At 10 am on Saturday, two days after a suicide bomber tore into a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force in Kashmir, killing 40 soldiers, a group called “Clean the Nation” was created on Facebook by a man named Madhur Zucc Singh.
Just hours before, Singh had posted a video on Facebook in which he is wearing a yellow t-shirt bearing the words “Indian Army” and the image of a man strapped to the front of a jeep as a human shield . “This is not the time to change your DP [display picture] or take out candle marches,” Singh said. “Find out who is laughing at our soldiers today, who is celebrating it, then contact their employers, contact the universities they are studying in, send them emails, call them, screw them up this way… get them terminated from their jobs, suspended from their universities…”
The group began with 42 founding members, including engineering students, consultants and entrepreneurs and a youth worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Among its administrators is Ankit Jain, who is followed on Twitter by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among other BJP leaders, and is best known for starting the recent campaign alleging Twitter was biased against right-wing supporters.
The group’s mission was laid out in a note published by another administrator, Ashutosh Vashishtha. “The main reason for starting Clean the Nation was precisely for cleaning and weeding out anti nationals who wear the tag of Indian but leave no stones unturned to insult and mock their own people, culture and the army that is one of the best in the world,” said Vashishtha, whose Facebook page features a picture of him with Union minister Smriti Irani.
The note added: “We ensure you, that if our esteemed Army is doing an external surgical strike in our neighbouring enemy, we will bloody well do an internal one against these enemies within the nation.”
By Monday afternoon, the group’s membership had swelled up to 5,400 people. That night, the group was deleted. It was not immediately clear whether it had been removed by Facebook or wound up by its administrators. But in the two days during which it was in existence, the group claimed to have successfully targetted more than 50 people by filing complaints about their social media posts and eliciting a range of official actions.
Clean the Nation’s targets include an associate professor in Guwahati against whom the police filed two cases, even as she has gone missing after being threatened with rape and murder. In Rajasthan, four Kashmiri students who found themselves in the group’s crosshairs have been suspended by their college. After the group sent several emails to a college in Dehradun, the institution promised to file a case against a former student who is Kashmiri.
What exactly are the posts to which the group has taken objection? And what has been the impact of its campaign?
Scroll.in tracked down several cases. Here is what we found.
The Guwahati professor
Among the early targets of the group was Papri Banerjee, an associate professor at a college in Guwahati. A member of the group shared screenshots of a series of posts she had published on Facebook, circling some lines, presumably because they were thought to be offensive. “Sinister plot by ‘you know who’ to assure that the RSS stooge of a Prime Minister is back in power,” said one of those lines.
Another post said: “Soldiers paying a price with their lives to reinforce the hyper-nationalism of this government.”
Merely asking questions of the Bharatiya Janata Party was reason enough for several people to descend on Banerjee’s page with outraged comments. One person, who might not have been a member of the Clean the Nation group, said, “I want a mass gathering where she should be lynched.”
In a separate post in the group, Ashutosh Vashishtha, the administrator, asked members “not to use cuss words or terms like lynching” and to hide personal information immediately.
However, as Banerjee’s posts were circulated both on Twitter and Facebook, she was bombarded with rape and death threats. Several users urged the state police to launch criminal proceedings against her. Responding to one of the several tweets calling for police against Banerjee, the Assam Police’s handle said, “This is being looked into and appropriate action will be initiated.”
By Saturday evening, Guwahati police had lodged a suo moto case against Banerjee under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with “public mischief”, and Section 66 of the IT Act. Simultaneously, the police in Silchar, 300 km away, also charged Banerjee under Sections 294 and 506 of the IPC, which pertain to public obscenity and criminal intimidation, based on a complaint. “We have also applied Section 66 of the IT Act,” said Nitumoni Goswami, the officer in charge of the police station in Silchar where the case has been registered. “We will, however, transfer the case to Guwahati soon.”
Guwahati police briefly detained Banerjee on Saturday. “She complained of some physical discomfort during the interrogation, so we took her to the hospital for a medical check-up and we let her go after that,” said Biren Deka, the officer in charge of the police station where she was detained.
The police issued a summons order asking Banerjee to depose at the police station on Monday morning, but she did not show up.
Her family said she had gone missing. They woke up on Sunday morning to find a note by Banerjee addressed to her father and her brother, informing them of her departure from the family home and asking them not to worry about her safety.
Banerjee’s cousin, Amit Chakraborty, said the family suspected the persistent rape and death threats may have forced Banerjee to go underground.
Meanwhile, the college where Banerjee taught for seven years has suspended her. “We had served her an explanation call,” said PK Bhattacharjee, the principal director of the college. “She said it was her freedom of expression and that she did not cast aspersions on the security forces.” The college’s governing body, however, did not find the explanation satisfactory, said Bhattacharjee.
NC Dey, the coordinator of the college, said the timing of Banerjee’s comments was unfortunate because they had endangered the college’s reputation and could adversely affect enrolment. “We have been accused of giving shelter to a terrorist, so we had no choice but to take action,” he said.
The journalist from Manipur
The group also took objection to posts by several other social media users criticising the government. “Modi and Doval has spoiled the Kashmir problem,” said one post shared in the group. “If this is how they tackle terrorism I would be the first to spit on them.”
People who offered aid to Kashmiris also aroused anger in the group. For instance, a post by a Muslim man who offered to walk with Kashmiris in Hyderabad if they felt unsafe was shared with the comment, “Can something be done about this guy?”
People who had criticised the Indian army were also targetted. One of them was Romal Laisram, the editor-in-chief of Provoke Lifestyle Magazine, who hails from Manipur and lives in Chennai.
“Forgive me for not spilling tears for a bunch of soldiers who were killed in some attack,” he said in a Facebook post, which was shared on the Clean the Nation group. “It is the same soldiers who walk away scot-free and untarnished after raping and murdering my people in Manipur. They might be more ‘your’ army – to me, Pakistani or Indian soldiers, they’re all harbingers of oppression and violence.”
Laisram received threats on his official Facebook account and messages were sent to his company asking it to sack him. However, the company defended his right to free expression
“I was just calling out the atrocities that the army has done in the North East,” said Laisram. “ It wasn’t anti-Indian or anti-national. My boss said they will stand by me and did not insist on taking the post off my personal account.”
However, Laisram did delete his posts, stating he did so out of respect for the families that have lost their loved ones. “A relative of one of the soldiers killed in Pulwana sent a message asking me to take down the post out of respect to their family though they agree with the post,” he said. “The relative had said that it was absolutely fine if I post it a month or two later.”
Laisram pointed out that many were calling for a sedition case against him without understanding that criticism of the armed forces did not amount to sedition. “They can try but it will fall flat,” he said. “The Supreme Court is also asking the army to answer as to how so many people were killed in fake encounters.”
Strikingly, the group even took objection to posts by people with relatives in the Army. They included a nutritionist who wrote about how his father and brother had served in the Kargil War and that he had seen terrorism at close quarters in his childhood. The person satirically asked why Indians should stop at removing Pakistanis from social media groups. Next in line, he said, should be Muslims or people with Urdu names, meat eaters, women who wear pants or salwar kameezes. “That should teach ‘em terrorists,” he concluded. “But why in heck are they laughing so hard?”
This post was shared on the group with the caption, “Admin of *** instigating and arousing public unrest and disrupting peace in society.”
The group seems to have failed to get anyone to act against the nutritionist.
Kashmiri students in Rajasthan
Even as some moderators and administrators of the group urged members to be civil and avoid cursing or threats in public, some did not follow instructions.
“Another mole screwed!” says one post by group administrator Aviral Sharma with screenshots of a Kashmiri person whose services seemed to have been terminated. “We have managed to get more than 50 bastards terminated as of yet! Great going guys! Keep exposing!”
Despite the claim, the Clean the Nation group does not seem to have been solely responsible for the “termination” of 50 individuals. It is only one of several similar groups that have been mobilising people to identify and target anyone they perceived as anti-national. On Twitter, users had contacted Life Insurance Corporation drawing attention to the tweet of an employee, Krishnendu Sengupta, who said the “killing of innocent Kashmiris” hurts him more than the deaths of soldiers. He was suspended by LIC on Saturday.
The social media campaigns seem to have worked in tandem with on-the-ground action. In most such cases, the targets were Kashmiris living outside the state, particularly students.
On the night of February 15, some women in a hostel at NIMS University in Jaipur noticed that four of their Kashmiri classmates had uploaded Whatsapp statuses that “celebrated” the Pulwama attack.
“Some other girls in the hostel saw the WhatsApp story and then showed it to the hostel warden on Friday [February 15] night,” said an engineering student at the university. “The warden told them not to do anything about it.”
On February 16, representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal protested at the university, the engineering student claimed. Because of this and pressure from the students, the college filed a first information report against the women. They were charged under sections 124 (A) and 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, for sedition and promoting enmity between groups. They were also charged under section 66 (F) of the Information Technology Act, for cyber terrorism.
The police came on Saturday evening and took the students away, but they actually escorted them to a safe place, the engineering student added. The students are now protected from harm, added Kavita Srivastava, president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Rajasthan.
The college’s notice to the four students was posted on the Clean the Nation group several times as proof of the impact that it and people from other groups had.
Scroll.in contacted NIMS University’s deputy registrar Sushila Chahar but she refused to respond to queries.
Kashmiri student in Uttarakhand
It is not clear what steps the group took to verify the posts that members shared. In at least one case, Scroll.in was able to verify that the wrong person was targeted for having the same name as someone who had made a post that caught the attention of the group.
A member shared a screenshot that purportedly showed one Facebook user saying, “Congratulations England. Luv from Indian Occupied Kashmir.” There was no context, time or date shared with this screenshot. In response, people from the group complained to the educational institution at which they believed the user was studying.
However, a representative of the institution said that the person and comments in the screenshot did not match with the link to student’s profile provided by the Facebook group. The student “is currently in Kashmir”, said Bhawna Saini, director at Alpine Group of Institutes in Dehradun. “He gave me his username and password to access his Facebook profile. I checked his profile and did not find any such comments that have been claimed by the group.”
The director added that the institution would take necessary action if the group did not remove the student’s name.
The student told Scroll.in he was safe and that no action had been taken against him over the alleged posts the group claims he made. He denied having written the posts that the Clean the Nation group claimed that he had.
The “Clean the Nation” group also organised people to report to Facebook about the posts it found offensive, using the feature on the social networking platform that allows users to ask for objectionable content to be removed.
Scroll.in wrote to Facebook asking whether the group’s campaign against other users constituted targetted harassment under its policies. A representative of Facebook said that the team would reply with a comment. This article will be updated if they reply.
Scroll.in also contacted Ankit Jain, one of the administrators of the Clean the Nation group, over the messaging service WhatsApp, asking what exactly was offensive about posts criticising the BJP government, what steps the group was taking to ensure screenshots were not tampered with, and whether its campaign constituted targeted harassment. He responded by accusing the reporter of invading his privacy by texting him on Whatsapp and refused to answer the questions.
The group had been revealing the private information of other social media users, called doxxing, through coordinated action.
Hours after Scroll.in contacted Ankit Jain, updates appeared on Facebook late Monday night announcing the group had been deleted. Scroll.in could not independently verify whether Facebook was responsible for the action.
Update: On February 20, Facebook replied to Scroll.in’s emailed questions about whether the campaign by Clean the Nation constituted targetted harassment under its policies, whether it had received complaints from or about the group, and whether it had taken down the group.
“We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe,” the spokesperson said. “That’s why we have Community Standards which outline what stays up and what comes down. Under these policies, we remove content or accounts that share personal information on others, and any content that is designed to coordinate harm against others.”
The spokesperson of Facebook did not offer specific responses to the questions.