On June 21, the police in Bantwal town in Karnataka’s Dakshin Kannada district arrested two people for posting provocative messages on social media forums that criticised police investigations into a communal clash that took place a week earlier in the district. Officials claimed that the messages questioned the police’s neutrality in clamping down on the people behind the clashes. In a communally-charged atmosphere, the last thing the police wanted was any doubts to be cast on their ability to act decisively.

Since April, Dakshin Kannada has witnessed at least three murders and several clashes between members of two communities. On July 8, clashes erupted again during the funeral procession of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist in Bantwal. On July 4, the man was stabbed in the neck in what the police see as retaliation for the murder of a Social Democratic Party of India activist on June 21.

A pattern has emerged in these clashes. Groups that indulge in violence on the ground have been aided in mobilisation by several Facebook pages. The police see a spike in divisive messages posted on these forums immediately after a clash takes place. The Facebook posts are then converted into WhatsApp messages and are circulated quickly and effectively.

The police have been trying to clamp down on such pages, reportedly by contacting Facebook and Twitter. However, despite court orders to suspend some of these online groups, the police are unable to effectively put an end to this menace that is fast becoming a serious threat to communal peace on the ground.

Karnataka, which is ruled by the Congress, is due for Assembly elections next year.

Divisive pages

The developments immediately after the stabbing of the RSS activist on July 4 illustrate how social media has become a crucial tool for anti-social elements to fan communal tensions in Dakshin Kannada, which has a history of communal clashes. Just hours after the incident took place, a Facebook page in which the profile photo is of a man dressed in the RSS uniform posted defamatory messages about a community.

This message – in the form of postcards with graphic pictures in the background – was quickly transferred to WhatsApp and circulated widely in Bantwal. A police officer, on condition of anonymity, said by the time the police began focusing on the source of the WhatsApp messages, retaliatory message from another page, suspected to be run by a member of a political party, began doing the rounds. This page openly threatened local RSS members with dire consequences. In the meantime, the RSS activist died of his wounds and the funeral procession that followed led to clashes on the ground.

Even after the clashes, the groups continued circulating the problematic messages. It was only after the local police issued open warnings that the pages took down the offensive posts.

The same thing happened in June when clashes took place in Kalladka, which is part of Bantwal taluk. At that point, the police put out statements asking members of the public to take screenshots of divisive messages and send it to the mobile numbers flashed in the statement. This led to the arrest of two persons on June 21 and the shutting down of a WhatsApp group responsible for circulating inflammatory messages.

Weak response

While local police units continue to be vigilant against attempts to stoke communal tensions through Facebook and WhatsApp, police officials in the district lament that higher officials have not done enough to take up the matter with Facebook to effectively counter this menace.

One official said that as early as November last year, a local court in Mangaluru issued orders for several Facebook pages to be taken down. Among them included the two that spread hate messages on June 20 and later on July 4 when the RSS activist was attacked.

Members of the local police cannot comprehend why the pages had still not been taken down “We have represented to the higher officials many times,” the officer said, requesting not to be identified.

Officials in the Karnataka government said that the Facebook posts did find a mention during the meeting held between Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and top police officials in Bengaluru on July 10.

An official said Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has asked the police to “show no mercy” to hate mongers. The chief minister was informed that the Union information technology ministry was already notified about the court order. It is not clear what was the ministry’s response to the court’s request to block the Facebook pages.

Some of these pages have huge followings in Dakshin Kannada. Two of them have more than 50,000 followers and the comments on the posts serve as a clear sign of the deteriorating trust on the ground.

Inspector General of Police (Western Region) Harishekharan refused to comment on whether the Karnataka police has made any specific requests to Facebook to take down pages that spread false information. “I don’t want to comment on this issue at this point,” he said.

But he admitted that people have been using social media to spread rumours. “We are looking into that,” he added.

However, The Hindu reported on Monday that a meeting was indeed held a few months ago between the police and Facebook officials, after which some posts were taken down.