The last five years have seen sections of the media play up stories of hate crime which soon turned out to be fake. This behaviour damages the credibility of both the media as well as that of genuine victims.
In the last five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, the idea of an endless, pan-India attack on Muslims has been popularised by a number of media organisations and opposition parties.
According to this narrative, Muslims across India are being lynched by Hindus for their dietary choices or, at times, just for being Muslims. We are told that this is a direct consequence of the 'Hindu nationalist' party coming into power after defeating 'secular' forces.
As shown time and again, this narrative rests on inflated data and disproportionate coverage to atrocities on them in popular media.
To counter this narrative does not mean suppressing or ignoring the actual atrocities that Muslims have faced by right-wing groups which are seen as close to the BJP.
However, there is nothing to show that Muslims are being targeted more over their religious identity than other religious groups, including Hindus, for their beliefs. After all, the same popular media has consistently turned a blind eye to atrocities by Islamists. Such has been the relentless push of a one-sided narrative that hate against BJP supporters has now been normalised. Open calls for lynching and death of 'bhakts', at times by professional journalists, has become par for the course; actual murders of Hindus for just being BJP supporters don't raise any alarm.
This narrative also gets an occasional boost by hate crime hoaxes. These are cases where Muslims spin a false tale to cry victimhood, knowing very well that political opportunists and a compliant media will turn mere allegations into a shrill cry of 'rising intolerance'.
Readers may remember the hate-hoax involving a Muslim woman named Misbah Qadri. A year after the BJP formed government in 2014, 25-year-old Qadri told a publication that she was being pressured to leave her flat by a property broker for being a Muslim.
Before the sensational story was vetted, the woman narrated her ordeal in front of a large number of media houses, which promptly denounced the 'growing discrimination against Muslims' and BJP's perceived fanning of the anti-Muslim sentiment.
The broker, a Hindu, was painted as a religious bigot and was forced to go underground for several days fearing backlash from Islamists.
The frail narrative had rested on the complainant's claim alone. Contrary details soon emerged that showed that the broker had been asking Qadri to leave the flat as she had been staying without due paperwork. It turned out that a month before her claim, the broker had submitted a police complaint against her.
Was her religion of any concern to the broker? No. The very apartment housed several other Muslims who denied any harassment. The broker had been simply asking for his due brokerage. Qadri's claim neither saw support from her roommates or other occupants of the apartment nor could withstand the scrutiny of a police probe. The police concluded there was no evidence in favour of her accusations.
Qadri got away with her lie without any consequences.
What's troublesome in the entire episode was that the popular media, which spiritedly reported her initial claim, showed little interest in the contrary details. Despite considerable proof that the case was a hate-hoax, no apologies were issued to either the broker or the readers or the target of their vilification — the BJP and its voter base of Hindus.
The easy use of Muslim victimhood did not lose currency.
What else explains a young college student concocting a hate crime against herself recently?
Earlier this month, 22-year-old Umam Khanam, a law college student in Uttar Pradesh's Meerut district, shared on Twitter her ordeal that she was molested in a bus by fellow students for being a Muslim and refusing to wear caps bearing the symbol of the BJP. "...This is what bjp has done to us...so much of hatred for muslims out there...," she said.
A day earlier, she, along with about 50 other students, had gone on a day-long tour to Agra. They all went in a private bus and were accompanied by two men and two women teachers.
In a series of tweets, the student said that in the bus, some students got drunk, bought BJP caps and when she refused, started misbehaving with her. She said they tried to touch her in an indecent manner but the teachers did not intervene. They started pulling her and forcing her to dance to seemingly vulgar songs. They ruined her entire bus journey and, when her friends came forward to support her, the drunk students misbehaved with them too. She was singled out for the harassment as she was the only Muslim girl in the group and had refused to wear the BJP cap.
The viral tweets were picked up by a large number of publications. It's safe to assume that it wasn't the alleged molestation but its association with 'BJP' and her identity as a 'Muslim' that found prompt favour with the media, as is evident from the headlines. 'Youth harass Muslim girl for refusing to wear BJP cap', said one. 'Lone Muslim on college trip says she was abused for refusing BJP cap', said another.
More than two weeks later, it is increasingly appearing to be another hate crime hoax. There is nothing to support her allegations that she was targeted — if at all — out of hate for being a Muslim or her refusal to wear BJP caps. On the contrary, a number of details have emerged that not only discredit most of her tale but also put a big question mark on her motives.
This correspondent was among the only two journalists who screened her claims by talking to the eye-witnesses.
It emerged that away from the glare of the media where her version had been lapped up without question, the 'victim' found little support among those actually present on the bus. It turned out that 35 out of the 50 students on the bus had given a written statement to the college authorities the very next day of her written complaint, refuting her allegations.
Her written complaint to the college, which named two of her male classmates as accused, gathered dust for more than a week as she did not care to show up before the internal inquiry committee. Eventually, the college was forced to close the inquiry without making any headway. In between, no student approached the committee in her support.
What came to the fore instead were disturbing details of the complainant's own conduct with other students. Several of her classmates said she was a Muslim zealot who, on several instances, showed signs of religious intolerance, fanaticism and rabid hate against the BJP.
Classmates narrated her hate against the colour saffron and how she burst into tears on Holi after the two boys named in her complaint applied saffron colour on her. "Until the colour was white and green, she was fine. The moment they put saffron colour on her — and they did it unknowingly — she said this is not done and started crying," a student told this correspondent while others testified to it.
They talked of her hate towards the BJP and BJP supporters, whom she calls 'bhakts' and detests to an extent that she wishes death on them.
Her social media posts are a testimony to this hate. Her tweets show that she wishes for the lynching of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and uses the choices expletives for Twitter users for merely being BJP supporters, sometimes telling them to "go die". Her posts show that she often uses the 'gau mutra' jibe at Hindus supporting the BJP.
All the more reason that her tale should have been corroborated before being turned into a news report.
Her classmates say she made up the story and did so "to get into the good books of Shehla Rashid". One of the accused told this correspondent that she "lied" to get even with him over their ideological differences. He said he often got into arguments with her about India and the BJP. Once, she called the Indian Army a bunch of rapists and, when he called her out, she snapped at him for being an 'andh-bhakt' (blind follower).
"After a similar spat again, she tweeted that while Saudi has money, Pakistan has beauty, India only has andh-bhakts. It was directed at me. In fact, on the tour too, we had differences because she kept on calling me andh-bhakt," the accused said.
These details are unsettling. The gullible — if not incompetent — media has not challenged these contrary details and, instead, quietly buried the story.
Those who report hate crimes definitely deserve to be heard and supported. However, each incident must be evaluated based on evidence. One should at least try to get all the facts. If the claim lacks credibility, as is increasingly apparent in the Umam Khanam case — it must be duly reported and called out.
Hate crime hoaxes must not be taken lightly. The use of Muslim victimhood card — or any other victimhood card — with impunity, casts a doubt on real claims of attacks based on religion and race. They also have a negative impact on community relations.
Each time the media drives attention to a fake story, it makes it that much more likely for people to doubt a genuine one.