Everybody has their ideology, even their own version of truth. Those running the Hindu nationalist blog OpIndia are no different. But if you profess to do journalism, as they do, ideology should not stand in the way of facts and fairness. Ajit Bharti, editor of OpIndia Hindi, disagrees. “We don’t hide. We don’t say we are fair. Nobody is fair today. We are openly on the Right.”
They indeed are.
On the morning of December 6, as news came that the four men accused of gangraping and murdering a Hyderabad veterinarian had been shot dead by the police, a related post by OpIndia Hindi went viral. The blog claimed to have obtained the “original script” of NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar’s primetime show of that evening which, it claimed, sympathised with the alleged rapists and described the police as killers.
“After the Hyderabad encounter in the morning, the script of NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar’s evening primetime show got leaked. A copy of the script was received from our source. But OpIndia does not take responsibility for its authenticity. We’re reproducing the script as it is,” the blog post declared.
The post is a sample of the unrestrained rhetoric OpIndia trades in. It does this in the guise of journalism. Of course, the blog doesn’t even follow the most fundamental of journalistic practices. Often, to escape accountability for what it publishes, OpIndia adds a caveat that it cannot vouch for the authenticity of the post. Consider the post on “Ravish’s script”. The blog did not so much as bother contacting NDTV or the anchor to authenticate it.
Here is what the blog claimed the “original script” stated: “Heard this morning that Hyderabad police has killed four persons accused of raping and killing the doctor in Hyderabad. The police are calling it an ‘encounter’. But then the police can do anything, they can call it a film shooting or tell the mothers of these four victims that their sons are in jail but they can’t meet them. Imagine the plight of the mother whose sole earning member is gone. Think about the plight of the mother who was upset because of the accusations hurled against her son. Who will she hire a lawyer for now that her son is gone? Just think about that Quint reporter who will have to again ask the mother how she feels about this extrajudicial killing of the sole earning member of her family.”
Ravish, of course, never wrote this “script” or read it on TV. But when has OpIndia let the truth get in the way of an inflammatory headline?
OpIndia has form on this. Sample the titles of some posts bylined by Bharti himself in October and November:
If you are alarmed, and disgusted, by this language, you might want to know that Bharti’s book Baker Puran featured on the “bestseller list” of Dainik Jagran, the country’s most widely read Hindi newspaper.
As these headlines of its posts indicate, OpIndia repeatedly targets the same people, those seen to be at odds with the current establishment. They include leftists, liberals, JNU students, Muslims, and, of course, Ravish Kumar. Bharti regularly vents his frustration at Ravish. It is obvious that OpIndia is ideologically aligned to the BJP. Whether the journalism the blog claims to practise can be described as such is for you, the reader, to decide after reading this report.
The story of OpIndia
OpIndia was started by Rahul Raj and Kumar Kamal in 2014, and the Hindi version was launched four years later. In 2016, according to a report by Rediff News, the blog was acquired by Kovai Media, the same company that owns the rightwing magazine Swarajya. The most prominent investor in Kovai Media is Mohandas Pai, a former director of Infosys, who owned a little more than three percent of the company on March 31, 2017. About two percent of Kovai Media is owned by Catamaran Ventures, whose promoter is NR Narayan Murthy of Infosys fame. In 2018, OpIndia announced that it would be a separate legal and business entity.
To understand where a media organisation’s ideological sympathies lie, it’s worthwhile to look at articles written by the editor or those listed as “editor’s picks”. On November 21, OpIndia Hindi featured four posts as “editor’s picks”– two on the Congress; one about a Muslim professor whose hiring by the Banaras Hindu University to teach Sanskrit had sparked protests by the students; and one on Ravish. All the posts, in keeping with the blog’s editorial line, invariably attacked critics of the Narendra Modi government and indulged in whataboutery. Newslaundry examined all posts published by OpIndia Hindi from November 15 to 29, and found the same pattern.
Purveyor of Islamophobia
A former OpIndia employee, who resigned because he felt the blog was spreading hatred against Muslims, said, “If the accused in an incident belongs to the Muslim community, then you have to mention his name in the heading. The news is to be published in such a way that if the reader is a Hindu, then he starts developing hatred for Muslims.”
Newslaundry found as much. From November 15 to 29, OpIndia Hindi put up 28 posts that identified a Muslim in the headline, irrespective of the nature of the crime they were accused of, whether it was theft, rape, murder, or hooliganism.
“Personally, I did not feel it was morally right,” said the former OpIndia employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “I opposed it once or twice. But all limits were crossed when Ajit Bharti, who was our editor, wrote an article on triple talaq with the title, ‘Dear Muslim women, you deserve halala, polygamy and talaq. Because you are silent!’ I was exasperated and decided to quit the job. Defaming Islam and spreading hatred against Muslims within the majority community is what was happening there. And despite not having a job in hand, I quit. I did not become a journalist to spread hatred.”
Another journalist who previously worked at OpIndia for a month said, “We used to write the news and give headlines accordingly. But the editor changed our headlines according to his ideological convenience.”
The Muslim community is the favourite punching bag of OpIndia. Consider the rape and murder of the Hyderabad doctor. The country was still recovering from the shock of the barbarity when OpIndia decided to communalise the crime. “Mohammad Pasha had planned the rape and murder of Disha and burnt the body, police claim,” the blog’s headline screamed. OpIndia, by the way, had named the victim in its report in violation of the Supreme Court’s rules. It was removed later.
There are two broad problems here. One is fake news and the other is manipulating facts. If the aim of OpIndia was to reveal the identities of the accused, then the three Hindu accused should have been named as well. But the report, let alone the headline, didn’t do so. OpIndia named them only after the omission caused much noise online.
It wasn’t the only instance either. Here are some headlines in which OpIndia underlined the Muslim identity of the accused.
“Sarpanch Aslam fed beef to a Hindu widow, forced her to accept Islam and marry Akbar” is a blatantly communal headline. OpIndia picked this story from Dainik Bhaskar. The daily had made it clear there were other accused apart from the sarpanch, all Hindu. The blog omitted this. Bhaskar had quoted the victim’s father as saying Mohammad Akbar alias Khosla had gone to his paddy field on September 13 when Aitvari Maraandi, Bhajjan Maraandi, Dhek Hansda, Saval Tuddu, along with around 20 other people, convinced him to go with them to the victim’s home, where they tied him up.
Now, let’s look at an OpIndia post written by Bharti in which he presented himself as a spokesperson of Hindus. “Islamic stone-pelting is common on Hindu festivals: Should I blame Modi for this too?” he asked in the headline. He then wrote, “We listen to azaan because we accept you need a religion. You do it, there’s no problem. It’s called peaceful coexistence, which perhaps many do not like. People from the Ganga side are carrying this burden alone. Respect from the Yamuna side doesn’t seem to come out. What is the problem with the slogan? Is anyone being abused? Anyone being attacked? Like we tolerate your azaan five times a day, listen to our cheering a few days a year. What is the problem?”
A few days after Hindutva leader Kamlesh Tiwari was murdered in Lucknow last year, Bharti made a video titled “I am Hindu and I am scared”. “The doorbell rang early one morning. I went to the door. Three boys were standing there. They looked Muslim, capped, bearded. They said they wanted to talk and asked me to open the door. I told them I didn’t know them so I won’t open the door,” he said. “My place has two doors, one of iron and the other of wood. As I raised my hand to close the second door, one of them took out a long knife and pointed it at me. He said I was using my fingers too much. ‘We will kill you like Kamlesh Tiwari.’ Saying this, one of them started banging on the iron door. I feared they would break open the door. I was in such a situation that I couldn’t even run. I hadn’t felt this much anxiety. I began imagining one of them tying my legs, the other holding my hands, and the third murmuring something in Arabic as he slit my throat to book a room for himself in Jannat.”
Bharti, it turned out, was actually recounting his dream from the previous night. The video was shared numerous times on social media. When Newslaundry asked Bharti how he could present the entire Muslim community as murderers based on his dream, he said, “I didn’t mention my dream to influence anyone. The dream came to me the same night Kamlesh Tiwari was murdered. I often get death threats. It’s not that I post on Twitter and Facebook all screenshots of death threats I get. My contact number is not yet public so I don’t get threats over the phone. When it’s made public, they will threaten me over the phone as well. Perhaps I will be killed if I meet him somewhere.”
Bharti said he would definitely name a Muslim if he was accused of theft or rape. Why had he named not the Hindu accused in the Madhya Pradesh widow’s story? “We put up many stories in a day. I will see and reply,” he replied.
Targeting Rahul Gandhi
Apart from Muslims, OpIndia constantly rails against Modi’s critics and political rivals, especially the Congress party and its leader Rahul Gandhi. Negative news from states governed by the Congress is featured prominently on the blog but, for the most part, similar news from states governed by the BJP is ignored.
From November 14 to 28, OpIndia Hindi published 52 posts related to the Congress. Of these, three were about the withdrawal of the Special Protection Group cover from the Gandhi family. The posts described it as a commendable step and lauded the Modi government.
Another post was from Karnataka. “How to earn eight crore in 18 months. Congress MLA and his wife did it,” read the headline. Quoting media reports, the blog claimed that nomination papers for a byelection filed by Padmavati showed the property owned by her husband, Congress legislator B Suresh Kumar, had increased by Rs 8 crore in the 18 months since Kumar had filed his own nomination papers. Padmavati was going up against MTB Nagraj, who had left the Congress for the BJP. According to a report by Aaj Tak, Nagraj’s nomination papers showed that his property had increased by Rs 185 crore in the previous 18 months. OpIndia omitted this fact. Another Aaj Tak report noted that Nagraj had made 25.84 percent of the Rs 185 crore in just six days in August. A fortnight later, he had helped fell HD Kumarswamy’s coalition government, bringing the BJP to power. OpIndia didn’t mention this either.
In titles of posts related to the Congress, OpIndia often employs disparaging language. Sample this:
In stark contrast, if you search “Narendra Modi” on OpIndia Hindi you’ll only find laudatory posts.
Does OpIndia deliberately target the Congress? A former employee said, “What do you conclude from the stories published on the website? News is made only to make fun of the Congress and especially Rahul Gandhi. To present him as being worthless. Not only the Congress, other opposition parties and their leaders are dealt with in the same manner. Looking at the stories and pictures related to Arvind Kejriwal that are published, it becomes clear how the opposition is made a laughable character.”
Asked why his blog constantly made fun of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, Bharti said, “Why do we need to prove Rahul Gandhi a fool? Whenever that person opens his mouth, he proves himself to be foolish. See his speeches and his attitude. He is a leader, so he should be respected. This is a baseless claim. I don’t know how people have fixed the language of journalism. A fool should always be called a fool. What is the problem?”
The blog, however, doesn’t seem to apply the same standard to BJP leaders. It did not, for instance, make fun of Modi’s statement that cloudy skies had prevented Pakistan’s radars from detecting Indian fighter jets that struck Balakot early this year; or his claim that Ganesha’s head had been attached to his torso through plastic surgery. To this, Bharti replied, “As far as the matter of the air strikes and clouds is concerned, we published a post by a professor at an IIT in which he clarified that when there are clouds, visibility is less. We don’t defend him on the issue of Ganesha and surgery.”
Obsessed with Ravish Kumar
Among the Modi government’s critics, OpIndia especially targets Ravish Kumar.
The Adityanath government this year spent Rs 1.33 crore on a grand Diwali celebration in Ayodhya. A reporter with Daily Hindustan newspaper reported this news with the headline “Tretayug comes to Ayodhya”. Ravish criticised this framing of the event in a Facebook post.
Bharti responded with a post titled, “Dear Ravish ji, your constipation will not be over by insulting a small reporter”. He went on to write, “Whether Ravish takes tobacco or keeps gnawing, his constipation will not go away. Ravish ji has developed constipation of the mind. He should put his head in a commode and flush it at least thrice daily. It won’t help him much, but thinking this up gives me a lot of pleasure.”
From January 17 to November 27, OpIndia Hindi published over 40 posts about Ravish, all of which used abusive and demeaning language. Here are some of the headlines:
Justifying why it had based an entire post on an obscure self-described “Ravish Kumar fan” on Twitter, the blog argued, “Ravish Kumar always makes accusations that people followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi are spoiling public discourse. He targets anybody with a BJP connection. He accuses the BJP of facilitating unsocial elements. But he has not clarified his position about the person who proclaims himself a fan of Ravish Kumar and threatens massacre. We have to wait for this. You can see the Twitter bio of Dr Arun J.”
That calling yourself somebody’s fan on social media isn’t nearly the same as being followed by the prime minister was clearly lost on OpIndia. Modi, after all, can be followed by millions of fans on Twitter but the prime minister follows only 2,294 people.
In another post about Ravish, Bharti wrote, “Ravish ji has become sick. It concerns me, being a viewer, being a Bihari, being a journalist. Tomorrow if Ravish ji meets you in the street and asks if you are satisfied with the Modi government and your answer is yes, he might bite you on the arm, and I would not be surprised. Only this needs to be done.”
Asked why his blog devoted so much space to trashing Ravish, Bharti laughingly replied, “Ravish was a good journalist until 2014 and I am not saying this because he questioned the Congress. Much has happened in the country in the last five years, good as well as bad. Change does not come in five years. But if you find nothing positive in five years, then it means there is some problem in your mindset.”
As soon as the question of OpIndia using abusive language was raised, Bharti brought up another favourite target, the Left. “As far as the issue of language is concerned, the Left can’t decide the language of journalism. I have been a teacher of journalism and can say with full responsibility that language changes with time. You write keeping in mind your audience. You can use harsh words without being obscene. Ravish Kumar says Emergency is coming, pointing to a popular prime minister who has a huge mandate. He says Modi is creating an environment of fear. Calls him Hitler. So, what is the problem if we say he should put his head in a commode and flush? It will be good. It is a dirty place and it will wash away your dirty mindset. The analogy is very good.”
Asked about the abusive language OpIndia uses against its targets, particularly Ravish, the media critic Vineet Kumar said, “Whatever OpIndia is doing, it is not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Ravish Kumar. Ravish means traffic. They doubly benefit from writing about Ravish. Both Ravish’s opponents and supporters read their articles. OpIndia wouldn’t get so much traffic if it wrote about other issues or people. It’s not journalism what OpIndia is doing. It’s a sort of propaganda. OpIndia is a machine for propaganda and creating perceptions.”
OpIndia claims to do “fact checking”. But you can easily gauge the seriousness of their claim after reading its post on the Hyderabad tragedy. In fact, OpIndia has often been guilty of spreading fake news. Not only that, they play an important role in defending elements that spread misinformation.
In May, OpIndia English published a post titled, “An IIT graduate and an IAS officer explain how EVMs cannot be hacked.” It was retweeted by the Election Commission, leading to widespread criticism on social media. The poll body had to delete the tweet.
According to a report on the news website Quint, the OpIndia piece was taken from a post on Quora, an online platform where anybody can post their questions or answer them. Clearly then, claims made on Quora cannot be taken at face value.
Apart from spreading fake news, OpIndia frequently runs campaigns to demonise or discredit people. Calling protests by JNU students against a steep fee hike unnecessary, Bharti wrote a post headlined, “JNU, where a room is available for 10 rupees a month, ‘uncles-aunts’ party at night”.
Responding to Bharti and his fellow travellers who often demonise dissident students, Kanhaiya Kumar, former president of the JNU Students’ Union, said, “Perhaps, these people don’t know the name Abhijit Banarjee. If they are supporters of the BJP or Modi, then they must have heard the name S Jaishankar or Nirmala Sitaraman. If JNU is a hotbed of Naxalites, if anti-India slogans are raised there, if sex rackets are run there, if all these accusations are to believed, then they need to ask Amit Shah why all this is happening in the national capital when he is running the home ministry. Who looks after law and order in this country?”
In his post about the JNU protests against the fee hike, Bharti asked, “Since crimes like rape are taking place and JNU leads the country in molestation, what is the rationale for such demands?”
It’s a statement that even Durgesh Kumar, president of the JNU chapter of the Sangh Parivar’s student affiliate ABVP, found unacceptable. “Such things can be said only by people who want to defame JNU,” he said, describing it as part of a conspiracy against the university. “JNU is one of the safest places in the country. Girls can roam around freely late at night.”
Priyanka Bharti, who represents the student wing of the RJD at JNU, echoed Durgesh. “If someone says JNU leads the country in molestation, then it is proof of that person’s mental weakness. Here, I feel safer than in my house, my village.”
Bharti also often rails against JNU students for being older than he would prefer. On this, Priyanka said, “Only those who do research know how much time it takes. Only two percent of the students do research. Yet, these people have objections.”
Bharti not only rubbished JNU students’ concerns about the fee hike, he made a video defending the radio presenter RJ Raunak, who was widely criticised for spreading fake news about the university.
The OpIndia editor has form when it comes to defending such crass views. When BJP parliamentarian Pragya Singh Thakur called Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Gandhi, “a patriot”, Bharti wrote a post questioning if his act of killing the father of the nation had diminished Godse’s patriotism. “What had Mahatma Gandhi, for whom Godse had great respect, done so drastic that Godse had to shoot him?” Bharti asked.
Ignore, for the moment, that Bharti is trying to make a hero of Godse. Is even his claim that Godse respected Gandhi correct? “As far as history is concerned, it is nowhere mentioned that Godse had respect for Gandhi ji. I don’t know where he got this idea from,” replied Kumar Prashant, chief of the Gandhi Shanti Pratishthan, referring to Bharti. “There were five assassination attempts on Gandhi and in three of those Godse was directly involved. Gandhi ji was attacked at Sevagram Ashram, Godse was involved. He was attacked with a knife in Panchgani and the person who ran away with the knife was Godse. Gandhi ji had invited Godse to stay with him for two days and tell him why he was angry with him. But Godse didn’t have the courage. That’s what history says.”
A version of this story was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.