On October 8, a family of three – Bandhu Prakash Pal, his pregnant wife and 8-year-old child – was hacked to death in West Bengal’s Murshidabad. A construction worker, Utpal Behara, has been booked for the crime. Behara had reportedly entered the victims’ house with a knife. The police have stated a financial dispute was the motive for the murders.
However, the past week leading up to the arrest has marred with misinformation. Several attempts have been made to give the crime a communal and political colour.
BJP politicises the murder
Initial local reports of the primary investigation said that the police hinted at a personal enmity as the possible motive for the murders. According to Anandabazar Patrika, the family was killed at around 12 pm on October 8 by an unidentified man who had entered the victims’ home with a knife. The police initially suspected that the killings had been triggered by a property dispute. The crime seemed like an “act of revenge”, they said.
A Bengali report in The Indian Express also stated that the police were investigating the possibility that the perpetrator of the crime was someone whom the family knew.
Less than two days later, the Bharatiya Janata Party attached a political angle to the murders. Attacking West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, BJP MLA Babul Supriyo tweeted, “Does mother, land and people mean anything to you?”
Newly-inducted BJP member and MP Gautam Gambhir suggested that the family was linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP. “Hope that assoc[iation] with RSS does not deter @MamataOfficial from taking action,” wrote the former cricketer.
Another BJP MP from West Bengal Arjun Singh directly blamed the Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress for the murder of an RSS worker.
BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya attacked the Mamata Banerjee government.
The party’s West Bengal president Dilip Ghosh, national spokesperson Sambit Patra and BJP Mahila Morcha national social media head Priti Gandhi were among the other BJP members who attributed a political angle to the crime.
Social media’s role
Social media users aired own versions to the incident, some of them suggested that a Muslim had committed the crime. The founder of fake news portal Postcard News, Mahesh Vikram Hegde, claimed that “peacefuls” lynched an “RSS karyakarta: in West Bengal. “Peacefuls” is a derogatory term used to refer to Muslims.
Several users followed by the office of Railway Minister Piyush Goyal also suggested communal overtones to the murders. One Rakesh Krishnan Simha (@ByRakeshSimha) wrote that a “jehadi mob” had murdered an unborn baby in Murshidabad.
Academic and enthusiastic BJP supporter Madhu Kishwar alluded to a hate crime, suggesting that Murshidabad’s large Muslim population was somehow connected to the murders.
A user Judhajit Senmazumdar (@Judhajit_S) followed by the office of Piyush Goyal shared images of a shradhanjali commemorative ceremony offered in the child’s name in California. Tweeting with the hashtag “Ram Mandir Nirman”, he wrote that the child’s sacrifice would not be wasted.
Many media outlets carried reports that furthered the unverified RSS angle. Initial reports of the crime did not mention the victim’s alleged political affiliation but this was highlightedafter the BJP made the assertion more than 24 hours after the crime was committed.
An October 10 report by ANI merely said, “In a gruesome incident, three people, including a child, were murdered by unknown miscreants in their house on Thursday in Jiyaganj area of Murshidabad…The investigation into the matter is underway.”
However, a subsequent report by the news agency referred to Pal as an RSS worker.
On October 9, India Today had published a PTI report without any mention of Pal’s purported political links. However, an independent report published by the news organisation the next day carried the unconfirmed claim by BJP as a fact.
India Today’s Aaj Tak took it a step further. The channel broadcast a discussion titled, “Will Bengal’s politics be designed with the blood of children? Red with blood, Didi’s Bengal!”
Hateful tweets by journalists
ABP News journalist Vikas Bhadauria claimed that the triple murder was a hate crime, committed in an area with negligible Hindu population. His message was taken down by Twitter because it contained graphic imagery that was taken down by Twitter. The journalist claimed this was a “lynching” of his right to expression.
India TV’s executive editor Sushant Sinha also portrayed the murders as a hate crime. In a tweet that garnered nearly 10,000 likes, Sinha attacked certain sections of the citizenry who, he claimed, would be unaffected by the death of the child and celebrate the death of his parents. “They won’t see the dead body of a child but that of a Sanghi…They would be happy seeing the corpses of the entire family covered in blood,” wrote Sinha.
After the West Bengal police clarified that the murders did not have any political or communal angle, Swarajya editorial director R Jagannathan questioned the investigation. This came despite the statements of the victims’ family being in sync with those of the police.
Attacks on liberals
The incident became to excuse to attack “liberals”. Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote, “Hope liberals will find it ghastly enough to empathize with the bereaved family.”
Times Now broadcast a show targetting the 49 celebrities who had written an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing concern about the rising number of mob lynchings around the country.
Republic TV’s Major Surendra Poonia also targetted liberals.
Critics of the government were attacked by social media users. The Twitter handle Friends of RSS (@friendsofrss) which is followed by top leaders of the BJP, including Modi, wrote, “Will the Award Wapsi gang and the intellectuals who have coined the word lynching say something?”
What does the police investigation say?
In an October 11 Twitter thread, West Bengal police clarified, “Prima facie it seems to be a case of personal enmity and it has nothing to do with politics.”
The police had also mentioned that Pal was in a “serious financial crisis”.
Subsequently, media reports came pouring in that the extended family had denied RSS links. India Today also reported that Pal’s brother-in-law, Diptiman Sarkar, said that an RSS member offered him financial help but he rejected the man’s assistance and told him that his brother-in-law had never been associated with any political party.
After the family’s statements, the BJP was on the back foot. The party’s state chief Dilip Ghosh denied that he ever said that the murders had a political motive. Days before, Ghosh had tweeted, “…political violence continues unabated even during Durga Puja.”
After a week-long investigation, West Bengal police arrested Utpal Behara from Bandhu Prakash Pal’s hometown and ruled out any political angle to the crime.
“According to police, Pal also worked as an insurance agent and 20-year-old Behra had bought two life insurance policies from him,” reported The Hindu. “Behra told his interrogators that Pal gave him the receipt for the first policy but was dodging to give the receipt for the second.”
The police also claimed in a tweet that Behara confessed to his crimes.
Despite the police statements, none of these online influencers, media organisations and politicians have posted clarifications about their premature, hateful assertions. In fact, a few have continued to propagate misinformation. A report by Swarajya after the details released by the police still refers to Bandhu Prakash Pal as an “RSS worker”.
A tweet BJP supporter Gaurav Pradhan continues to give the crime a communal colour by suggesting that the family was hatched to death because Pal objected to the construction of a mosque in the area.
This article first appeared on Alt News.