Standing outside his home in Malitola neighbourhood of western Bihar’s Nasriganj town, Vinod Sah looked distraught. “How can a Hindu like my son allow such a song to be played?” he asked. “Our blood will boil if we ever hear anything like this.”
His son Ashish Kumar has been arrested for sedition. On June 15, some of Nasriganj’s Muslim youth organised a procession to celebrate the sighting of the Eid moon and hired Kumar as the DJ, the operator, in local parlance, of a set of large speakers attached to vehicles that blast out music on such occasions as weddings or festivals. As they wound their way through the sleepy town in Rohtas district, the speakers unexpectedly started blaring out a paean to the Pakistani army – a selection being blamed on YouTube’s autoplay feature, which automatically chooses and plays songs. Some townsfolk complained to the police, who immediately stopped the procession and dispersed the teenagers.
By this time, however, some of the residents had shot a video of the incident which soon spread via WhatsApp and Facebook. By June 17, the local administration registered a first information report and arrested eight people, including five minors. They were charged with sedition, among other crimes.
YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook had intruded violently upon the quiet life of Nasriganj – the latest stark example of how social media is roiling Indian society. A town mostly of dusty lanes crammed with exposed brick houses and open drains, it is home to around 24,000 people, 60% of them Hindu and the rest Muslim.
‘This song is wrong’
Manoj Kumar, popularly known as Manoj Bajrangi, runs a small corner store on Postal Road and claims to be a Bharatiya Janata Party worker. He is at the centre of the storm Nasriganj is caught in, named in the FIR as having handed over a video of the procession to the police. “I was having dinner when the procession passed by,” Bajrangi said. “I thought to myself, ‘This song is wrong. It has some objectionable lyrics: Hum Pakistani mujahid hain’.”
Literally “we are Pakistani holy warriors”, the song is a muscular tribute to the Pakistani army and is available on YouTube.
Bajrangi said he informed the police immediately.
By then, news of the incident had reached other parts of the town. Shyamul Haq, a community leader and the husband of the local Nagar Panchayat’s vice chairman, rushed to the spot. “The police stopped the procession, made the DJ do uthak baithaks [squats], and told him to appear at the police station the next day,” Haq said. “I would have settled the matter then and there, but then the entire thing went viral.”
‘Sedition is the crime’
At 1.18 am that night, Manoj Kumar WhatsApped the video of the procession to the Nasriganj police. “The administration might find this video useful. It is from Postal Road,” he wrote, and went on to helpfully add: “Sedition is the crime.”
On June 16, the video circulated through WhatsApp and Facebook in and around Nasriganj. A set of screenshots collected by Haq show abusive comments on Facebook along with demands for the police to arrest the people who participated in the procession.
One of the townsfolk who called for jailing participants in the function would apologise later. “I got swept up by emotion in the heat of the moment,” said Arjun Kumar, who runs a tea shop. “I have apologised to the Muslims.”
As the video spread beyong Nasriganj and even Rohtas, a fair number of people headed to the YouTube page of the song itself to vent their anger.
Autoplay to blame
In Sarai Mohalla, a Muslim neighbourhood where most of the youth in the procession live, there is shock. “Songs just kept on playing on YouTube,” explained Mohammed Sonu Khan, elder brother of Raja Khan, 20, the organiser of the procession. “They did not comprehend anything and by the time they did, someone had shot a video of the song playing.”
Mohammad Zubair, father of one of the arrested minors, said their “boys do not even know what ‘mujahid’ means”. “The DJ played the song,” he added. “How can our children be held responsible?”
Ironically, Bajrangi agrees. “I think they did not know what was playing.”
Yet, the administration was compelled to act after the video went viral. “We only came to know of the video on June 17,” claimed Bikramganj Sub Divisional Police Officer Raj Kumar. “We filed an FIR immediately.”
The FIR was lodged at the Nasriganj police station by the local block development officer.
Harmed by social media
Several residents claimed that Nasriganj has never seen communal violence or even tension. The amity seems broken now with reactions to the June 15 incident divided sharply along communal lines. Much of the blame for this lies with the entry of internet-enabled mobile phones. The ability to shoot video and share it rapidly ensured the fracas generated far more outrage online than it did in real life, on the ground. It broadcast Nasriganj to a much wider world and allowed that world to intrude into the town’s dusty lanes. A man in Sarai Mohalla, a neighbour of one of the arrested minors, compared the incident to last week’s case of an Airtel customer refusing to be served by a Muslim representative.
“This would have ended that day,” said Vinod Sah. “Except now these things have come in, net and mobile and it spread so far. Who would have thought Nasriganj would make news all over India one day?”