Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Indian school WhatsApp groups are being asked to share videos of students praising Narendra Modi

Messages began after the prime minister canceled summer exams over coronavirus fears

Citing Covid-19 as the reason, India’s government on June 1 cancelled all annual school leaving exams for 12th graders, previously scheduled to take place in July and August. “After extensive consultations, we have taken a decision that is student-friendly, one that safeguards the health as well as future of our youth,” read a post on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official Twitter account.

The announcement, which affects high schools across the country, comes amid India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19, which has seen around 27 million infections and a chronic shortage of hospital beds, medicines and vaccines. The scale of the crisis has prompted criticism of the government both at home and abroad for its mishandling of the pandemic.

Soon after Tuesday’s announcement, the Twitter accounts of government-run state schools managed by a federal body, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), flooded the platform with videos of students thanking Modi for the cancellations, using the hashtag #ThankYouModiSir. Some of the posts were shared by the official accounts of the Ministry of Education and Education Minister Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.

“After months of uncertainty our Prime Minister’s decision has come in as a ray of hope for not just us students but also for the people associated with us,” said a student in one of the clips.

In another, a student from Uttar Pradesh said Modi’s decision had highlighted a concern for the welfare of young people. “His decision to cancel the board exams, prioritizing physical and mental health of the students across the nation has once again demonstrated his concern for our wellbeing. On behalf of all my classmates, I thank you with all my heart.”

“The decision of cancelling the exam has definitely given us and parents a very big sense of relief,” said another.

Indian social media has also been flooded with screen grabs of WhatsApp messages sent to groups comprising both teachers and students, asking schools to record videos applauding the government’s decision.

Mohammed Zubair, a co-founder of the Ahmedabad-based fact-checking website AltNews, helped me confirm the authenticity of the messages. Zubair has also made a video featuring young people commending the announcement.

“I got in touch with a few students who had received WhatsApp messages from their teachers asking them to send videos praising the center’s decision of cancelling CBSE class 12 exams,” he told me. “Schools and their staff have been made to indulge in similar PR activities before, however, this is probably the first time when even the students were made part of a PR drive to promote the PM.”

While the origins of the social media campaign and #ThankYouModiSir hashtag remain unclear, not everyone has welcomed the videos. Some social media users openly accused the government of using children to bolster Modi’s image. “Many kids who study in KVS are not from well to do families. I can’t even imagine what they might have went through during the pandemic. But this just rubs salt on their wounds,” said one Twitter account holder. 

M B Agrawal, general secretary of the All India Kendriya Vidyalaya Teachers’ Association, said that no instructions to post the videos were issued to teachers or students. In an emailed response to questions for this article, he stated, “I want to bring in your notice that Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, the Ministry of Education the Prime Minister’s office has not given any directions or guidelines to any teachers to motivate the students to do such kind of activities online or to thank prime minister or so as per my knowledge.”

Rajneil Kamath, the founder and director of Newschecker, a fact checking website based in Delhi, explained that while it is hard to determine the origins of the messages, research pointed to a coordinated campaign. 

Kamath shared his team’s conclusions via WhatsApp, saying, “There has to be some sort of coordination for this otherwise it’s hard to digest that all of these students have thanked Modi voluntarily, or out of zeal. Moreover, the official Twitter handle of KVS headquarters is tagged in all these tweets. This cannot be a coincidence.”

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