Deaths linked to suicide, personal rivalry portrayed as targeted attacks.
The bogey of north Indian migrants “under attack” in Tamil Nadu refuses to die down. The police in Tamil Nadu have filed six cases so far over such rumours and come up with a series of guidelines to quell fake news propagating similar claims.
A political war earlier raged across states, with BJP leaders using the occasion to shred apart the opposition’s bonhomie: the RJD-JDU government in Bihar and the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. However, political parties were not the only protagonists in this saga of panic, nor were social media accounts. Such fake news, in fact, had been amplified by sections of the mainstream media too.
But before we go through examples of fake mainstream reportage to understand the sequence of events, let’s try to look at the reality of the deaths reported as “murders” of north Indian migrants.
The deaths: rivalry, suicide
On February 19, Pawan Yadav from Bihar’s Jamui was allegedly attacked with a sickle by another labourer from Jharkhand, who suspected him of having an affair with his wife and was his neighbour in Tirupur. Yadav was taken to hospital in Coimbatore but succumbed to his injuries. The accused Upendra Dhari was eventually arrested by the police after a complaint by Pawan’s brother Neeraj. He admitted to the crime, said Tirupur DCP Abhishek Gupta.
“It was a case of personal rivalry and the accused was also a migrant labourer. It was not connected in any way to the narrative of attack on migrants,” Gupta said.
Neeraj said, “My brother was a very decent person and was not involved in anything. He was working in Tamil Nadu for the last five years. He was washing clothes when he was attacked by Upendra Dhari…I tried to intervene but couldn’t succeed. I rushed to the room otherwise he would have killed me as well.”
One week later, another migrant worker, Monu Ravidas, was found dead in Krishnagiri district. However, Krishnagiri SP Saroj Kumar said the postmortem report has clarified that it was death by suicide. His brothers Sonu and Tulsi, who shared a room with him in Kothagondapalli, also told the police that Monu closed the door and hanged himself using a towel.
“He was not happy with the work over here and wanted to go home. But his brothers wanted him to stay back and told him that they will go back home around Holi,” the SP told Newslaundry.
But these deaths would have never gained the kind of traction they did had it not been for media coverage terming them "targeted" attacks, and a third incident on February 9. This episode had triggered a series of fake videos alleging attacks on Hindi-speaking migrants – these were debunked by Alt News and Boom Live as stale visuals of events in Jodhpur, Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Savan.
Magimaidas, a resident of Kanyam village of Villupuram district, had boarded a crowded general compartment of the Vaigai Express. He hurled regional slurs at north Indian co-passengers, assaulted a few of them, and used expletives for the prime minister – and some of this was captured on video. After outrage on social media, the 38-year-old was arrested on February 21. But not before it sowed the seeds for a disinformation campaign.
After this video and the two deaths in Krishnagiri and Tirupur, sections of the media began to contribute to the chaos which was already being fuelled by social media rumours.
Fake news mainstreamed
While Magimaidas’s video was doing the rounds, Hindi daily Amar Ujala, on February 21, carried a report on the attack on Pawan and his brother Neeraj. Except that the report made it sound like the brothers were targeted by locals for their Bihari identity. “In Tamil Nadu, Bihari labourers on target,” read the headline.
Dainik Bhaskar also reported the incident the same day, claiming that the assailants also attacked other Bihari migrants while fleeing the spot and that a video of the attack has been widely circulated on social media.
Neeraj, however, told Newslaundry that no video of the attack on Pawan was either made or circulated.
After five days, Dainik Bhaskar also reported on the death of Monu Ravidas, saying that a murder was suspected in the case. In the same piece, it mentioned the attack on Pawan and the sense of fear within Bihari migrants in Tamil Nadu. The paper claimed that Bihari migrants have been compelled to return home, and also carried a video report on the same.
The story was picked up by other portals such as ETV Bharat.
Many of these reports relied on unverified videos.
On March 2, Dainik Bhaskar reported that workers had locked themselves up in a room over fears of being attacked and used a screenshot of the video which purportedly showed Magimaidas assaulting workers. On the same day, Hindustan reported that two workers have been killed so far and 50 injured in targeted attacks on Bihar migrants.
Punjab Kesari reported that Hindi-speaking migrants were being attacked and there have been over 15 rumoured deaths so far – the tally was first reported by Dainik Bhaskar. Meanwhile, Bihar’s prominent daily Prabhat Khabar also reported that migrants are being forced to leave Tamil Nadu while claiming that Pawan and Monu had been murdered.
While many of these migrants were returning home to celebrate Holi, several news platforms claimed that fear had compelled them to leave.
On March 4, the Tamil Nadu police booked Dainik Bhaskar, Twitter user Mohammad Tanvir and BJP Uttar Pradesh spokesperson Prashant Patel Umrao for “spreading false news” about purported “attacks” on Bihari migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. Dainik Bhaskar had reported that “more than 15” Bihari migrant workers in Tamil Nadu have been “murdered”, and that others were being “brutalised”.
The Tamil Nadu police had tweeted on March 2 that “rumours” were being spread without “verifying the facts”. On the same day, according to the News Minute, Umrao tweeted that “15 people were hanged inside a room for speaking Hindi in Tamil Nadu and 12 among them were dead”.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar then tweeted asking authorities in the state to “ensure safety” of labourers from Bihar. In response, the Tamil Nadu DGP clarified that videos of such attacks were “false” and “mischievous”. This was reiterated by the Bihar police.
The stories were also picked up by enterprises like OpIndia which alleged “Talibani style attacks” on migrant workers. The OpIndia CEO and editor were also subsequently booked for propagating the false claim.
‘Goons are in every city’
Besides prominent media organisations, social media entities were also involved in propagating the narrative of Bihari workers under attack.
Consider the example of Rakesh Kumar Tiwari and Manish Kashyap, who have now been booked by the Bihar police for false news.
Rakesh Kumar Tiwari runs news portal Prayaas News; he has 62,000 followers on Facebook and 1.86 lakh YouTube subscribers. Views on his posts pertaining to the alleged attacks range from 7,000 to 13 lakh, and some of his posts were shared by the official Twitter handle of Bihar BJP.
YouTuber Manish Kashyap’s channel Sach Tak News has 63 lakh subscribers and 39 lakh followers on Facebook. He published 15 posts, most of which clocked views ranging from 10 lakh to 1.54 crore, likes between 50,000 and 10 lakh, and anywhere between 1,000 to 1 lakh shares.
Around a dozen cases have been filed so far, including six in Tamil Nadu. The FIRs in Tamil Nadu have been lodged against Dainik Bhaskar, OpIndia, Mohammad Tanvir, Shubham Shukla, Prashant Umrao and Manoj Yadav. Krishnagiri SP Saroj Kumar said police teams are on alert to nab those spreading fake news.
Shukla calls himself a journalist and has around 30,000 followers on Twitter while Umrao is a lawyer and spokesperson for the UP BJP. Manoj Yadav is a migrant worker from Bihar who made a fake video claiming that he and his friends were attacked by locals; he has been arrested by the Tamil Nadu police.
Leaders from the Bihar and UP units of the BJP had seized the rumours to target RJD leader and Bihar deputy CM Tejaswi Yadav’s meeting with DMK leader and Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin in Chennai. The meeting was seen as an effort to unite the opposition ahead of the 2024 polls. BJP leaders and supporters had hit out at Tejaswi for celebrating the birthday of Stalin, in whose state “12 migrants were killed”.
Among tweets tagging Tejaswi were visuals of a Jharkhand labourer’s body, termed a targeted murder over regional identity.
However, this pertained to a criminal case in January, when one Ramesh Mandal was attacked by local miscreants after he refused to hand over his phone to them. The 29-year-old labourer died of his injuries four days after the assault, and a murder case was subsequently lodged at Velachery police station.
Ramesh’s cousin Digaam Mandal, who was privy to the incident in January, said, “Me and Ramesh had been working in Tamil Nadu for the last 10-12 years. Not once have we encountered any problem at the hands of locals. We have a lot of Tamilian friends…they were goons who wanted to snatch our phones. This incident was not related to hate against Hindi speakers. It could have happened anywhere because the people who attacked us were goons and goons are in every city.”