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Mainstream, VOL LX No 36 New Delhi, August 27, 2022

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in the Age of Fake News and Misinformation Syndrome: A Case from Kerala | Jos Chathukulam

Friday 26 August 2022, by Jos Chathukulam

Abstract

Dissemination of fake news on social media platforms and web portals, especially planted news with communal overtones is increasing at an alarming rate in India. The recent attempts to communalise protests against a tainted bureaucrat, who is one of the prime accused in the death of a journalist in Kerala, is the biggest example in this regard. Protest by a section of Muslim groups against an IAS officer, who happened to be an individual from Hindu community, was given a communal colour despite the fact that many other groups including opposition parties led by United Democratic Front (UDF) and journalists were aggrieved over his appointment. Right wing social networks and even some Christian fundamentalist groups were in the forefront in spreading the disinformation by selectively portraying the protest by a religious community through a communal angle and what is more shocking is the silence of secular civil society and the Left intelligentsia on such unhealthy trends threatening to destroy the egalitarian social fabric in the state of Kerala. The author and many others had a tough time convincing his peers in academic circles across India on what the reality was. This article is an open explanation to all those who want to know the truth. 

Introduction

The decision of Kerala government to appoint an IAS officer Sriram Venkitaraman as the District Collector of Alappuzha created a furore in Kerala. Venkitaraman is an accused on trial in the death of a senior journalist named K M Basheer, the then Bureau Chief of the Malayalam (regional)daily Siraj (The Hindu, July 25, 2022). The IAS officer was booked for rash driving that led to the death of Basheer in the wee hours of August 4, 2019. Ever since the appointment order came, many Sunni Muslim outfits, along with journalists and leaders of the major opposition party — the UDF led by Indian National Congress (INC) and its allies including Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala expressed their concerns on government’s decision to appoint the tainted bureaucrat as the District Collector of Alappuzha, Kerala (The Hindu, July 25, 2022). However, despite strong opposition against the appointment given to the accused officer, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) appointed Venkitaraman as the District Collector. This elicited a series of protests in the state. On July 26, 2022, Youth Congress workers waved black flags at the IAS officer, when he reached the Collectorate to take charge. On July 27, 2022, Kerala Union of Working Journalist (KUWJ) held a protest march in Alappuzha outside the Collectorate and similar protests took place across Kerala. On July 30, 2022, protest marches to district administration offices in all districts in Kerala were conducted under the auspices of the Kerala Muslim Jamaath, Sunni Muslim Outfits like Sunni Yuvajana Sangam (SYS) and Sunni Students Federation (John, 2022). Owing to protests, the state government removed Venkitaraman from the post of District Collector. He is at present the General Manager of Civil Supplies Corporation, Kerala.

The Fake Facts

Following the removal of Venkitaraman from the post of District Collector of Alappuzha, social media was abuzz with a lot of fake news in connection with it. First came the video of a march which was supposedly carried out in the Alappuzha district with the claim that it shows Muslims protesting against the appointment of an IAS officer as a District Collector because he is a Brahmin (Hassan, 2022). Here are some screenshots which propagated fake narratives. The Twitter page of the right-wing party Indu Makkal
Katchi
tweeted as follows (See Picture 1)

Picture 1: Screenshot of the Tweet Posted by Indu Makkal Katchi

             Source: Screenshot of the Tweet by @Indumakkalkatchi

Many social media users shared this video and claimed that in Kerala, Muslims in large numbers took out a procession opposing the appointment of a new IAS collector, who is a Hindu Brahmin. The protests happened in Kerala but it was not due to his caste and religion of the IAS officer but because he was involved in drunk driving case that led to the death of a journalist. Those spreading fake news were silent about what led to the protest. While many including journalists and opposition parties in Kerala protested, some people were selectively accusing the Muslim community for the protests (See Picture 2).

Picture 2: Screenshot of the Tweet posted by a Twitter User

Source: Screenshot of the Tweet by @tarunkumar0210

Even verified accounts were tweeting the fake information without even realizing the truth (Picture 3)The fake news spread like wildfire and even the author of this paper got many concerned queries from his peers in academic community and had a tough time convincing the veracity behind the news [1].

Picture 3: Screenshot of a Tweet Posted by Twitter Verified Account

Source: Screenshot of the Tweet by @shashank_ssj

What is the Truth?

The first truth that needs to be acknowledged is that the widespread protest against the appointment of Sriram Venkitaraman is not because the Collector was an individual from Hindu Brahmin community. The protest did not happen due to the religious identity or caste of the IAS officer but because he is accused of killing a journalist. The one and only valid reason for the protests was due to the fact that Venkitaraman is an accused on trial in the death of K M Basheer, a journalist. Secondly, it is not just Muslim outfits that vehemently protested against the appointment of the officer. The fake news peddlers in the society blinded by pseudo nationalism and in their quest to portray anything involving a Hindu and Muslim should find some time to learn the truth instead of painting everything in a communal colour. The truth is that this is not a Hindu — Muslim rivalry issue, but a clear case of violation of human rights. To understand the reason and resentment against the appointment of the said bureaucrat, one should learn about the tragic accident that led to the death of the journalist.

Not an Ordinary Road Accident

In the wee hours of August 3, 2019, K M Basheer, a senior journalist in the state was killed after a speeding car allegedly driven by Venkitaraman rammed into the bike of the journalist (The Hindu, August 3, 2019). Basheer had parked his bike on the roadside near the Museum Junction, right outside Public Office Complex, Thiruvanthapuram, when the accident took place. The journalist was brought dead at Thiruvanthapuram Medical College. Although eyewitness accounts state that Venkitaraman was behind the wheel, there was a major lapse in initiating immediate legal proceedings (Express News Service, August 17, 2019). The IAS officer was reportedly in an inebriated state as per the eyewitness accounts but the police allegedly did not subject him to a blood alcohol test in the hours following the accident citing the car was driven by a woman named Wafa Firoz, who was Venkitaraman’s co-passenger in the car. There were allegations that police, doctors and IAS lobby in the state were trying to save the IAS officer from the case.

Following the accident, the high-profile bureaucrat was taken to General Hospital and though the doctors had marked his injuries as minimal and not life-threatening, Venkitaraman insisted that he be referred to specialist care. The doctors agreed to the officer’s request and referred him to Government Medical College and then later he chose to get himself admitted to a private hospital (The Hindu, February 15, 2020), where many of his former MBBS batchmates work. Though there were reports that the doctor who attended to Venkatraman’s injuries attested that he had smell of alcohol on the breath of the patient, his blood samples were not taken for testing immediately (Shan, 2020).

After the shoddy investigation by the local police came under intense scrutiny for trying to shield Venkitaraman, the probe was later handed to a special investigation team from Crime Branch. In the charge sheet filed by the Crime Branch in 2020, it has been reported that the accused officer deliberately delayed the sampling of his blood to dodge the mandatory blood alcohol test (The Hindu, February 15, 2020). As per the charge sheet, the accused resisted attempts by a duty nurse to collect his blood sample and intentionally delayed the proceedings to dilute the presence of alcohol in his blood. Due to the failure in collecting blood samples, the investigators had to rely on the testimonies of doctors and other witnesses. The investigation concluded that the bureaucrat was driving the car well above the legal speed limit per hour. The special investigation team found five CCTV footage and recorded the statements of eye-witnesses. The accused officer has been booked under section 304 of IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder). In addition, sections 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of the offence, giving false information to screen offender, driving dangerously), section 185 (driving by drunken person) and 188 (punishment for offences under Motor Vehicle Act) were also added. The special investigation team also collected scientific evidence which proved that Venkitaraman was indeed driving the car and it was over-speeding. When the trial in the sensational accident started, Venkitaraman confessed to the judicial Court that he suffers from retrograde amnesia — a form of memory loss, often temporary that may have been caused by trauma or an accident (Shaji, 2020). There were even medical reports to substantiate his claim that he was suffering from this particular type of amnesia.  While Venkitaraman was placed under suspension by the state government following the controversial accident, he was reinstated into service in March 2020 as Covid Special Officer in the state health department. Till getting appointed as the nodal health officer in charge of Covid 19 war — room in March 2020, he was suffering from retrograde amnesia. The reinstatement also raised a few eyebrows as there were concerns that some of the witnesses in the case were doctors and the accused officer in the health department would dissuade them from telling the truth in Court. However, the state government justified the reinduction but nobody knows whether the retrograde amnesia caused any hindrance in discharging his duties. On July 23, 2022, the Kerala government ordered the reshuffle of 17 IAS officers in the state and Venkitaraman was appointed as the District Collector of Alappuzha (Onmanorama, July 23, 2022). But the question here is how can a person suffering from retrograde amnesia can be made the District Collector, especially since such an administerial post with huge responsibilities requires a sound mind and the ability to take decisions effectively. Does the state government also suffer from retrograde amnesia?

From Hero to Villain 

Meanwhile, prior to the controversial accident, Sriram Venkitaraman IAS was a hero of sorts in the minds of some people in Kerala. Venkitaraman earned the moniker of ‘demolition man’ when he cracked down on encroachments in Munnar during his stint as Devikulam sub-collector. While the government was upset with the steps taken by the young bureaucrat to put an end to encroachments in the hill station, the people in Kerala stood with him. But his image as a saviour bureaucrat was broken after the car driven by him in inebriated state killed a person. The way he tried to escape from the cases also earned the wrath of the public.

Silence of The Civil Society and Public Intellectuals

It has been noticed that whenever LDF is in power, the civil society and public intellectuals especially the Left intelligentsia maintain a stoic silence on public issues. Minority appeasement is a common strategy for LDF and UDF. Though the Congress party had a secular image in the minds of the religious minorities, ever since the rise of BJP at the national level, the party has been losing its ground in India in general. While UDF in Kerala remains a glimmering hope, the LDF government is widely portrayed as a hope for religious minorities. The LDF, Left Intelligentsia, civil society and public intellectuals exercise extra caution when it comes to openly protecting the interest of religious minorities. At times they are vocal, especially when elections are around the corner but not every time. Though the LDF does not shy away from protesting and expressing their disagreement with matters that are not in the best interest of the religious minorities, at times their silence is mysterious. One of the main reasons behind this is due to the false assumption that any criticism on LDF’s stand on a public issue or any other matter will weaken the hegemonical power of the state and eventually it affects their vote bank politics.

In this case, while initially, the Kerala government didn’t pay heed to the calls to remove the tainted IAS officer, when the Muslim community mobilized themselves and carried out widespread protests, the state government had no other option. The Muslim community across India now feels marginalized and at times ostracized, especially due to the hatred spewed by right-wing fundamentalist groups and they are finding it hard for a space to make their voices to be heard. While in Kerala, the religious minorities are not facing that much hatred, they too are forced to come out in public to raise their demands. Due to the vacuum created in the absence of a strong civil society and public intellectuals, the religious minorities are now in a more vulnerable condition and this is in a way is forcing them to openly contest and confront unhealthy developments. The failure of LDF, civil society and public intellectuals to take a stand against the appointment of the accused officer forced the Muslim community to take their agitation to the streets. In Gramscian theory, civil society appears as a meditating agent of the special interest (selfish) to the general and consequently as a cause of rupture to the general interest (Maglaras, 2013). When civil society and public intellectuals fail to play the role of the ‘critical mass’ then it would eventually upset the social fabric of the state.

Conclusion

Right-wing groups and some Christian fundamentalist groups [2] were in the forefront in spreading the disinformation by selectively portraying the protest by a religious community through a communal angle (Chathukulam and Joseph, 2021). What is more shocking is the silence of secular civil society and the Left intelligentsia on such unhealthy trends threatening to destroy the egalitarian fabric in the state of Kerala. Civil society and public intellectuals in Kerala should play a major role as ‘critical mass’ even when the LDF is in power. The weakening of civil society and silencing of the public intellectuals in a way lead to the dissemination of false information and news. In the absence of a ‘critical mass’, vested interests with communal agendas will emerge to upset the social and political equilibrium in the society by spewing venom of hatred. Had the civil society and intelligentsia remained vigilant, disinformation and fake news syndrome like these should have been nipped in the bud itself. In an age where civil society and public intellectuals of Gramscian model (Gramsci, 1978) are becoming endangered species, the real danger is not too far away.

(Author:Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Sri Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru and currently the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. He can be contacted at joschathukulam[at]gmail[dot]com)

References

  • Chathukulam, Jos and Joseph, Manasi. (2021, September 17). What is Plaguing the Catholic Church in Kerala? Is it ‘Jihad’ or something else? Mainstream Weekly, Vol LIX No 40.
  • Express News Service. (2019, August 17). IAS Sriram Drunk Driving Case: Key Witness Says Suspended Officer was Intoxicated. The New Indian Express.
  • Gramsci, Antonio (1978). Antonio Gramsci: Selection From Political Writings 1921-1926, ‎ Lawrence & Wishart Ltd; New Edition. (This volume is the second of two containing a selection of Antonio Gramsci’s political writings from his first entry into Italian politics to his imprisonment under Mussolini’s fascist regime).
  • Hassan, Jakir. (2022, August 4). Muslims Protested Against Appointment of Alleppey District Collector Because He Is Brahmin? No, Video Viral with False Communal Claim. The Logical Indian.
  • John, Haritha. (2022, August 2). How RW Groups Gave a Communal Spin to Protests against IAS Officer Sriram in Kerala. The NewsMinute.
  • Maglaras, Vasilis. (2013). Consent and Submission: Aspects of Gramsci’s Theory of the Political and Civil Society. SAGE Open. doi:10.1177/2158244012472347.
  • Onmanorama. (2022, July 23). IAS Officers Transferred: Sriram New Alappuzha Collector, Renu Comes to Ernakulam. Onmanorama.
  • Shaji, A. K. (2020, October 21). IAS Officer Who Ran Over A Journalist, Heads the Fact-Check Team of Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan Govt. The Logical Indian.
  • Shan, A. (2020, March 23). IAS Officer Sriram’s Posting in Health Department as COVID-19 Special Officer Raises Eyebrows. The New Indian Express.
  • The Hindu. (2019, August 3). Kerala Journalist Killed in Accident, IAS Officer Accused of Driving the Car. The Hindu.
  • The Hindu. (2020, February 15). Sriram Destroyed Evidence: CB. The Hindu.
  • The Hindu. (2022, July 25). Congress Intensifies Stir Against Sriram Venkitaraman’s Appointment as Alappuzha Collector. The Hindu.
  • The Hindu. (2022, July 30). Protest Against Appointment of Sriram Venkitaraman as Collector. The Hindu.

[1The author decided to write this article after he received an email from his friend Dr. G. Sreenivas Reddy, Retired Professor, Department of Public Administration, Kakatiya University, Warangal, Telangana State, India. In his email, Prof. Reddy asked the author regarding the truth or veracity behind the vicious social media posts stating that for the first time in the history of India, a District Collector has been removed from his post because he was a Hindu and majority of the Muslim population opposed his appointment. The author also received many phone calls and emails from his peers in the academic community on similar lines.

[2Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA) and Democratic Christian Federation, Kerala shared posts on Facebook that were critical of the protests led by the Muslim community in the state seeking the removal of the embattled IAS officer (See John, 2022).

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