This case study details the narrative building that happened after the murder of Muhammed Akhlaq in 2015. Akhlaq was a Muslim man who lived in the Dadri village of Uttar Pradesh. He was 52 years old when he was killed brutally by a mob with sticks and bricks, accusing him of stealing and slaughtering a cow calf. This case is popularly referred to as the Dadri lynching case. Even though whether somebody consumed meat or not should not have any role in deciding whether a murder was right, the debates over the mob lynching of Aqlaq accused of consuming beef focused on this particular narrative. Even though there are several strains of misinformation around this lynching, this case will be particularly focusing on the misinformation that the sample collected to determine whether he consumed beef was taken from his home from his fridge. Even though there is no mention of where the sample was collected from, in the report, several news media reported that the meat was collected from the fridge in his home. While in the FIR and preliminary reports, it is mentioned that meat was found at the crime scene, it does not mention from where the samples were recovered. It leaves a possibility that this could have been planted as evidence by the same mob. However, the narrative that it was found in his house created a portrayal that Akhlaq was guilty of cow slaughtering to insinuate communal polarisation further.
Twenty Indian states have varying degrees of regulations on the sale, purchase and slaughter of cows. Some states have a full ban on the consumption of beef, and some other states have a partial ban. According to a news report from 2020, the state of Uttar Pradesh had invoked National Security Act in 76 cases of cow slaughter in the same year. The accusations of cow slaughter have been used in India to gain votes and to frame the minorities as the ‘disrespectful other’ and thus deserving of punishments judicially as well as extra judicially.
In 2015, when Akhlaq was murdered, along with the FIRs on murder, an FIR on accusing the victim and his family of violating the UP Cow Protection Act 1955. A forensic report was made available by the Forensic Investigation Laboratory of the Uttar Pradesh University of Veterinary and Animal Husbandary Mathura. The report concluded that the sample belongs to a cow or it’s progeny. A series of media reports and social media posts claimed that the meat sample taken from the fridge of the victim’s house was beef, despite the fact that, at that moment, neither were there any conclusive remarks on whether it was a cow or from where the sample was collected. Some of the new agencies that propagated this misinformation are: India Today, Economic Times, DNA, Times of India, Hindustan Times, the Hindu, Zee news and ABP, all popular news channels with wide viewership and readership. A photo of the forensic report is given below, followed by screenshots of some of these news reports.
Image credit: News Laundry
Screenshot from India Today dated May 31, 2016, claiming that the meat was collected from his freezer
Screenshots from The Indian Express dated 29, December 2015 implying that the sample was collected from the victim’s house
Screenshot from the Zee News dated 1, June 2016 stating that the sample was collected from the fridge.
A day after the forensic report came, the present Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister who was a BJP MP back then, gave a statement that action should be taken against Muhammed Akhlaq’s family for eating beef and that compensation given to the family should be taken back.
A tweet from the popular news agency Asia News International states that the sample was recovered from the victim’s house.
A screenshot of News 18’s tweet states that the meat was found in Akhlaq’s home
The main actor, in this case, is not an individual but prominent news media. Media houses like Asia News International have been accused of having owners showing allegiance to the Union government formed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, the misinformation was also reported by news channels which has over the years taken a neutral or critical stand against the government and are perceived as neutral media. There is a lack of transparency in the reporting because none of these reports actually included a copy of the lab report at the time of the report. This shows the lack of critical engagement with the incident and certain biases of these media houses themselves.
Even though some parts of the reporting are verifiable, a particular aspect, that the sample was found in the victim’s house, has no factual proof. The content also created and contributed to a narrative that diverts the attention from a hate crime to victim blaming. The language of the reporting is neutral; in a preliminary scan, one would not be able to identify the problems with these titles, but the content manipulates the audience to believe the accusations of the cow vigilante mob.
Degree, the target audience of this news is people with certain biases against the minority. The news is not micro-targeting specific audiences through tailored content, but is targeting a national audience. The coverage in English Media also ensured that the news manipulated the approaches of the educated audiences as well.
Cow vigilantism by extremist groups claiming to be Gau Rakshaks (protector of cows) started gaining popularity ever since the Dadri lynching. A truck in Udhampur was attacked on 9 October 2015 for allegedly carrying dead cows, and the truck driver Zahid Ahmad was killed. Another truck was attacked in the Saharanpur district of Himachal Pradesh for allegedly smuggling cows. The truck driver was killed in this case, too, by a mob. In the Khirkiya railway station of Madhya Pradesh, a Muslim couple was attacked in January 2016 by a vigilante group who accused them of carrying beef. Two Muslim cattle traders were hanged to death in Jharkhand in March 2016. A Muslim man was shot dead in Haryana by the cow vigilante groups in April 2016. A dalit family was attacked in Karnataka for allegedly carrying beef. According to a report, between 2016 and 2020 alone, there were 50 fatalities of cow vigilante lynching.
The inclusion of misinformation that the sample of meat tested was collected from the victim’s house was spread not by individuals but by big news agencies. This was also supplemented by the statements of MPs. The content is verifiably deceptive because the reports on the lab testing clearly show that there is no mention of the samples being collected from the victim’s house. This clearly falls under the category of disinformation. However, since the actors included both biased media who already side with the bigoted elements as well media that are generally perceived as neutral, it is not easy to prove whether it was an influence operation with intentional coordination.