How not to right historical wrongs

Alishan Jafri

 

It is the “beginning of a new era,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 22 as he inaugurated a vast but still unfinished temple complex in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The temple, built over the remains of a 16th-century mosque, symbolized, Modi added, a “nation rising by breaking the mentality of slavery.”

As we’ve noted before in this newsletter, it was a moment of triumph for Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, the political arm of a near century-old Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization. The BJP owes much of its current dominance of Indian politics to the movement that began over 30 years ago to replace the mosque with a temple dedicated to the god Rama, the hero of one of India’s two great epics.

The mosque, according to Hindus, had been built over a temple that marked Rama’s birthplace in the city of Ayodhya. In 1992, a huge mob of Hindu nationalists destroyed the mosque using makeshift tools and their bare hands. And in 2019, India’s Supreme Court decided that even though the act of demolishing the mosque was illegal, a Hindu temple could be built on the site.

Last month, the process of replacing, even erasing, the mosque, was completed with the inauguration of the temple. Modi stood front and center at the ceremony, an act deemed so political that opposition leaders turned down invitations to attend. 

Many Hindu nationalists, including BJP members, say tens of thousands of other Hindu temples were destroyed by the medieval Muslim rules of the Mughal empire, and that they should all be rebuilt. Delhi University historian Ruchika Sharma told me that “the whole idea that we should undo historical wrongs” was suspect. There’s also the question, she said, of using so-called historical justice as a means to stigmatize communities. The president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board recently said Indian Muslims felt “threatened and suffocated” by disputes over the legitimacy of mosques throughout the country.  “It’s a ridiculous idea, that religious communities or ethnic communities today can be punished for the past,” Sharma told me. 

In any case, she added that “massive amounts of disinformation” have turned messy, tangled Indian history into a simple tale of evil invaders (Mughals, though many Mughal emperors were born in India and had mixed ancestry) and Hindu victims. On social media in particular, the suggestion that replacing a mosque with a temple represents justice is widely accepted as a self-evident truth.

“It’s frightening,” says Karen Rebelo, who works for Boom, a prominent Indian fact-checking website. “The discourse is polemical and polarizing and there is no doubt in my mind that it will lead to further offline harm,” she told me. 

Sure enough, violence flared up in the northern state of Uttarakhand this week, as a mosque, said to be an illegal construction, was torn down, leading to riots in which at least 60 people were injured. And in Uttarakhand, a mountainous state revered by Hindu pilgrims, as Tusha Mittal and I reported in November, there is an ongoing campaign to turn it into a Hindu holy land. Ground zero, if you like, for the Hindu, rather than constitutionally secular nation of India.

GLOBAL NEWS

“We’re in journalism,” former Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on X, as he explained why he had traveled to Moscow to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Our duty is to inform people.” The resulting interview, however, comprised over two hours of Putin presenting his worldview, including tortuous, mostly uninterrupted, quasi-historical “justifications” for invading Ukraine. Putin last spoke with a U.S. media outlet in 2021, and by the Kremlin’s own admission, Carlson was handpicked to break that streak because Putin wants a platform to state his case. And Carlson let Putin do exactly that. On a Kremlin-supporting Telegram channel, the interview was described as an “information bomb of monstrous power.” The word information, in this context, is presumably being used with the same cynicism that Carlson uses “journalism.”

Should blatant propaganda be aired on television? Hulu, the Disney-owned streaming service, broadcast advertising paid for by the Israeli government that likely incorporated images generated by artificial intelligence. It showed an imagined Gaza, all Dubai-style five-star hotels, boardwalks and shopping malls, before showing Gaza as it “really” is: militants, rockets, tunnels and children holding guns. None of these conditions are ascribed in the ad to Israeli policy itself — or occupation — but to the influence of Hamas alone. 

In Pakistan, where voters went to polls on February 8, AI-generated campaigning was the only way for the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan to give speeches and otherwise promote his party. Access to mobile internet was cut in Pakistan on polling day, a reminder that elections can be manipulated by an incumbent government as they cite disinformation and threats to security as reasons to order internet blackouts. But, if clearly labeled, can AI-generated content be a legitimate way for politicians to surmount deliberate suppression?

What we’re reading:

  • “By building language tools that are designed to be impersonators, to mimic sentience, we are inviting confusion, misinformation, and mistrust,” writes Carissa Veliz in this carefully argued piece on generative AI. The effect on democracy, as we are already seeing, could well be calamitous.
  • “Lately, a lot of powerful people, especially men, have been loudly proclaiming themselves to be silenced, powerless victims,” writes Katie Kadue. This brilliant piece made me think about cancel culture and about why authoritarians like Modi and Putin refer to it in their speeches. It’s because, I learned, they are “sore whiners,” reveling in the performance of loss and victimhood even as they exercise dominance.

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.