Hours after the deadly train crash in Odisha’s Balasore killed at least 288 people and wounded 1,000 others on Friday evening, several social media accounts insinuated that Muslims were responsible for the accident.

A preliminary inquiry by the Indian Railways says a signalling error was responsible for India’s deadliest train accident in two decades, The Indian Express reported, citing a “multi-disciplinary joint-inspection note by supervisors”. News reports have highlighted concerns over maintenance and declining funds, as well as flaws in the signalling system.

However, accounts known for spreading Hindutva and Bharatiya Janata Party propaganda swung into action to shield the government as well as Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw from criticism amidst the growing calls for the minister to resign.

On Saturday afternoon, a Twitter account with the handle @randomsena posted an image of the crash site with an arrow pointing to a white structure with domes close to the tracks and captioned it “just saying…yesterday was Friday”. This seemed to suggest that the structure was a mosque and that Muslims were somehow responsible for the tragedy.

Fact-checkers from Boom and AltNews pointed out that the shrine is, in fact, a temple run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or Iskcon. Boom said its team checked images as well as footage from news agencies that showed that the structure is a temple.

The Twitter account named “The Random Indian”, however, doubled down on the claim. “Balasore is a hub of rohingya muslims,” it said, defending itself by saying that there was “no mention of Muslims” in its post.

By Sunday afternoon, the tweet had garnered four million views and nearly 4,500 retweets. The account also posted a series of old news reports involving Muslim suspects in cases of previous, unrelated train incidents with comments such as “something is fishy” to claim a bigger “conspiracy” at work.

The Twitter account of “Prof.N John Camm”, who claims to be a senior Germany-based cardiologist, tweeted “rail jihad”. Several more right-wing Twitter accounts have joined the chorus alleging “sabotage” and a “conspiracy”.

Another Twitter user going by the name “BhikuMhatre” with the handle @MumbaichaDon, posted images of what he claimed was the “primary investigation report” and alleged that the tragedy “looked like a case of sabotage”. The Twitter user, whose followers include BJP leaders and a Mumbai BJP legislator, also demanded an investigation by the National Investigation Agency.

This claim was retweeted by others, with one user alleging more “such incidents” ahead of the 2024 elections. Another alleged the hand of American billionaire George Soros and the Congress to create publicity for Congress Rahul Gandhi who is currently visiting the United States.

Hindu supremacist and journalist Suresh Chavhanke and his Sudarshan News, known for incendiary television news programmes that target Muslims, have amplified these claims of sabotage, including tweeting out the hashtag “train accident or attack” in Hindi.

Twitter user PallaviCT, the co-convener of the Mumbai BJP’s social media cell, also drew links to unrelated previous incidents to claim there was sinister intent behind the Odisha train accident ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Twitter user’s bio says “blessed to be followed” by the prime minister.

On Sunday, the Odisha Police said that it was “highly unfortunate” that social media handles were “mischievously” communalising the train accident. The police warned of legal action against those trying to “create communal disharmony by spreading rumours”.

‘Reservations’ to blame

Another section of Twitter users, meanwhile, has blamed the reservation policy in government jobs for Indians from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for the train crash.

The Twitter account of Shubham Sharma, who claims to be a journalist, said that the Railways had a policy of recruiting staff with a “best among failed” reservation system”. Sharma’s previous posts include claims of “violence against Brahmins” and “caste crimes against non-Dalits”.

Fact-checker Mohammed Zubair posted screenshots of Twitter users faulting the reservation policy in recruitment that led to “less skillful” employees being hired and “meritorious and intelligent people” being sidelined. Twitter user Anuradha Tiwari said “only merit should be a criteria” to hire railway employees.

Twitter user Dhiraj Kumar claimed “reservations” was a main reason why government employees were not able to “match the experty (sic) required to handle particular technology”, with the hashtag “Stop_Reservation_in_Railway”. Another Twitter user “Squint Neon” said humans make mistakes and “when humans are less skillful, they make more mistakes”.

Economist Ashwini Deshpande, co-author of a study “Does Affirmative Action Reduce Productivity? A Case Study of the Indian Railways”, weighed in on the matter. Responding to claims as well as counter-claims, Deshpande wrote that reservations had no negative impact on the productivity or efficiency of the Railways and that in some cases, there was evidence of improved efficiency in some A and B category jobs.

Defending the railway minister

Evidence of a concerted effort to shield the railway minister and the Narendra Modi-led government from increasing criticism was clear with the hashtag “StandwithAshwiniVaishnaw” garnering more than 24,000 tweets by Sunday afternoon. Prominent Hindutva and pro-government accounts put up posts highlighting the past achievements of the Railways under Vaishnaw and praising him for being at the site of derailment.

Twitter user Suresh Kumar Kurapaty claimed that was resigning was the “old method” of accepting failures and called for support for Vaishnaw instead when was “doing his best”.

Many posted photographs of Vaishnaw and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the accident site praising them. Some urged social media users “not to politicise” the accident while others criticised the opposition leaders with some calling them “vultures”.

Several took the opportunity to mock railway ministers under the previous Congress-led governments and defend Vaishnaw.