The peaceful protests against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 in the national capital turned violent on February 23. Riots between Hindu and Muslim communities prevailed for a week in which 53 people lost their lives. Prior to the Delhi riots, Alt News debunked dozens of misinformation targeting the Muslim community. When the riots were ongoing, several videos and live streams emerged on social media. One such video was uploaded by Facebook user Sudesh Thakur, an electrician by profession.

Thakur posted a Facebook Live where he confessed on camera, “Gave freedom to a Muslim (एक मुल्ले को आज़ादी दी).” He is surrounded by dozens of people in a celebratory mood—men can be seen dancing to blasting sounds of ‘Har Har Mahadev’. Soon this video was deleted by Thakur. As per our documentation, it was posted between 5 pm to 6 pm on February 24.

After rummaging Thakur’s Facebook profile, Alt News found that he had made numerous posts (view PDF) that targeted the Muslim community and urged people to join the riots between February 24 and 26. In fact, his Facebook bio reads, “Hindus are supreme” (translated from “हिन्दू ही सर्वोपरिय). Additionally, Alt News found pictures on his profile which establish that he is an active member of the Hindu Raksha Dal.

In this article, we will share our findings based on Thakur’s Facebook activity and our telephonic conversations with him which revealed that misinformation played a crucial role in radicalising his views.

Alt News asked Thakur what he meant by giving “freedom” to a Muslim man. He responded, “Hundreds of CAA supporters were chanting “Jai Shree Ram” after the recital of Hanuman Chalisa near Maujpur metro station. I had gone to purchase a fridge compressor. I didn’t know that the riots were happening in that area. A Muslim boy bearing a knife beneath his waist was apprehended which led to a fistfight. This is when shop owner Hari Singh ji and I ran towards the crowd where someone declared that a “Mulla terrorist” was caught. No riots were taking place at the time. I couldn’t see what happened to the Muslim boy. That’s when I made the video,” adding that it was “rumoured that the Muslim boy had come to break the temple” and people around him were chanting “will give freedom to these terrorists.”

When pointed out that he used the word “mulla” and not “terrorist” in the Facebook Live, Thakur did not deem it necessary to clarify. In fact, around the same time as his Facebook Live, he had updated a status bragging about sending a “jihadi” to heaven. While discussing this post Thakur said, “I personally believe that anyone who speaks against the nation should be shot dead.”

During the conversation, Thakur accused this reporter of hailing from Pakistan. “A fellow member of Hindu Raksha Dal had received a call from someone who spoke just like you, then later revealed his Pakistani agenda. If you are from Pakistan just confess.” Once convinced that he was speaking with an Indian citizen, we were back on track discussing his Facebook posts.

Thakur said that he had left for Bareilly on the night of February 24 to attend a wedding but he surprisingly confessed, “If I hadn’t gone to attend the function, I would have surely done something for which I would be under arrest right now.”

Earlier that same day, Thakur had shared a video where people are chanting, “Hit them, Modi Ji, we are with you. (मोदी जी लठ बजाओ हम तुम्हारे साथ है)”. When asked if he wanted the Prime Minister to resort to violence, Thakur chuckled. “It’s not Modi ji’s job to strike them, it’s the job of people like us to strike them… But he has to give a cue, only then…”

He had shared another video on February 24. This one showed violence in the Chand Bagh area and Thakur is inciting people to come out on the streets. “कब तक घर पर बैठे रहोगे (How long will you be inside your home?),” he questioned.

The next day, on February 25, he wrote in threatening words, “Let’s give the night to the government. If nothing happens, there will be chaos tomorrow.” He clarified that this post was inspired by Delhi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra’s speech on February 23. “I was reminding the police that they were given two days time.” Over the course of our conversation, Thakur also opined that there’s nothing wrong with taking the law into our own hands.

Thakur had shared a video of Muslim women coughing due to tear gas shells fired on protestors. He wrote that the shells should be inserted into their vaginas. “If someone speaks against my nation, my neighbourhood and my brother, worse language is warranted,” he justified the post. (archived link)

When Alt News told Thakur that Delhi police data suggests that the majority of deaths and damage to property were from the Muslim community, he responded, “Let me tell you clearly why that happened. It happened because they [Muslim community] were protesting against CAA. The protest increased to such levels that Muslims were ready to become anti-nationals.”

“There were so many wrong [immoral] things happening at the protest site,” he added. When we pointed out there is no evidence of his claims, Thakur said, “There were multiple videos [of the protest] on Facebook and WhatsApp.” Prior to the Delhi riots, Alt News had debunked misinformation targeting women protestors at Shaheen Bagh. Some of the false claims suggested that Muslim women were selling drugs and engaging in prostitution. Thakur specifically mentioned, “I received a video where CAA rioters from the Muslim community were standing in a queue and accepting bribes.” This video was debunked by Alt News on March 2.

Additionally, Thakur also revealed that he relies on Sudarshan News for current affairs. Over the last 12 months, Alt News has found 13 instances where Sudarshan News or its managing editor-in-chief Suresh Chavhanke have put out misinformation. Last year we published a report documenting multiple instances of communally-divisive misinformation put out by Sudarshan News.

On February 26, Thakur shared a video of a mob climbing atop a mosque’s minaret in Ashok Nagar and hoisting a saffron flag. Celebrating the desecration of the Muslim place of worship, he wrote, “These Hindu brothers did brave work. You will also be recognised as karsevaks. There is only one motto—Hail Hindu unity.” Thakur believed this act would go down in history the same as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Prior to our conversation, he posted a video of the Babri Masjid demolition with a song from the Bollywood movie ‘Tanhaji’ playing in the background. “This is just the beginning. In this rule, we will take back what rightfully belongs to us,” he wrote.

“The Ayodhya conflict happened prior to my birth or I was very young. At that time, I didn’t have knowledge. I have seen pictures of two Kothari brothers who were shot down by the government [police]. It was reported that they attacked the mosque with hammers. Even today people share those images [demolition of Babri masjid] on Facebook. Even today people remember these people who brought down the structure [Babri Masjid].”

When we asked him if it was right to hoist a saffron flag over a mosque during the Delhi riots, he responded, “Of course it was right. If someone demolishes our temple and builds a mosque…of course such mosques should be demolished. In fact, if you demolish any mosque will you find something or the other [related to Hinduism]. And these days we are finding… everywhere [underneath mosques] we are finding temples. Wherever a mosque is demolished we find a temple. That was their strategy, till date have they [Muslims] ever purchased land before constructing a mosque?… I have seen a mosque raised over a temple but never a temple that was raised over a mosque. Even the Supreme Court’s verdict states that Babri Masjid was built over a temple.”

On November 11, two days after the Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya dispute, Scroll reported, “The Ramjanmabhoomi movement had, 30 years ago, successfully whipped up nationwide hysteria claiming that the Babri Masjid had been built after a temple had been destroyed. So successful was the movement that, even as the claim has been dismissed by the Supreme Court large numbers of Indians continue to believe it to be true.”

In the past, Alt News has debunked recurring misinformation which claims that temples were discovered upon demolition of mosques for road construction in Karnataka. Pictures of Gwalior fort were also shared as “temples excavated beneath mosques”. Another false claim suggested that 40 ancient temples were rediscovered beneath Muslim properties cleaned for Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project.

Thakur also alleged that anti-CAA mob was responsible for burning a petrol pump at Bhajanpura. As per a report by The Caravan, a photojournalist found that the petrol pump was burnt by a “Hindu right-wing mob”.

In June, Alt News published a report that includes a statement from the same photojournalist. “The anti-CAA protestors were present at the end of the women’s sit-in protest site. After the police action in the morning as informed by protestors present, they moved towards the main road. Soon, the Delhi Police used tear gas to disperse them and also lathi-charged the protesters. Around 1 pm, a large number of people gathered at the site. Half were from Chand Bagh (predominantly Muslim area) and other half were from Bhajanpura side (predominantly Hindu area) who joined the Delhi police. This is when the stone-pelting and arson started. I observed the riots from a vantage point until 6 pm when the anti-CAA mob wasn’t able to approach close to the petrol pump due to the brute force from the pro-CAA mob from Bhajanpura. I saw the petrol pump and vehicles set ablaze. As per my observation, it appeared that the protestors were, by and large, defending the waves of attack from Bhajanpura side,” he told us.

According to the photojournalist, the conflict zone’s epicentre gradually kept shifting towards the right (shown below).

Thakur’s association with Hindu Raksha Dal

Alt News found ample evidence that Thakur is associated with the far-right group Hindu Raksha Dal (HRD). His first photo with HRD national convenor Bhupendra Tomar, popularly known as Pinki Choudhary, dates back to January 2017. Earlier this year, Tomar claimed responsibility for violent attacks on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. Several media outlets reported his confession and one such article was shared by Thakur on Facebook. In December 2019, Choudhary shared a Facebook Live in which HRD member Amit Prajapati invited people to join them in crushing skulls of anti-CAA protestors. This video was viewed over 22,000 times.

As per Deccan Herald, the Hindu Raksha Dal supports the BJP and has its headquarters in Ghaziabad. The group notoriously came into limelight for the first time in 2014 when they attacked Aam Aadmi Party’s Kaushambi office. As per The Hindu, Ghaziabad police arrested Tomar and 12 others in connection with the incident.

In August 2017, Thakur posted a picture with Choudhary holding a sword in front of an HRD banner.

In April 2018, he shared a picture of an HRD event and identified himself as a part of the fringe group. “Now that I’m a father, I’m not as active [in HRD] as I was in the past,” he told us.

Thakur had thus shared multiple videos and status updates on his Facebook profile during the Delhi riots which were provocative in nature. This includes confessing to “giving freedom to a Muslim” and celebrating the destruction of a Muslim place of worship. But his story is distressing for greater reasons. Thakur is a common man—an unknown name in a crowd of millions—radicalised by his surroundings. He expresses blind faith in his friends who share inflammatory WhatsApp messages and regularly watches Sudarshan News. Thakur, a member of the Hindu raksha Dal, is convinced that CAA protesters were “anti-national”. He also said that sometimes it is justified to take the law in one’s own hands. Thakur also believed that people who have a different view of nationalism should be shot dead without a second thought.

Facebook defines hate speech as “a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics—race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity and serious disease or disability.” Multiple times during our conversation, Thakur justified his beliefs because he saw a video on Facebook or WhatsApp. It has been over five months since the Delhi riots and Facebook still hasn’t taken action against Thakur’s posts. This oversight by the social media giant enables other users to indulge in hate speech.

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About the Author

Archit is a fact-checking journalist at Alt News since November 2019. Previously, he has worked as a producer at a TV news channel and as a reporter at a leading English-language daily. In addition to work experience in media, he has also worked as a fundraising and communication manager at an NGO.