On October 8, 2019, a family of three – Bandhu Prakash Pal, his pregnant wife and 8-year-old child – was hacked to death in West Bengal’s Murshidabad. A construction worker, Utpal Behara, has been booked for the crime. Behara had reportedly entered the victims’ house armed with a knife. The police have stated “financial dispute” as the motive behind the murders. However, the past week leading up to the arrest was marred with misinformation. Several attempts were made to add communal and political colours to the crime.
BJP politicises the murder
Initial local reports carried details of the primary investigation where the police were hinting at personal enmity as the possible motive behind the murders. According to Anandabazar Patrika, the family was killed at around 12 pm on October 8 by an unidentified man who had entered the victims’ home with a knife. The cops initially suspected that a dispute over property triggered the murders. To them, the crime seemed like an “act of revenge”.
A Bengali report in The Indian Express also stated that the police were investigating the possibility of a known person’s hand behind the heinous crime.
Less than two days later, the BJP appended a political angle. Attacking West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, BJP MLA Babul Supriyo tweeted, “Does mother, land and people mean anything to you?”
Newly-inducted BJP member and MP Gautam Gambhir suggested that the family was linked to the RSS. “Hope that assoc[iation] with RSS does not deter @MamataOfficial from taking action,” wrote the former cricketer.
Another BJP MP from West Bengal Arjun Singh directly blamed the TMC for the murder of an ‘RSS’ worker.
BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya also attacked the Mamata Banerjee government.
The party’s state president Dilip Ghosh, national spokesperson Sambit Patra and BJP Mahila Morcha national social media head Priti Gandhi were among the other BJP members who introduced a political angle to the crime.
Social media gives communal overtones
Social media users also did not deter from adding their own versions to the incident – a Muslim perpetrator link to the crime. The founder of fake news portal Postcard News, Mahesh Vikram Hegde, claimed that ‘peacefuls’ lynched an ‘RSS karyakarta’ in West Bengal. ‘Peacefuls’ is a derogatory term used to refer to Muslims.
Several users followed by the office of railway minister Piyush Goyal also brought in communal overtones to the murders. One Rakesh Krishnan Simha (@ByRakeshSimha) wrote that a ‘jehadi mob’ murdered an unborn baby in Murshidabad.
Madhu Kishwar alluded a hate crime, suggesting that the large Muslim population of Murshidabad was somehow connected to the murders.
Another user tweeted ‘radical Islam’ while claiming that an RSS worker was slain in Bengal.
A parody account of journalist Pushpendra Kulshrestha, infamous for spreading misinformation along communal lines, tweeted, “We are defamed even for cutting a lemon. They kill an entire family and no one talks about it.”
A user Judhajit Senmazumdar (@Judhajit_S) followed by the office of Piyush Goyal shared images of a ‘shradhanjali’ offered in the child’s name in California. Tweeting with the hashtag ‘Ram Mandir Nirman’, he wrote that the child’s sacrifice will not be wasted.
Media gives credence to political and communal fervent
Most media outlets carried reports which furthered the unverified ‘RSS’ angle. Incidentally, initial reports of the crime did not mention the victim’s alleged political affiliation but the same was highlighted only after the BJP made the assertion more than 24 hours after the crime was committed.
An October 10 report by ANI merely said, “In a gruesome incident, three people, including a child, were murdered by unknown miscreants in their house on Thursday in Jiyaganj area of Murshidabad…The investigation into the matter is underway.”
However, a subsequent report by the news agency referred to Pal as ‘RSS worker’.
India Today had published a PTI report on October 9 with no mention of Pal’s purported political links, however, an independent report published by the news organisation the next day carried the unconfirmed claim by BJP as a fact.
The reportage by India Today’s Aaj Tak, however, took it a step further. The channel broadcast a discussion on – ‘Will Bengal’s politics be designed with the blood of children? Red with blood, Didi’s Bengal!”
Several other news organisations gave credence to unverified claims – Hindustan Times, The Lallantop, India TV, Swarajya, Navbharat Times, Jansatta, The Frontline, DNA, Outlook, Prabhat Khabar, Oneindia and Nai Dunia. Right-wing website Opindia also carried a story with similar assertions.
Hateful tweets by journalists
Vikas Bhadauria’s tweet on the incident contained graphic imagery hence was taken down by Twitter. The ABP News journalist, however, construed this as ‘lynching’ of his right to expression. Bhadauria was defending a tweet where he had claimed that the triple murder was a hate crime, committed in an area with negligible Hindu population.
India TV’s executive editor Sushant Sinha also portrayed the murders as a hate crime. In a tweet which garnered nearly 10,000 likes, Sinha attacked certain sections of the citizenry who, as per the journalist, would be unaffected by the death of the child and celebrate the death of his parents. “They won’t see the dead body of a child but that of a Sanghi…They would be happy seeing the corpses of the entire family covered in blood,” wrote Sinha.
After West Bengal police clarified that the murders were not linked to any political or communal angle, editorial director of Swarajya R Jagannathan questioned the investigation. This came despite the statements of the victims’ family being in tandem with those of WB police.
Attacks on liberals
The incident also drew sharp criticism for ‘liberals’. Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote, “Hope liberals will find it ghastly enough to empathize with the bereaved family.”
Times Now broadcast a show targetting the 49 celebrities who had written an open letter to the Prime Minister, expressing concern over mob lynching in the country.
Republic TV’s Major Poonia also called upon liberals.
Those critical of the government were attacked by social media users as well. The Twitter handle Friends of RSS (@friendsofrss) which is followed by top leaders of the BJP, including the PM Modi, wrote, “Will the Award Wapsi gang and the intellectuals who have coined the word lynching say something?”
What does the police investigation say?
In an October 11 Twitter thread, West Bengal police had clarified, “Prima facie it seems to be a case of personal enmity and it has nothing to do with politics.”
The police had also mentioned that Pal was in “serious financial crisis.”
Subsequently, media reports came pouring in that the family has denied RSS links. India Today also reported that Pal’s brother-in-law, Diptiman Sarkar, said that an RSS member offered him financial help however he rejected the man’s assistance and told him that his brother-in-law was never associated with any political party.
After the family’s statements, the BJP was on the back foot over the triple murder. The party’s state chief Dilip Ghosh denied that he ever said that the murders had a political motive. Days before, Ghosh had tweeted, “…political violence continues unabated even during Durga Puja.”
After a week-long investigation, West Bengal police arrested Utpal Behara from Bandhu Prakash Pal’s hometown and ruled out any political angle to the crime. “According to police, Pal also worked as an insurance agent and 20-year-old Behra had bought two life insurance policies from him. Behra told his interrogators that Pal gave him the receipt for the first policy but was dodging to give the receipt for the second,” reported The Hindu. The police also claimed in a tweet that Behara confessed to his crimes.
Misinformation continues unabated
The tragic murder of a family over a personal financial dispute was politicised by the TMC’s main opposition in West Bengal. BJP’s unverified claims were given credence by the media which also added communal fervent to the crime. Supporters of the party made massive attempts on social media to allude that the perpetrator was Muslim.
Incidentally, none of these online influencers, media organisations and politicians has posted clarifications on the premature, hateful assertions which were laid to rest by West Bengal police. In fact, a few have continued to propagate misinformation. A report by Swarajya post the details released by the police still refers to Bandhu Prakash Pal as ‘RSS worker’. A tweet Gaurav Pradhan continues to give the crime a communal colour by suggesting that the family was hatched to death because Pal objected to the construction of a mosque in the area.