On March 27, 2017, Inspector Reddy reported to the police station earlier than usual and stood behind a table stacked with papers. Class 10 board exams were underway and his police station was tasked with the bandobast in Kalwakurthy, a town about 80 kilometres from Hyderabad in Telangana. His constables had to ensure that all photocopy stores within a 100-metre radius of the five exam centres were shut and that no shopping complexes opened until the exams concluded. Reddy was patrolling in his jeep. On his way to the fifth centre he received a phone call. It was a young man from the Hindu Vahini, a Hindutva outfit. His voice was muffled and in the background Reddy could just about make out an angry crowd. The caller was agitated as he explained that about 40 members from the right-wing group were marching towards the bus station in Kalwakurthy to disrupt a rally held by a Christian organisation. At the time of the call, the Vahini group was about a kilometre away.

“Will you come here and stop them or should we attack?” the caller gave an ultimatum.

*** 

T

his was news for Reddy. He hadn’t been informed about the Christian rally. He started working the phones as he drove towards the bus station. An informant clarified: About 150 Christians were canvassing in the area. Reddy ordered four constables to rush to the spot.

“At all costs, maintain law and order,” he instructed.

The WhatsApp message claimed that Christians had descended upon Kalwakurthy to carry out forced conversions.

As he pulled up near the bus stand, he saw a crowd of about 150 middle-aged men and women distributing Bibles and pamphlets in an orderly manner. The group would engage passersby in conversation. They also went into stores that lined the busy street. They were peddling basic information about Christianity, meetings and church hours. For those who expressed interest, they recounted tales of Jesus Christ while encouraging them to read the Bible. They were calm and civil, recalls a constable on duty.

illustration 01 f.jpg

But the information the Hindu Vahini crew had received painted a dramatic picture. The WhatsApp message on March 27, 2017 claimed that the Christians had descended upon Kalwakurthy to carry out forced conversions and called upon Hindus to defend their religion. 

Inspector Reddy received another angry phone call. “How are you watching them carry out forced conversions?” asked a Hindu Vahini leader.

The Vahini was closing in on the Christians as they marched along the street. This was a motley crew of about 50, their bodies draped in orange flags that often fell off their shoulders revealing graphic tees. One read, “Just Do It.” Those without orange flags carried smartphones and documented the march past stores, their numbers increasing sporadically. A man in his early 40s on a pink bike called for other members to join in while a young man in a red shirt, in his early 20s, roused the crowd with invective-laden sloganeering. Soon a group with stones and rocks joined them. A mob was formed.

Meanwhile, the Christian group was unaware of the violence coming their way as they went about their mission on the streets. They had obtained prior permission from the district superintendent of police (DSP) to carry out a meeting in a public space with a microphone. They had rented an auto from Hyderabad with a banner and a tourist bus had ferried Christians from neighbouring villages. Their number was larger than had been expected and resembled a rally, for which they lacked permission. The DSP had, however, failed to pass the order down the ranks, according to policemen on the ground. There was inadequate bandobast for the evangelical event; the situation threatened to escalate into a case of communal violence opposite the bus stand.

A misstep on a saffron flag, the image of a police officer in khaki and a young boy in black and white, became the core of another fake news story spread by WhatsApp. The edited video, devoid of context was  with a message: “A Hindu police officer had colluded with the Christians, allowing them to rally while attacking Hindus.”

Reddy appealed to the Christians with folded hands. One of the organisers waved a letter from the DSP. That didn’t matter now. “Go home,” he pleaded. “This will get dangerous.” Swiftly, Reddy persuaded a group of Christians on to the tourist bus and posted two constables for their protection. He stopped another bus departing from the depot and ordered the driver to ferry a group of Christians away. They were told to speed away and had a police vehicle tailing behind.

 ***

M

embers of the Hindu Vahini arrived as the buses were pulling away. They were at once pleased that they had brought an end to the canvassing and displeased to have missed a confrontation. The crowd moved further and was in the vicinity of a mosque, a crowded area. Reddy feared further communalisation of the situation should the Muslims get involved and tried to move the Christians along.

Some among the Hindu Vahini were determined to attack but all that remained was a small group of middle-aged Christians and an auto with a banner that read, “Jesus Christ.” A member of the group hurled a stone at the auto, smashing its glass. The Christians grouped together; someone among them began to cry with a Bible in his hand. Four policemen made a barrier between the Hindu Vahini and the Christians as the mob started pelting stones, chanting “Jai Hindu”, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, as loud as they could, with orange flags resting on their shoulders and their fists punching the air.

Unfamiliar with such communal tension, in an area where such incidents seldom happened, the police had no template for action. Reddy and his men faced off with the youth opposite a store that had its doors shuttered. In the heat of the chase, as the crowd of young men ran from the approaching police, Reddy ran after a boy in black and white. While the other boys fled, one dropped his flag on the ground. Reddy stomped on the edge of the saffron flag as he lunged to nab the boy in black and white. A constable ran past grabbing the boy in the red shirt and seconds later a police vehicle with reinforcements followed. From across the road, someone captured the unfolding scene on a smartphone.

*** 

T

hat 35-second clip, a misstep on a saffron flag, the image of a police officer in khaki and a young boy in black and white, became the core of another fake news story spread by WhatsApp. The edited video, devoid of context was uploaded on social media  with a message that implicated Reddy: “A Hindu police officer had colluded with the Christians, allowing them to rally while attacking Hindus.”

Once uploaded and shared, the message became a hungry monster. It travelled from the local Kalwakurthy Hindu Vahini group, to local BJP groups, ABVP (the right-wing all India student organisation), and RSS groups across the town, to the villages, across the district and into cities.

Inspector Reddy became a hated officer, a man in uniform who had turned his back on his religion, arrested sons from his community and had forsaken the saffron flag for love of the Bible.

As the message spread, Reddy was taking the three boys apprehended from opposite the mosque to the police station. He was ordered to arrest as many of the mob as possible.

Awaiting the SP, Reddy interrogated the boys. He learnt that they were ignorant about politics and did not owe allegiance to any ideology. They had no grasp of the law they breached when they threw a stone but were enticed by the thrill of a rally.

The SP who had been alerted about the developments of the afternoon demanded that the boys remain in custody and other mischief-makers be brought to task. After the interrogation, Reddy was on the phone to the parents of six other youth leaders. He assured them of their sons’ safety and the nine boys awaited the arrival of the SP. Reeling from a bitter experience in Asifabad, where he had been accused of being too soft during a communal clash between the Lambada and Gond  Adivasis, he used a heavier hand and smacked the boys. He then ordered his subordinate to book them under non-bailable offences.

Meanwhile, constables at the police station discussed What Ifs. What if they had been slower in arriving? Would Christians have been lynched? Could this group of young boys morph into a bigger mob? Outside the police station, parents of the nine boys backed by local members of BJP, ABVP and other leaders protested the police action. They were further incited by a WhatsApp forward that incriminated Reddy. It was only when he stepped outside, to the ire of the gathered crowd, that he learnt that he was a viral sensation on WhatsApp and Facebook.

The video made its way to WhatsApp and Facebook groups checked by BJP leaders where the topic of discussion was the future of Hinduism. 

Inspector Reddy became a hated officer, a man in uniform who had turned his back on his own religion, arrested sons from his community and had forsaken the saffron flag for love of the Bible. This far-fetched, inaccurate narrative made its way to the mainstream media and he received a call from a presenter on Bhaarat Today, a channel that alleged police had arrested nine innocent students and booked them in a false case. On the corner of the screen in a small circle was a screen grab of Inspector Reddy’s foot on the saffron flag.

“This is a lie,” Reddy said on air. He tried to clarify the situation, he requested on air that the people not believe false rumours, that there was law and order in Kalwakurthy, but the matter was beyond reason.

22 f.jpg

Within a few hours, the video made its way to WhatsApp and Facebook groups checked by BJP leaders where the topic of discussion was the future of Hinduism. The messages stoked Hindu anxiety and called upon people from neighboring hamlets, villages, towns and cities to come in large numbers to the Hanuman Jayanthi celebrations the following day to “prove what Hinduism is”. Messages claimed that the police shut down a Hindu rally while allowing a bigger Christian rally. This fake news again travelled at alarming pace on WhatsApp, with people going as far as commentating that “Hinduism is dying in India”. 

The messages pitted the police against the people and the need of the hour was to defuse  tensions in the face of social media uproar. A local dispute was now a district-wide issue and people began arriving in droves. Buses with people keen to display their support pulled into Kalwakurthy. When one group learnt of the arrival of another, it was encouraged and followed. About 40 Hindu Vahini members arrived from Nagarkurnool, from Amangal, a BJP-stronghold, from Vangoor, an adjacent mandal. The ABVP and BJP made their presence felt online by broadcasting on their WhatsApp groups and mobilising cadres online. Within hours, hundreds of outsiders had descended upon Kalwakurthy.

A BJP politician in Delhi visited Union minister Hansraj Ahir and  demanded an inquiry against the SP. The news of a small district in Telangana had made its way to the halls of power in Delhi within a day.

The police called for reinforcements. Officers from adjacent areas bulked the police force to 400 and they began a flag march on the streets of Kalwakurthy as a show of force. They also attempted to calm those in fear. Most people in Kalwakurthy were aware of something brewing when they saw a tear gas vehicle pull in on the main street. Everyone anticipated trouble in a town where no such incident had ever taken place, when the police had never before faced-off with people on such a scale, at such a pace.

Locally, the matter kept coming back to the fate of the nine arrested for pelting stones. Some of the boys with cases registered against them were due to sit their intermediate and college exams the following day. Outside the police station, angry parents argued with the SP and local politicians. The police conducted a meeting with parents explaining the situation. An altercation between a parent and member of the local BJP caught Reddy’s eye. The parent accused the local leader of leading his boy astray.

Sensing political opportunity, a BJP politician in Delhi visited Union minister of state for home, Hansraj Ahir and blamed the SP who had failed to maintain law and order. He demanded an inquiry against the SP. With pictures uploaded on social media, the news of a small district in Telangana had made its way to the halls of power in Delhi within a day. Soon the police felt political pressure. Calls came from Delhi to the SP and the DGP with a request to not register cases against “children”, to let them go because they were students. With online activity at an all-time high, regular updates and demands for their release all over Hindutva WhatsApp groups, police were further pressured to release the children on bail.

“A lot of things were feeding into each other,” recalls Inspector Reddy.

 ***  

A

few hours after the video had gone viral police realised there was no way to control the spread of information on social media. As hundreds arrived in the city from across the state, police decided to hold a meeting where elders from the Hindu, Christian, Muslim and other communities were brought in for a discussion. At the meeting they all agreed upon a peaceful Hanuman Jayanthi. It was an old-fashioned police way of diffusing communal tension, an ineffective ploy in the age of WhatsApp.

DJs are banned in Telangana but one had been snuck in from Hyderabad. About 4 p.m., the DJ appeared in the picture and behind him a motley crew of students, drunkards and devotees swaying to devotional songs. 

Soon after the meeting, Reddy was told by his bosses to seek police custody of the arrested students. This put him in a fix. He had brought in the six boys after assurances to their parents that they would be released. He had to break his word. With the boys in lock-up, these assurances and the social media smear campaign tarnished his reputation. People stopped him on the street and asked, “Being a Hindu how can you do this to your community?” He didn’t try to explain. What was important was to prevent any escalation of the situation during the Hanuman Jayanthi.

“It could get more viral,” he told his constables, many of who struggled to understand social media and its impact.

Traditional hierarchies in the police exacerbated the situation. The word of an IPS officer mattered more than the on-the-ground evaluation of Reddy and his team. Disobeying orders, and following his own reading of the situation, Reddy visited the magistrate at 3 a.m. with a request that the nine students be sent to jail under judicial custody and that they should be given bail quickly. They had an honest but short meeting about the communal nature of the problem and the impact of the upcoming Hanuman Jayanthi and board examinations, just hours away. An agreement, some sort of appeasement, would be necessary.The students were released on personal bonds and their advocate was instructed to produce them in court at 12 p.m., after the completion of their exam. When his bosses learnt of the development they were furious .

With the top brass angry, Reddy returned to the magistrate. When the nine were brought to the court at 12:30., the magistrate was ready to grant bail as she had promised the previous night and had asked the young men to produce sureties. But this time, the police opposed bail. The magistrate was displeased, and sent the young men into judicial custody. The advocate for the young men (all between the ages of 19-25) was aghast. He protested, questioning whether the court acted according to the law or upon the whims and fancies of the police. The advocate made a complaint at the high court, creating a wedge between magistrate and police, and an enquiry was called against the magistrate. Soon the matter reached WhatsApp and mobilised those on the fence.

*** 

W

ith 500 police personnel  an area domination march was carried out around Kalwakurthy just hours before the idol immersion. Every church, mosque and temple had a police bandobast.

DJs are banned in Telangana but one had been snuck in from Hyderabad and the organisers had hidden him in the fields. Soon after the conclusion of the area domination march, about 4 p.m., the DJ appeared in the picture and behind him a motley crew of students, drunkards and devotees swaying to devotional songs. With each passing hour, the number of people on the streets kept rising. People on the streets were told to dance, to drink. “They wanted to make their presence felt and they wanted to show their domination all over Kalwakurthy,” says a constable. 

When police attempted to stop the DJ, 400 students sat on the road in front of an idol of Hanuman refusing to let it move unless the DJ was allowed to play. They chanted anti-police slogans and brought up the issue of how Christians were allowed to congregate. In the end, the music was allowed but the volume was lowered.

Reddy followed the procession. Often he was stopped and heckled. He’d never seen a crowd so big in the city. The previous year, there were 500 people at Hanuman Jayanthi. This year there were 5,000.

The procession passed a church, a mosque and a temple. When it reached the main police station some in the crowd decided to dance outside its gates. They called to the police and asked them if they were scared. Thousands made their way past the jail and chanted slogans loud enough for the nine to hear inside. They danced opposite the jail for 40 minutes and some forced the police officers to dance as well. Finally at 2 a.m., the rally ended without any major incident.

On April 27, 2017, the magistrate sent a letter to the SP and DySP claiming that the SI and CI had influenced her decision in granting bail to the nine students. This came on the back of an enquiry against the magistrate demanded by the nine students’ advocate. Ten days later, Inspector Reddy was suspended for not following orders and the nine students walked free. They are now studying in Kalwakurthy. Inspector Reddy’s suspension has since been revoked and he is back on duty.

“It is not easy being a policeman in the age of social media,” Inspector Reddy says.