The temple town of Sringeri in Karnataka’s Chikkamagluru saw the appearance of a ‘flag’ atop Shankaracharya statue on August 13. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state leaders were quick to declare that the flag belonged to the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). BJP legislator representing Chikkamagaluru constituency CT Ravi and BJP MP Shobha Karandlage claimed that SDPI “planted” its flag on the statue. BJP spokesperson Malavika Avinash asserted the same. Adi Shankaracharya is an 8th-century philosopher of Hinduism.

SDPI has been in the news since the August 11 Bengaluru riots where three people were killed in police firing. Multiple FIRs have been filed against 300 persons including 16 members of SDPI, linked to the Popular Front of India (PFI).

Police statement refutes BJP’s claims

Chikkamagaluru police issued a press release on August 14 which states that neither the piece of cloth found atop Shankaracharya statue belongs to SDPI nor is the accused associated with the party.

According to the press release, a 28-year-old man took a banner from Sringeri Jamia Mosque used during Eid Milad festival and placed the same over a pavilion on the statue of Shankaracharya. The man was under the influence of alcohol. On the intervening night of August 12-13, he picked a banner from the mosque to take cover from heavy rainfall. A CCTV footage made public by the police shows him covering himself with the banner.

“During the investigation, it was also found that the banner does not belong to any political party or organization. This person does not belong to any political party or any organization. It was found that this act is not premeditated and was not done on purpose,” added the police statement.

A visual comparison of the banner and SDPI’s flag is sufficient to debunk viral claims. Unlike the party flag, the banner is majorly blue in colour.

The banner also carries a picture of Madina Masjid (Al Masjid an Nabawi), Saudi Arabia, which is considered to be the last mosque built by Muhammed, the prophet of Islam.

False Muslim spin given to the story

A report in The News Minute identifies the accused as Milind. Chikkamagaluru police also said in its press conference that the man taken into custody is Milind Manohar. However, Oneindia Kannada claimed that the police arrested a man named Rafiq. Taking its cue, right-wing propaganda website OpIndia said that Rafiq and Sahil were arrested while SDPI was accused of conspiracy.

OpIndia’s article was tweeted by its editor Nupur Sharma drawing close to 2,000 retweets.

Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), asserted that “jihadists” draped an Islamic flag over Shankaracharya’s statue. It also claimed that Rafiq and Sahil were arrested by the police.

Twitter handle True Indology shared Organiser’s report drawing 2,400 retweets as of this writing. Mahesh Vikram Hegde, founder of fake news platform Postcard News, promoted identical narrative.

SP Chikkamagaluru informed Alt News that the police was investigating suspects however Milind was the one arrested. The press release attached earlier states that interrogation of suspects and investigation of CCTV footage led the cops to the accused. Milind admitted to placing the banner under the influence of alcohol.

Following the police’s statement, OpIndia published another story reporting that Milind was arrested.

Misleading media reports

A premature report by Asianet News, devoid of police statement, had declared that the banner found atop Shankaracharya’s statue was the SDPI flag. Interestingly, the channel had also aired visuals of the banner which show that it isn’t the SDPI flag.

Deccan Herald reported, “Unidentified miscreants allegedly covered the gopura housing sage Shankaracharya’s statue in the town with the flag of Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI) on Thursday morning.” This report also does not carry the police’s statement but only allegations made by BJP members and Hindu outfits.

A report in The New Indian Express also declared that the flag belonged to SDPI.

An incident where a man in an inebriated state placed a banner from a mosque atop the pavilion of the Shankaracharya statue in Sringeri was blown out of proportion by BJP leaders. Misleading media reports further legitimised false claims that the banner was SDPI’s flag. Oneindia and OpIndia introduced a sectarian spin to the incident. The person arrested does not belong to the Muslim community unlike claimed by these outlets.

The state capital witnessed riots triggered by a derogatory Facebook post just days ago. Unverified news or sectarian misinformation published by the media has the ability to reignite religious tensions. This was the second instance when OpIndia promoted misinformation in the aftermath of Bengaluru riots. The outlet had earlier carried an erroneous report by the Hindustan Times which claimed that a strong mob of ‘60,000’ had gathered during the violence. Police and eyewitness accounts suggest that the figure was at least 15 times less. While HT subsequently updated its report, the OpIndia article continues to carry false information. Irresponsible reports that cannot be corroborated can have serious repercussions and should not see the light of day.

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About the Author

Pooja Chaudhuri is a senior editor at Alt News.