In less than a month, Dilshad Shaikh’s life has turned upside down.
Her family has been forced out of the home they rented in Satara.
A mob of young men has thrown stones at her house, calling her family “deshdrohi” – traitors.
Her son was nearly forced to leave his school.
Her sister’s vegetable stall has been vandalised twice.
And all because of a social media post her 14-year-old son did not make.
On the morning of August 15, just as Shaikh, a 35-year-old accredited social health activist in Satara, was about to leave for an Independence Day event, a neighbour came running to her. He showed a social media post from her son’s Instagram handle, which insulted 17th century Maratha ruler Shivaji.
“From the language, I knew my son did not write it,” Shaikh told Scroll. “It was full of abuses.”
Soon, she received a call from a relative. The relative’s daughter had gotten abusive messages from her son’s Instagram account.
“Local leaders in our community advised me to go to the police station,” she said. Shaikh said they warned of consequences of such posts going viral.
Shaikh took her son to the Satara city police station, from where she was referred to the cyber cell. There, she deposited the two cellphones used by the family.
But within hours, screenshots of the post had already gone viral.
A mob of 40 people gathered outside her house and pelted stones. Her mother-in-law and 11-year-old daughter cowered inside.
“They called us deshdrohi (traitors), and asked us to go to Pakistan,” Shaikh said.
At the cyber police station, Shaikh and her son’s doubts about the Instagram account being tampered grew stronger. “My son deleted the post, but it reappeared within seconds. Even the police saw it happen. It was clear that his account had been hacked,” Shaikh said.
Even so, a first information report under Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, which is invoked in case of a deliberate act to hurt religious sentiments, was registered against her minor son. He was produced before a magistrate, and on August 16 sent to a juvenile home for a few days.
The family’s ordeal did not end there.
On the night of August 15, their landlord asked them to vacate the house. “My husband was in Karnataka for a family function,” said Shaikh. “My mother-in-law, my daughter and I were home. I kept explaining to the landlord that we have done nothing wrong. But he did not listen.”
A local political leader threatened them, saying that “anything could happen to the house”, she said.
“We left in the clothes we were wearing,” Shaikh said. “All of this just because we are Muslims.”
The family lived in a nearby village for a few days.
When her husband Raja Shaikh, who lays tiles and builds floors for a living, returned on August 19, he was arrested by the police. “My Facebook account is linked with my son’s Instagram account. The post automatically got shared on my account,” he told Scroll.
He spent eight days in prison.
Deputy superintendent of police KC Suryawanshi said their investigation found that the Instagram account was hacked. “We will withdraw the charges against Raja,” said Suryavanshi.
But for the Shaikhs and the local Muslim community, this was just the beginning.
Over the next 25 days, Hindu groups in Satara targeted three other Muslim youth over “objectionable” Instagram posts and comments.
Two such social media posts and the protests that followed eventually led to violence in Pusesavali village, an hour from Satara’s district headquarters, on September 10 – and the death of a Muslim man.
This is not the first instance of such violence in Maharashtra.
In June, Instagram posts praising the 18th century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, made by teenage Muslim boys angered Hindu outfits in Kolhapur, 100 km from Satara. They went on a rampage, targeting Muslim homes and shops.
A month earlier, one person had died in Akola district in riots sparked by social media posts considered communal.
In Satara, however, local residents insist there is a difference: “This is not a riot, but an attack,” they say. They believe the teenagers accused of making provocative social media posts did not actually post anything. “It is for the police to investigate, but we believe this is orchestrated,” said Minaj Nizam Sayyed, a member of Muslim Jagruti Abhiyaan in Satara.
The families of four Muslim young men in Satara told Scroll they now fear for the lives of their children.
The ‘revenge’ hacker
In their investigation, the police found that Amar Arjun Shinde, a 21-year-old resident of Koregaon, a town close to Satara, had hacked into Dilshad Shaikh’s son’s account to post abuses against Shivaji.
The reason, the police said, was revenge.
“Shinde wanted revenge as he was interested in a girl that the boy [Shaikh’s son] used to often chat with on Instagram,” said deputy superintendent of police Suryawanshi. Shaikh said the girl is a childhood friend of her son. Shinde was arrested late last month.
Shinde, said the police, created a profile in the name of Aarohi, befriended Shaikh’s son, and managed to get his password while chatting with him.
In the days following the incident, the police held peace meetings between Hindu and Muslim communities and clarified that the Instagram account was hacked.
“But Hindu groups continued to protest,” said Jamir Shaikh, a local Satara resident.
A mob ransacked Dilshad Shaikh’s sister’s vegetable stall twice.
According to the family, they went to the local police to register a first information report against those who vandalised the vegetable stall. “The police refused to register an FIR,” Shaikh alleged.
Suryavanshi, however, refuted the claim. “We asked them to submit a complaint. The family refused to do so,” he said.
The school where Dilshad Shaikh’s son studies asked him to take admission elsewhere.
The school authorities relented only after requests from community members. Till date, however, the 14-year-old has not returned to school.
The family has been forced to rent another flat in Satara city, where the rent is Rs 8,000, double of what they paid before. “I have spent Rs 70,000 so far on legal fees, food and the new house,” Shaikh said.
‘Deliberate attempt to create riots’
On August 18, screenshots of an Instagram post with provocative comments on the Hindu gods Ram and Sita started spreading on WhatsApp in Pusesavali village, 40 km from Satara.
As in the case of Dilshad Shaikh’s son, the police registered a case under Section 295 (A) against 21-year-old Aadil Ayaz Bagwan, who they said had commented on a post – an Instagram reel with an image of a boy and a girl – and used abusive language to address Ram.
“But when we checked Instagram, we could not find that comment,” an investigating officer in the case said. “Either it has been deleted or it was never posted.”
The officer added: “The reel itself was posted by someone else and was not objectionable or related to Ram and Sita. We have not booked the handle under any charges.”
The officer said they have written to Instagram for more information.
Aadil’s uncle Ashwaq Bagwan told Scroll that Aadil did not post any comment on Instagram.
Local Muslim leaders said that Aadil went to the police station himself to cooperate with the investigation. He was in prison for 13 days.
Bagwan said: “We believe the screenshot that went viral is edited. There are deliberate attempts to create riots here,” he said.
On August 19, a day after the screenshots went viral, a protest march was taken out against Aadil in Pusesavali.
“They chanted slogans, asking villagers to boycott Muslims, boycott us socially and economically. There was a clear threat to our family,” Bagwan said.
On August 22, Bagwan wrote a letter to the collector, police superintendent and tehsildar, flagging that the protest rally was conducted without any permission and Hindu groups had “incited violence” in the village. Aadil’s father’s shop and house were attacked by a mob, Bagwan said.
He alleged that the police took no action on his letter. The police have claimed that they held peace meetings to calm the situation.
Aadil was released from police custody after nearly a fortnight, but he lost his job. The owner of a shop which had hired him as a driver asked him to leave.
A riot is sparked
The screenshots that were amplified in August through WhatsApp groups added to the charged communal atmosphere in Satara, but they did not spark any major incident of violence.
This changed on September 10.
A senior police officer from Satara told Scroll that screenshots of two Instagram posts, again in the form of comments, began to circulate on September 10 in Pusesavali.
One was on Ram and another on ruler Shivaji. Both were extremely abusive in nature.
“We were proactive and summoned one of the two [from whose account the comments seemed to be made] for questioning to the police station,” a senior officer said.
Two 23-year-old residents of the village, Altamash Bagwan and Muzammil Bagwan, were accused of posting the offensive comments. Altamash went to the police station for questioning and submitted his phone. “He said he wanted to know how the screenshots circulated because he did not post any comment,” said Minaj Sayyed.
Even as the questioning was underway, screenshots of the posts went viral, resulting in a riot within hours.
A mob of men, some from the village and some from nearby villages, torched vehicles, damaged properties and attacked a local mosque with iron rods and sticks.
“They came on bikes with number plates blackened in order to hide their identity. Some men had their faces covered,” Ashwaq Bagwan, Aadil’s uncle, said.
Six Tablighi Jamaat members from a nearby village were at the mosque, holding religious discussions with some local residents after the night prayers.
The senior police officer, who declined to be identified, told Scroll the mob “committed arson”.
They hit civil engineer Nurul Hassan Liyaqat on his head, leading to his immediate death, and injured 20 others. Liyaqat, aged 31, is survived by a pregnant wife and old parents.
All local police stations were alerted, and asked to reach the riot spot. “We dispersed the crowd and shifted the injured to the hospital,” the senior officer said.
The police have so far arrested 37 persons for rioting. Most of the accused are young adults and unemployed.
Muzammil’s father Tajauddin Bagwan told Scroll: “We believe somebody edited and circulated a screenshot of his Instagram account.”
The police said they are investigating this claim. An investigating officer in the case said they are yet to locate the original Instagram post on which the two had allegedly commented. “The cyber cell is working on it,” the officer said.
On the night of the riot, a mob set two of the Bagwan family’s vehicles ablaze, ransacked their shop and broke window panes of their home.
Fearing for their life, the family did not return home that night.
Ashwini Shendage, deputy police superintendent in Dahiwadi division, said the cyber cell is investigating the case. “So far, we have found no evidence that their mobile phones were compromised. It seems the post came from their account,” the senior police officer said.
But Tajauddin insists: “Why would a Muslim youth post something so offensive? We know the consequences of doing so in the present environment. This is a deliberate attempt to cause fear.”