The truth behind ‘gaming jihad’: How media skipped facts to manufacture a story

In mainstream media reportage, unverified claims about ‘minor victims’ and ‘400 conversions’.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal& Tarmeem Shaikh
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‘Media making mountain out of a molehill’

Newslaundry had a long conversation with Malati*, the mother of one of the other two teenagers. Malati confirmed that her son is not a minor. She said she spoke to the parents of Rohan and the other teen, and to Rohan and the teen too. She was part of a video-conference with the police and all three families, and the Ghaziabad police sent a team to her house as part of its investigation into Rohan’s father’s complaint.

“The media is making a mountain out of a molehill,” she said. “They are spreading fake news left, right and centre. The media said ‘four boys’ got converted. It’s fake news. Only one boy was influenced and his father filed a complaint with the police.”

Malati insisted that there is “no connection between gaming and religious conversion”.

“News channels are saying the boys were told they can win a game if they memorise or read ayats of the Quran. It’s an utter lie,” she said. “The media ran fake stories, claiming some boy from Mumbai told them to read the Quran. I have proof this isn’t true. I have submitted that proof to the police.”

This “proof” includes text messages exchanged between her son and Rohan, who will turn 18 this year.

Malati said that her son had told her that Rohan was very friendly with a Mumbai gamer called Baddo.

“The media says the Mumbai gamer told Rohan to go to the mosque and read religious texts. It’s not correct,” said Malati. “Yes, Rohan would interact freely with the boy. But that doesn’t mean the boy forced him to follow Islam. If I follow a guru and you ask me about him, I’ll tell you. That doesn’t mean you can tell people tomorrow that I forced you to follow a guru.”

It was Rohan who was curious about Islam, Malati insisted. “He researched it extensively. He even pressured my son to go to the mosque. He sent my son videos...He was after them like anything. We have provided these messages to the police. He himself was influenced and that’s why he was trying to influence others.”

Malati said it was “shameful” of the media to “flaunt fake news that the boys were converted”. “The media even lied about the age of the boys. They are not minors. The media also said online gaming apps are used for conversion. It is so childish. It’s like if you go to a gym and get influenced by something. Would you hold gyms responsible?”

“Rohan’s father had mentioned our sons’ names in the complaint since their numbers were on Rohan’s phone,” she explained. “Rohan used to message them and play games with them. The Mumbai boy wasn’t even connected to our boys. It was Rohan who would send them messages. His parents were aware of his activities – they even spoke to the Mumbai boy.”

The contents of the FIR

The FIR in the case had been filed on May 30 in Kavi Nagar police station at Ghaziabad. It was based on the complaint filed the same day by Rohan’s father. 

Newslaundry has a copy of the FIR, which said Rohan, a minor, was “wheedled to convert” to Islam. He had been “acting strangely with the family for quite some time”.

“He goes out of the house under the pretext of going to the gym five times a day and spends considerable time outside,” the FIR said. “The complainant was suspicious of his act and decided to follow him...He discovered his son was going to Sector 23 where he located a mosque to offer prayers. When he confronted his son about it, the latter told him Islam is a better religion than others and he had accepted Islam as his religion.”

Rohan’s father then checked his son’s laptop and phone where he “found various literature related to Islam”. 

“On investigating further, complainant found that through online gaming, his son came in contact with a man named Baddo, who is a Muslim and resident of Mumbai,” the FIR said. “Two years before, the same person sold some computer parts to his son and received UPI payment of Rs 20,000 in the name of Khan Shahnawaz Maksud. Complainant’s son has been under his influence since then and talks to him for hours.”

Rohan was “naive” and “these people have taken advantage of this and have converted him”. Rohan’s father was worried his son would be “used for anti-national activities”. Without elaborating, the FIR suggested “more people” had been “trapped”, that this was an “international racket”, and the Sector 23 mosque “is also involved in the racket”.

The FIR then listed the names and numbers of eight people, including the two teens who played games online with Rohan, as “part of the racket”. The media then declared the two teens as other “victims”. 

Thus, “gaming jihad” was born.

By June 4, the Ghaziabad police arrested one Abdul Rahman alias Nanni. He was accused of converting Rohan and an unnamed teenager to Islam. The police issued a press release that day saying Nanni met “two non-Muslim boys online” two years ago. They were “disoriented by the gaming app and were attracted towards Islam”. Nanni “took advantage of them and instigated them to follow Islam”. 

According to the police, there are “three phases” by which this conversion happens.

First, Muslims “adopt Hindu identities” and play online game Fortnite. If a user is losing the game, they tell them to “read verses of the Quran” to win. “They make them win and instil their confidence in Islam.”

In phase two, “Muslim boys use Hindu identities” and chat with their targets on Discord, “instigating them to follow Islamic rituals and traditions”.

In phase three, the targets are “shown videos of banned Islamic preacher Zakir Naik and asked to adopt Islam”.

And this entire plot is purportedly spearheaded by Shahnawaz Maksud Khan, the police said, the Mumbai resident known as Baddo.

Police arrests

On June 11, Shahnawaz, 23, was arrested in Alibaug in a joint exercise by the police from Ghaziabad and Thane. Two of his friends – brothers Tauseef, 26, and Aryan Shaikh, 21 – were arrested in Mumbai’s Worli. They were accused of “hiding” Shahnawaz two days before and providing a sim card to his brother Shaju Khan.

Tauseef and Aryan’s relative told Newslaundry the three men were “childhood friends”. 

“Their families knew each other since 1992 and lived in the same area,” he said. “Tauseef and Aryan were picked up by the Worli police and taken for questioning. They were beaten at the police station and their father was beaten too. During the interrogation, they revealed Shahnawaz had stayed at their place in Worli for a day. They have been released and given a notice to produce themselves in front of the Ghaziabad police for further questioning.”

Newslaundry visited Shahnawaz’s apartment building in Mumbra. His family refused to engage with the media. Neighbours were also unwilling to divulge details of the case. 

A handful of locals agreed to speak but had no clue about the allegations against Shahnawaz – they just said he was “well-behaved” and lived with his mother and two older brothers. A neighbour said Shahnawaz’s mother was in poor health.

Misinformation on ‘400 conversions’ in Mumbra

Another piece of misinformation that did the rounds was that “400 people” in Mumbra were purportedly converted to Islam through “online gaming”. 

It all began when, on June 7, Ghaziabad DCP Nipun Agrawal told the media about receiving “inputs” from an unnamed person in Gujarat about “400 people being converted to Islam in Mumbra”. Agrawal clearly said this information has not been verified.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have said it at all, because this made its way to news reports as facts. Shahnawaz Khan was again named as being responsible for these “400 conversions”. 

The Thane police, which had assisted the Ghaziabad police in tracking down Shahnawaz, later issued a statement saying they’d found no evidence of mass conversion in Mumbra. Mumbra is part of the Thane municipal corporation. Local MLA Jitendra Awhad, a member of the NCP, called the news fake and said if the Ghaziabad police could cite even four cases of conversion in his constituency, he would resign.

But who was this “person in Gujarat” who incorrectly tipped off the police?

Newslaundry learned his name is Updesh Rana. Originally from Uttar Pradesh, he presently lives in Meerut – he allegedly moves a lot – and calls himself a Hindutva activist. Newslaundry learned Rana has allegedly cheated “dozens” of people of lakhs of rupees on the pretext of getting them roles in movies. At least 15 police complaints have been filed against him.

In 2017, Rana was also accused of sexual harassment. In the same year, he made headlines for slapping an imam at the Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata.In 2017, he was also arrested for planning to carry out a rally in support of Shambhulal Regar who burnt and hacked a Muslim labourer in Rajsamand. Rambhakt Gopal, the Jamia shooter considered Rana an inspiration.

Thanks to his use of social media, Rana is now a warrior for Hindutva causes. In May this year, he took up the cause of a woman whose 54-year-old father in Palghar had purportedly converted to Islam. His family had filed a missing person’s complaint but the daughter asked Rana for his help, sending him a video saying the people who converted her father had purportedly “converted 400 Hindus to Muslims.

The source of this “400 conversions” appears to be a Muslim cleric called Mohsin Soni, who allegedly told the missing man’s son that a “convert from Gujarat” had “converted 400 Hindus to Islam in Jodhpur”. We learned this from an audio recording of this conversation given to Newslaundry.

Rana met the family and posted about it on Facebook on June 8. He alleged in the post that a “gang had converted 400 Hindus to Islam” in Mumbra. (Note that the cleric had said Jodhpur, not Mumbra.)

This is the input he would later give to the Ghaziabad police – just one of the many pieces of disinformation surrounding “gaming jihad”.

Locals in Mumbra were outraged at the lies being spread about their hometown. 

“I’ve been living here since my childhood. I’ve never heard of such conversion conspiracy theories,” said Buddhabhushan Gote, who participated in a protest on June 12 against the spreading of fake news. “If that boy Shahnawaz committed a crime, hang him. But do you really think he’s converting people through online video games? The entire claim sounds funny and stupid.”

Ganesh Gawade, a DCP with the Thane police, told Newslaundry they’ve received “no complaint or written report of conversion” in Mumbra.

“It was the media who started this news of 400 conversions,” he said. “They didn’t even show the full statement of the Ghaziabad DCP. They cut it to only show him mentioning 400 conversions; they omitted him saying it’s unverified information.”

Mumbra MLA Awhad said the Thane police should have issued a clarification sooner. “How can the media report that 400 people have been converted without verifying?” he asked. “They don’t have proof or anything but reported it.”

*Names changed to protect identity.

Also see
article imageUttarkashi: How a ‘journalist’ and Hindutva groups manufactured the ‘love jihad’ angle


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