They're taking their battle online.
Almost 24 hours after six Jawaharlal Nehru University students facing charges of sedition made a dramatic reappearance on campus on Monday, students’ union vice president Shehla Rashid made a speech in which she urged her colleagues to take their agitation into cyberspace.
“[We must] use our Facebook and Twitter profiles as weapons against the demonisation of JNU students and spread correct information,” she said. “The false narrative in the media’s voyeuristic coverage of incidents here needs to be countered with facts and sense.”
It's clear that the media coverage of the protests have given the students a lot to complain about. Much of the police case against JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar for allegedly shouting anti-national slogans at an event about Kashmir on February 9 rests on video footage shot by Zee News. But that footage, it has emerged, has probably been doctored. Some television channels have attempted to portray Umar Khalid, another JNU student involved in the Kashmir event, as an Islamist terrorist.
This has contributed a great deal of misinformation circulating about the protests and the nature of JNU itself, students say. The only way to counter this, they believe, is to join the war of perceptions themselves
Rashid’s urging was timely given the bizarre stories about JNU that have emerged since the Delhi police arrested Kumar on February 12 and charged him with sedition. The most recent claim emerged on Monday when a BJP legislator from Rajasthan, Gyandev Ahuja, said that nearly 3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette butts and 50,000 bones of animals eaten by non-vegetarian students are found in the JNU campus every day.
Even as Rashid made her request, a group of at least 20 volunteers across the country were already on the job battling social media trolls, pumping out photographs and videos to counter the misinformation. The group comprises JNU students, alumni and supporters from other campuses, including Delhi University.
Among the volunteers is senior research scholar Swati Moitra. She was approached by JNU students a few days ago to help with #StandWithJNU – an online campaign against the police action and the central government’s alleged meddling in universities across the country.
Moitra said JNU students have not paid much attention to social media in their agitation so far, but that had to change. To make the effort more energetic, she has tapped her extended network using WhatsApp and Facebook to recruit people who were already supporting the JNU protests on social media. She said she has helped those unfamiliar with social media to use hashtags, tweet videos and photographs.
“I have had a couple of shockingly polite conversations with even the staunchest right-wingers and that’s the whole point of the campaign,” she added. “Our aim was initially to ensure that our side of the story and facts don’t get lost in the din of Twitter… We also hope to eventually reclaim Twitter from the trolls.”
While the last aim seems a tall order, recrafting the narrative seems more possible.
Lakshmi Menon, a professor in Trivandrum pursuing her PhD at JNU, is also involved in the campaign. Living 3,000 km away from the action, she felt the best way to help was to get on to Twitter. “I saw that for every face-to-face conversation you could have with a person explaining the JNU side of the story, there were 10 tweeters dedicatedly twisting the tale,” Menon said. “The only way was to reclaim the hashtags.”
The seemingly misguided criticism of JNU on social media platforms also motivated a JNU alumna, who is doing a PhD in Australia, to become an online warrior. She did not wish to be named. “I got involved because I was completely taken aback by the viciousness of the reaction to the incidents on social media," said the JNU alumna. "It’s interesting that right wing trolls are so strong on Twitter in India whereas it is used for more liberal purposes elsewhere in the world.”
She spends at least two to three hours each day battling opposing points of view on Twitter and engaging them in a conversation about free speech, the sedition law and the right to dissent. “I am trying to use trending tags to inject another viewpoint into the wave of misinformation,” said the JNU alumna. “We’re using #StandWithJNU mostly along with the ones that neutral media channels are using like #JNURow and #JNUcrackdown.”
As students and sympathisers unite, many Facebook pages and Twitter handles that are sharing information on broader themes have cropped up. Among these are @Zinda_Democracy, @NotYetSilenced and @Armoured_Buddha.
While no one is sure how long the campaign will continue, Menon said that there would always be something worth fighting for. “I don’t see there being an ending any time soon,” she said. “If it’s not JNU, it’ll be another space. As long as #savedemocracy has to be used, we’ll use it.”