Ever since Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy came to power, Andhra Pradesh is seeing more and more attempts to evoke hate, with claims that Hindus and their beliefs are under threat under Christian Chief Minister. In September, when the Antarvedi temple chariot was destroyed in a fire, these claims found momentum. The people of Andhra saw a deluge of messages about destroyed temples and desecrated idols.
Several incidents of idol vandalization have been reported and garnered attention in Andhra Pradesh. The state police say that they have taken the issue seriously, and have launched probes into them. Since the Antarvedi incident in September, police have registered 180 cases and arrested 337 people in cases of temple vandalism. Police are not just arresting people directly involved in damaging idols, but also those spreading misinformation over idols that were damaged due to other reasons, like corrosion or heavy rains.
The Antarvedi fire case, which remains unsolved, led to a campaign called #Andhra Temples in Danger. A counter-campaign became necessary to tackle the hate, through the same channels Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. AP Director General of Police, Gautam Swang said “Nowadays we have seen how social media platforms are being used by almost everybody. And not to be left behind are various interested groups and political parties as well.. If you don’t respond in time, it really becomes viral and makes it very difficult to contain.
In Srikakulam, another piece of false news was countered in the same platforms where it went viral. The statue of the god Anjaneya had stoked controversy in October when miscreants took photos of this arm which was damaged in Cyclone Titli two years ago in 2018 and put it on social media. The idol looks just like the scores of images of damaged idols, ripe for being given a story of violence and dishonor. But this story was nipped before it could cause much damage.
A resident of Sompeta, Kondapu Rama Rao said to Hello Vizag that during Cyclone Titli, trees in front of his house had fallen on his house, causing damage. Similarly, branches fell on the Anjaneya idol, and the arm and gada fell off. A case has been booked against a person (Praveen) and found the truth about this fake news. In the same social media groups which he had posted, the same person who was found to be the BJP Mandal secretary of Sompeta Konchada Ravi Prasad apologized in the groups, and said, without verifying, I assumed a different intention and added other misinformation and circulated the news.
But in most cases, we do not get to see an apology or retraction. There are many examples of such fake news doing the rounds in Andhra Pradesh. There are some cases that the police do believe are communally motivated. For instance, a Christian preacher from Kakinada called Praveen Chakravarthi was arrested by the state CID for making provocative speeches insulting another religion. In one of his videos that went viral online, Praveen speaks of establishing ‘Christ villages’, where the members of the village have “accepted Christ.” He speaks of damaging “trees and stones” that are worshipped by local residents with their consent, as they believed they were “fake”.
Opposition parties are seeing this as proof that Christian leaders like Praveen are responsible for the alleged attacks on bigger temples. President of BJP AP said that a case has been booked against a Praveen who spoke against Hindu religious sentiments, as an eyewash. He said he kicks idols and feels happy about it. But neither DGP Gautam Sawang nor a government representative have condemned his (Praveen’s) actions. So, we have directly registered a case. The government must answer clearly, whether it is paying an honorarium to pastors to convert people from one religion to another.
Police have recently revealed that 15 TDP members and 4 BJP cadres were involved in 9 cases of idol destruction and spreading fake news on temple-related incidents, indicating that at least some of the alleged attacks and news around them were politically motivated. On the other hand, there are incidents with no communal or political motives, like the damaging of a trident in a Kakinada temple by a man who appeared to be drunk and was later arrested. The police are dealing with various kinds of incidents, all of which run the risk of being painted with the same communal brush. With misinformation on the rise, the police had to step up their vigilance.
G Pala Raju, DIG Technical Services, AP said that, after the Antarvedi incident, the temple attacks, increase the number (of people fighting fake news). Whether it is on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Youtube. We will go to that source, immediately we will catch hold of that fellow. Ultimately I want to say, whenever somebody posts something, his or her digital signature is always there. Definitely, we will come to the doorstep of your house. Many of the fake news are about very local temples, and police do indeed land at your doorstep often, very easily.
Nearby, in Etcherla, a day after a provocative message went viral, the man responsible for it was arrested after police traced him through local WhatsApp groups. On September 23rd, a message was circulated in around seven groups, altogether around 800 plus members were told that people from a certain community had probably desecrated this particular idol.
Srikakulam Superintendent of Police Amit Bardar said that during that time, the Antarvedi incident that had happened in East Godavari has a ripple effect across the state. This kind of information could have flamed the sentiment of the public. Sarpanch of Koyyam village of Etcherla Jeeru Rama Rao said because of heavy rains and storms there was minor damage in a couple of places. But some people have created posts and circulating them, but there are no political or caste-related issues here.
During a recent program for launching a welfare scheme for the people of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy said lately, people are talking about my religion and caste. It is upsetting to hear such comments. From this stage, I would like to say that my religion is humanity. I would like to say that my caste is to fulfill promises.
Authorities in the state have made an effort to appear secular. But people’s perceptions of an imminent threat to Hinduism continue to be fueled. These claims are fueled by stories of forced religious conversions and attacks on temples. The spokesperson for the YSRCP S Rajiv Krishna said we have always stated that we are a very secular government. We certainly believe in the separation of religion and state, and we want all religions to survive. There is definitely an attempt we believe, by our opposition, to take these incidents and highlight them to make them into something, as if there is a coordinated effort to do something.
Taking on polarizing fake news is not easy, but circumstances have called for the AP police to find ways to deal with such incidents by tracing the source of such claims. Believing is easy but to prove it otherwise, it takes time. To really push home the truth, we have reached a stage where, if some fake news is emerging, we are able to very quickly contain it, before it becomes viral. Fake news tends to travel faster than the truth. It is also entangled with the social and cultural context and beliefs of the readers. The alarmism is only likely to grow louder with a by-election coming up in Tirupati, the hotbed of Hindutva fear-mongering in the state. And it is up to the police, state, and ultimately, the people of Andhra Pradesh to discern what is real, and to win against all the hate.
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