Between October 27 and October 31, Reliance Industries Chairperson Mukesh Ambani received three death threats, all sent via email to his office from the address firstname.lastname@example.org. However, the investigation by the Mumbai Police soon found that a 21-year-old student, Rajveer Khant, had sent the emails.
Khant used a virtual private network, or VPN, to send the threat mails to show off to his friends, the police said. He told the police that he got the idea to use the name Shadab Khan while watching a cricket match featuring a Pakistani player by the same name.
Khant is not the only one to adopt a false Muslim identity while committing a crime. From men angry at being turned down by women to content creators seeking to make their inflammatory videos go viral, this modus operandi of pretending to be Muslim has found increased use over the last couple of years.
Experts say that in a communally polarised environment, the identity of an accused or suspect in such cases gets more amplified than the crime itself, thus intensifying Islamophobia in India.
Feeding into the bias against Muslims
Journalist Alishan Jafri, who covers hate crimes against Muslims in India, told Scroll that the Muslim identity of a suspect or accused is deliberately emphasised with the intention of increasing the animosity against the community.
“Even in cases where an accused person is actually a Muslim, you would see news outlets mentioning the name of the criminal in headlines or social media posts, as opposed to other cases, where the culprits are only identified by their sex or age,” Jafri said.
Fact-checkers and media watchdogs have also highlighted Jafri’s observation.
This trend takes a step further in cases when a person falsely identifies as a Muslim, said Jafri. He cited the example of Vikas Kumar, a resident of Uttar Pradesh, who identified himself as Rashid Khan in a YouTube video, while making objectionable remarks about the murder of Shraddha Walkar by her live-in partner, a Muslim man. In the video that went viral on social media in November last year, Kumar, while posing as Khan, said that it was normal to murder someone and chop their body up if the killer was in a fit of rage.
After he was arrested for his comments, Kumar told journalists that while shooting the video, he had initially identified himself by his original name. But those making the video had mocked him, saying that he was lying and must be a Muslim.
After Kumar’s arrest, social media users pointed out that the YouTube channel in question was run by a person named Ankur Arya, who regularly posts videos with inflammatory content.
“If you look at YouTube channels like Arya’s, you will find several vox pop videos, where a Muslim has been asked to comment on sensitive matters because such content gets popular on social media,” Jafri said. “Many of these videos are even shared by leaders and official handles of the Bharatiya Janata Party.”
In an article that Jafri co-authored for The Caravan, he had explained how such videos by YouTube channels spread hate and “feed into the biases that many Hindus might hold against Muslims”.
In another instance, a video that went viral in October showed a person identifying himself as Javed Hussain making objectionable remarks about Hinduism. After the man was arrested in Haridwar, the police found out that his real name was Dilip Baghel and that a YouTuber had paid him to make the remarks.
Academician Ram Puniyani, who writes on communal politics in India, likened such instances to deliberately placing prohibited meat in religious places with the intention of sparking communal unrest.
“This also highlights the plight of the poor in this country who are ready to do such things for money,” Puniyani told Scroll. “If you recall Govind Nihalani’s movie Tamas, there a Dalit man gets framed for placing the carcass of a pig in a mosque.”
Puniyani said that such incidents of impersonation confirm and intensify hatred against Muslims.
“When a Muslim name comes up in connection to a crime, there is already a fertile ground to believe that the person must have done something wrong,” he said. “In some cases, even the police could be communally biased, so there is a possibility that the investigation gets adversely impacted.”
For instance, in October, the male partner of a tuition teacher killed a 17-year-old boy in Kanpur suspecting that the teenager was in a relationship with the teacher. In an attempt to make the boy’s disappearance look like a case of kidnapping, the accused, a man named Prabhat Shukla, sent a ransom letter with “Allah hu Akbar” written on it. The police said that the religious slogan was to divert the course of the investigation.
In another case in September, an Indian Army soldier was arrested in Kerala after he gave a false statement to the police saying that he had been attacked by a group of six people who painted the letters “PFI” on his back.
The Popular Front of India is a Muslim organisation that was banned for five years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act by the Centre in September 2022 for allegedly being involved in “violent terrorist activities”.
Lack of regulation on impersonation on social media
The spreading of misinformation on social media by impersonation extends beyond communal hatred. On November 22, former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s daughter Sara Tendulkar issued a statement saying that a parody account on X, formerly Twitter, was using morphed photos of her.
Kritika Goel, the India head of fact-checking website Logically Facts, told Scroll that the change in X’s policy to provide a blue tick to any user willing to pay a subscription fee has made impersonation easier on the micro-blogging platform.
“Not everyone is aware that the blue tick is no longer a marker of credibility,” Goel said. “Moreover, the problem with impersonation is that by the time fact checks are carried out, a lot of people might already have shared a piece of misinformation, so the damage is already done.”
Goel cited the example of an X user, falsely claiming to be an Al Jazeera journalist, who posted a tweet saying that the militant group Hamas was responsible for an airstrike at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in the Gaza strip that killed thousands. The post was shared by thousands of users.
After Al Jazeera clarified that the owner of the now-deleted X account @_Faridakhan was not affiliated with the news organisation, it came to light that the user was an Indian and had earlier posted tweets in support of the BJP.
Goel also said that she had noticed incidents of social media abusers impersonating Muslims in India. She recalled an incident from two years ago when a Twitter user had issued issued rape threats to the nine-month-old daughter of cricketer Virat Kohli. “Several people claimed that the handle was a bot account operated from Pakistan,” said Goel. “But the police found out that the culprit was a software engineer from Hyderabad.”
Claims about the account being a Pakistani bot gained traction as the profile name of the account was “Amena” – a Muslim name. But the accused turned out to be a 23-year-old Hindu man called Ramnagesh Alibathini.
Another such example is of Divin Devaiah, a resident of Kodagu in Karnataka, who was arrested in July 2022 after he posted defamatory comments about a local deity on social media under a Muslim name.
Goel told Scroll that hate, in general, is played up a lot on social media. “There already exists a society that is polarised against the minorities,” said Goel. “Hateful posts from a user with a Muslim name makes it easier for people to further alienate them.”