Alt News ground report: ‘Temple in Shibpur burnt by Muslims’ claim false

Violence erupted in the Shibpur area of Howrah district in West Bengal on March 30 evening, when two rallies, one taken out by the Vishva Hindu Parishad and another by a local outfit, were passing through a Muslim-dominated area on the Grand Trunk Road. According to news reports, several shops and vehicles parked on the road were vandalized with some of them set on fire. On the following day, i.e., April 1, there was another round of violence at the same spot with reports of stone-pelting in the presence of policemen. Over 40 people have been arrested so far even as the BJP has moved the Calcutta High Court seeking a CBI probe into the violence.

At 11.15 pm on the first day, Bengal BJP president Sukanta Mazumdar tweeted two videos, in one of which one can see fire engulfing something in the distance and smoke billowing out. A woman can be heard saying, “Chachaji mandir me aag laga di, jaldi upar aao,” (Uncle, they have set fire to the temple, rush upstairs) while others look at the fire from a rooftop. One of them is video-calling someone and showing him the fire. The caption of the video, written in Bengali, can be roughly translated as “You must be ready for the kicks if you are milking a cow.” (Archive)

The caption apparently refers to words spoken by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at a press conference on May 25, 2019, while she was talking about attending an Iftar and responding to allegations of ‘minority-appeasement politics’.

The video posted by Majumdar soon went viral. When this article is written, it has been retweeted close to 1,200 times and viewed almost 2 lakh times.

A verified user called Gopal Goswami (@gopalgiri_uk) tweeted the same video and wrote, “See the condition of Bengal! Jihadists set a temple on fire on Ramnavami and Nero didi is singing bhajans of Rahul.” (Archive)

He later deleted the tweet. By then, it was retweeted over 2,300 times and viewed 40,000 times.

Twitter user Mr. Sinha (@MrSinha_), a Right Wing influencer who frequently puts out misinformation, quote-tweeted Sukanta Majumdar’s tweet and wrote, “So the news about the Hindu temple being set on fire in WB was true..” (Archive)


His quote-tweet was retweeted over 3,700 times.

Several other BJP-linked handles tweeted the same claim. Among them were Bhavin Shah, Karthik Rao Pantham and Neetu Garg.

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Fact Check

Alt News looked at several mainstream media reports on the violence of March 30 and found no mention of a temple being set on fire. In order to verify the claim made in the video, we visited the violence-hit area. We located the exact spot with help from journalists who had covered the developments.

Shibpur, a bustling riverside town at a stone’s throw from the state secretariat, Nabanna, is primarily known for one of India’s oldest engineering colleges and a botanical garden set up in 1787. As we reached the spot of the March 30 violence, about 100 meters from the Shibpur police station on the Grand Trunk Road, we showed the video to the locals, who eventually directed us to a Shiv temple in front of the Shibpur Shree AC Market.

We met the priest, Sudama Pandit from Bhadrak in Odisha, and showed him the video tweeted by Bengal BJP president Sukanta Majumdar. He identified the place as the lane behind the temple. Looking at the video, he said the flames seen in the video had engulfed plastic crates, baskets and roadside waste right in front of the temple.

We asked if there was any damage to the temple. “Yes, some stones and bricks came flying and did some damage on the second day,” he said, pointing at a crack on the tiles on the temple’s outer wall.

“Stone-pelting happened on the second day (April 1). On the Ram Navami day, there was none. I locked myself inside the temple and was peeping out from an opening in the door. Things were set on fire right in front of the temple, here and there. Things like baskets, crates, papers and plastic lying scattered.”

“There was no damage to the temple from the fire. The fire did not touch the temple. I was inside all the while,” he asserted.

He invited us inside the temple. We went in and found everything in tact.

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“My father used to the priest here. I have been a priest here for the last 40 years. We live in perfect harmony with our Muslim brothers. I haven’t seen anything like that ever before,” Pandit told us.

To be certain, we asked him again if the the claim that the temple was set on fire was false, and showed him the video one more time.

“Yes, this video is taken from some building in the lane behind my temple. The temple was not set on fire. You can see for yourself,” he shot back.

The readers can hear a part of the conversation here:

Where was the Video Shot from?

In order to ascertain that we were indeed looking at the same temple as seen in the video, we entered the lane trying to find the spot from where it was shot. We tried to match the locale with the frame in the video on our mobile screen. The video was shot from high up, either an open balcony or a rooftop.

About 30 meters into the dingy lane, we noticed a freshly plastered building without a coat of paint as the one visible in the video in front of the girl with the phone. The next building was five-storeyed, so, the video could have been shot from there.

We entered the building next to the freshly plastered one and rushed upstairs. The rooftop had bamboo poles supporting a recently built floor further above. From the edge of the roof over the lane, we could have the same view as in the viral video.

What we saw in front matched the video frame to frame. We were standing at the same spot from where the video tweeted by the Bengal BJP chief was shot. Readers can see the comparison below:

We could see the top of the temple at the point where the lane met the main road. It was in tact. See the video below:

We also noticed something that corroborated the claim that articles from the vending carts were set on fire. All the fruit vendors — and there were many of them as this was the time of Ramzan — had got new bamboo-made baskets (called ‘jhuri’ in Bengali) when we visited the spot on April 3. “When the Ram Navami procession came, most of us had gone for Namaz. They threw down our baskets and plastic crates on the road and set them on fire. So, we got new ones. You can see everyone has brand-new baskets,” said Saheb Alam, a local fruit-juice seller, even as an elderly woman selling bananas pointed at the new ‘jhuri’ she had got.

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Howrah SP Traveen Tripathi rubbished the claim that a temple was set on fire. “No such incident has happened. We will take action against the persons who are trying to spread any such rumour. They will be dealt strictly as per law,” he told Alt News.

Who Set Things on Fire?

When Alt News asked the priest, Sudama Pandit, who had set the articles on fire in front of the temple, he said, “The men who came with the rally did it. I saw it from the temple.”

We accessed several videos of the day from a local activist. One of them, 51-second long, shows the fire in front of the temple. The man shooting the video first focuses on a crowd of people, many of them wearing saffron and carrying saffron flags, and exhorts them to break something (“Tod, saale tod,” he says). Then he runs towards the fire right next to the temple shouting Jai Shri Ram. Once he is close to the fire, he urges others to burn things (“Jalaa, jalaa,” he says). One can see men wearing saffron and carrying saffron flags setting bamboo baskets, plastic crates and even a trolley van on fire in front of the temple. The signboard of the Shibpur Shree AC Market in the background (visible clearly at the 0.37-minute mark) and the temple next to it confirm that it is the same spot. Others can also be heard shouting slogans of Jai Shri Ram. A man can be seen dancing with a sword in his hand at the 0.42-minute mark.

We have circled the temple in the video for the ease of viewers.

Another video was tweeted by journalist Tamal Saha which showed plastic crates being thrown into a fire at the same spot. Men wearing saffron are standing around it. The temple and the market building can be seen in the background, corroborating what was said by the priest. In the caption he affirms that no temple was burnt.

Replying to our query on who was behind setting things on fire on the road, SP Tripathi told us, “The CID is investigating the matter.”

To sum up, our on-ground investigation from the spot of the Ram Navami violence at Shibpur, Howrah, made it amply clear that no fire caused any damage to the temple seen in the viral video. The video was shared on social media suggesting that a temple had been set on fire by Muslims on the day of Ram Navami, without any verification. Our conversation with locals on the spot and videos shot by activists on the ground suggest that various articles were set on fire near the temple by those who came with the rally and/or people carrying saffron flags.

This is a text-book example of a fake narrative created on the basis of a misleading video. A look at the comments and quote-tweets on BJP state chief Sukanta Majumdar’s tweet shows how it provoked his followers. Enraged by the ‘news’ of a temple being set afire, people wrote things like, “This is the beginning of riots. I can’t see any provocation.”, “Jihadis are poisonous for the society”, “Rabid DOGS. Bloody animals in the guise of Humans. A blot on civilized society.”, “That’s why nrc is needed in India..” etc, while venting their anger at Muslims.

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About the Author

Indradeep, a journalist with over 10 years' experience in print and digital media, is a Senior Editor at Alt News. Earlier, he has worked with The Times of India and The Wire. Politics and literature are among his areas of interest.