response became prolific, separate groups were set up for various districts, managed by a team of super admins who issued instructions as voice messages. The police have found a series of voice messages that called for a second round of violence all over the state, issued after the hartal on April 16 evoked a response mainly in the northern Malabar districts.

The voice messages called for direct attacks against the police and seem to have been intent upon a serious breakdown of law and order as well as damage to amiable social relations among the various communities.

It is still not clear what really prompted the five young men now under arrest to set up the social media groups and call for a hartal and violence. Was it just a prank or a deliberate attempt on the part of some evil forces to divide people and foment violence?

An answer might be available only after the inquiries are over. It is officially acknowledged that of the five youths under arrest, the leader, Amarnath Baiju, 21, of Kollam district, has been associated with the RSS until a few months ago, while the others, all from Thiruvananthapuram district, were also linked to various Sangh Parivar outfits. But so far there is no evidence that this was part of a larger conspiracy, as is being alleged by certain sections in the media.

Hence, the real question is how far social media platforms are in a position to dictate public affairs in a state like Kerala, known for its high levels of political activity, deep penetration of mainstream media including the highly influential morning newspapers, and a vigilant civil society alert to the need to raise its voice against the forces of bigotry and violence.  

"The leader, Amarnath Baiju, 21, of Kollam district, has been associated with the RSS until a few months ago, while the others, all from Thiruvananthapuram district, were also linked to various Sangh Parivar outfits"


Looking at the political affiliations of the hundreds of people arrested, it is clear they belonged to various political parties. Most of them are Muslim youths, affiliated to, among others, the Muslim League, the CPM, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the Congress party, etc. Some are with no known political affiliations.

It is likely that they came out into the streets genuinely infuriated by the terrible violence perpetrated on the little girl. Going by the pattern of violence that copied the style of street protests in West Asia, such as tyre bonfires, they seem to have been influenced by the political protests based on identity/ethnic politics.

Asked about the irony of Muslim youths being drawn into the streets by anonymous calls made by shadowy forces with ulterior motives, a Muslim community leader said the media images of the Kathua violence evidently had a deep and emotional impact on the youngsters who had taken it not only as a rape of a child, but as a deliberate assault on a community.

This incident shows the extreme levels of social disturbances the social media can play in societies with complex communal patterns. Recently, a New York Times report (Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook a Match, NYT, April 21, 2018) on the havoc played by Facebook in South Asian countries had referred to instances of communal riots and attacks on minorities in countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

The report pointed out that in countries where institutions are weak or undeveloped and where there is a history of communal tensions, such societies are especially vulnerable. The authors pointed out that social media posts that tap into primal emotions like anger or fear seem to produce the highest engagement with social networks where such content proliferates.

Kerala, however, cannot be dubbed a place with weak institutions or a fragile history of communal peace. It has a strong history of social cohesion, a vibrant civil society, a vigilant media and a strong political establishment. And yet a few youngsters with a smart phone were able to play havoc with its social fabric.

This calls for serious introspection by society and for appropriate action to strengthen a responsible approach to the dissemination of ideas and information on the part of the mass media.



N P Chekkutty is  a senior journalist and political commentator based in Calicut. 



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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