The Big Story: Chinese whispers

In recent years, India has seen a spate of lynchings. Some of this violence has been sparked by rumours of cow slaughter or cattle theft, while other victims have been accused of being kidnappers.

In many of the attacks, social media played a part in spreading anxiety. The swelling numbers of internet-enabled smartphones have allowed rumours to spread across vast geographies very quickly. Under pressure, WhatsApp, the country’s most popular mobile messaging service, has rolled out a feature that limits the number of chats users in India can forward to five. Even while WhatsApp has seemingly acted in good faith, the Indian government is testing ways to see if it can ban the service – along with other social media tools such as Facebook – in the event of an emergency.

Banning speech is a popular knee-jerk reaction in India. However, banning social media services will do little in the medium term since the internet offers many channels to bypass censorship. In the short term, such a move will create scope for abuse since it will also allow the government to clamp down on legitimate political activity – much of which now takes place on social media.

In most of the cases of violence breaking out because of social media rumours, police forces have been unable to identify who exactly spread them. In many cases, the rumour mongering has consisted of maliciously edited photos or videos. However, the police seem unable to identify the groups behind this.

In other cases, the authorities have even treated the accused in cases of lynchings leniently. In 2014, after morphed images of medieval Maratha king Shivaji were shared on social media, a Muslim man was lynched in Pune. The Bombay High Court treated the fact that it was a hate crime as a mitigating factor, arguing that the men had been provoked “in the name of religion” and granted them bail in 2017. In July, a Union minister went so far as to garland eight men convicted of lynching a meat trader in Jharkhand.

Rather than throttle WhatsApp, the authorities must treat lynchings as the law and order problem that they are. In fact, if anything, this inordinate focus on social media as a scapegoat has resulted in another set of wrongs. In July, a young man in Madhya Pradesh was charged with sedition and jailed after some content – deemed objectionable by the police – was shared in a WhatsApp group of which he was the administrator. That a person can be jailed for something he did not even say is troubling and opens up scope for police abuse.

Meanwhile in Rajasthan, the police this week stopped internet services in an attempt to prevent cheating in examinations. A simple law and order problem has been reframed as a technology problem and the speech of millions curtailed simply because the authorities have been unable to stop students from being dishonest when they answer their exams.

The Big Scroll

  • Are WhatsApp administrators responsible for content in groups? The police in India seem to think so, reports Abhishek Dey.
  • As child lifting rumours spread, police across India start outreach units to quell fake news.
  • Internet shutdowns to stop cheating is like cutting off water to prevent it being stolen, writes Rohan Venkataramakrishnan.
  • Forget restricting access, internet shutdowns are costing India a ton of money


  • There is a powerful argument for not abrogating Article 35A, which gives special rights and privileges to residents of Jammu and Kashmir, argues Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express. But we must also think beyond the binaries on it.  
  • The complexity of the Goods and Services Tax process is hindering collections and diminishing potential economic benefits, writes Puja Mehra in the Hindu.
  • The National Register of Citizens must address issues of justice and humanity, argues Swapan Dasgupta in the Telegraph.


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The Rajya Sabha deputy speaker election once again shows where the BJP scores over Congress, reports Anita Katyal.

“The Opposition was lulled into complacency because there was no word on the notification for the election, except for the general belief that it would be conducted during the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, as the BJP did not have the numbers to get its candidate elected. But the BJP was working behind the scenes to reach the magic figure of 123 in the 245-member Upper House. When it was assured of the support of the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi and the Biju Janata Dal, it decided to go ahead with the election, making the announcement on Monday.

Realising that it would not be possible to field a BJP candidate, since Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu is also from the party, the government adroitly decided to offer the post to an ally. This served two objectives: it helped buy peace with partners upset with the BJP over its ‘big brother’ attitude, and it ensured the post remained in the National Democratic Alliance.”