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Nagina Online

The tension in this Mewat village unfolded like a now familiar story. A video on Facebook led to a public beating, then another on WhatsApp made the assault viral. The Indian Express goes to find out what happens to a village, one of India’s most backward, when social media comes in — and discovers it back on its phones

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | Updated: June 26, 2018 12:01:32 pm
nagina village, haryana nagina village, facebook post against muslim, basirhat communal violence, Bengal communal violence The Internet has brought to this nondescript kasba the world, from movies to music hits, videos of workouts to pornography. (Express Photo By Gajendra Yadav)

On July 12, 27-year-old Daulatram was beaten with a shoe 11 times at a mahapanchayat in Nagina village in Mewat district of Haryana. A Dalit schoolteacher, Daulatram was accused of sharing an offensive Facebook post against Muslims; a similar post had led to clashes in Basirhat in West Bengal, 1,481 km away, a few days earlier. He was also asked to leave the village for three months.

But what happened to Daulatram, the family says, was a culmination of tension brewing in the village for three months, over social media. “Three months ago, a Muslim boy from the village put up a post on Facebook against gau mata. My brother confronted them and a group of Muslim men asked him to back off. Since then, several offensive posts against Hindus have been put up,” says Suresh Kumar, 24, Daulatram’s brother, who works at a petrol pump. “Now another Muslim boy has put up a vulgar post against Hindus and we are seeking another mahapanchayat,” says Kumar.

Located in one of the poorest districts of Haryana, Muslim-dominated Nagina has a population of 1,36,009, of which 93,688 are ‘non-workers’, according to the 2011 Census. The literacy rate stands at 39 per cent (52.8 per cent among men; 25.06 per cent among women), way lower than the state average of 67.91 per cent. But each of the 19,909 households of Nagina has a phone, says sarpanch Naseem Khan. At least 60 per cent of these are smartphones. Six major network providers have their transmission towers near the village.

nagina village, haryana nagina village, facebook post against muslim, basirhat communal violence, Bengal communal violence The Internet has brought to this nondescript kasba the world, from movies to music hits, videos of workouts to pornography. (Express Photo By Gajendra Yadav)

The Internet has brought to this nondescript kasba the world, from movies to music hits, videos of workouts to pornography. It has also brought to Nagina social media, now a common thread exposing and inflaming faultlines across the country — sometimes stopping at minor incidents such as Daulatram’s, often ending in violence and riots like Basirhat or Muzaffarnagar.

All it takes is a smartphone.

SEE Photos: Nagina Online-What happens when social media comes in one of India’s most backward villages Click here

Mohammad Azhar, 21, BCom student

Facebook friends: 150; Profile photo: changed everyday WhatsApp messages: 70 a day 

It’s a little after 10 am and Niyaz Khan’s small phone shop in the bustling Nagina village market is crammed with customers. Along with a dozen other men, Mohammad Azhar is leaning over Khan, his shirt soaked in sweat, urging him to ‘top up’ his Reliance Jio 4G data plan with Rs 96 — it will give him 1 GB data every day for a week. “We can now watch unlimited videos. Mai zyada foreign ke workout videos dekhta hoon (I mostly watch foreign workout videos),” says Azhar, a BCom student at Government College, Nagina.

Minutes later, the top-up is done, and Azhar wriggles out of the huddle of men to check the message box on his Intex Aqua 3G Star phone. “I got this phone last year for Rs 3,400. My father refused to give me the money, so I worked part-time at a dhaba and saved up. Then the Reliance Jio connection solved all my problems,” says the 21-year-old, whose father works as a labourer in Sohna, an hour away. That is also where he bought his phone from.

While he is still “learning” Facebook — “I have only 150 friends so far” — WhatsApp and ‘Google Search’ take up most of his day. “I get about 70-80 forwarded messages a day, funny images, news… Bahaut bakwas bhi aata hai (I get a lot of rubbish too). I have to respond to every message because the sender can see I have read it when the ticks go blue,” says Azhar, who is the third of six siblings (two younger sisters and four brothers).

His brothers work in a local hair salon and his sisters, both teenagers, stay at home. “They do household chores,” he says. Do they have phones? “Girls don’t get to use phones in our village,” Azhar scoffs.

Azhar also uses WhatsApp to make calls to “friends abroad”. “Two-three people from the village went to Kuwait for work a few years ago. The calls are for free,” he smiles. Surfing local news websites too interests him. “Everyone is forwarding news, I also try and read up on ‘Google News’… Otherwise I am mostly downloading or streaming movies,” he says. Hindi movies? “Sab type ki movies (All kinds of films),” he blushes.

About the “vivaadi (controversial)” photos that have led to tension in the village, he says, “I don’t know where the photos and videos come from.” However, Azhar is not surprised at the content. “Everyone has a photo editor on their phones and putting something on the image of a pig or cow is not very difficult.”

As the rush at Khan’s shop clears, Azhar plugs in his phone to one of the charging points there. “Though the village has electricity for some years now, it is not equally distributed,” says Khan, who sells SIM cards as well as provides pre-paid top-ups. His is one of three such shops in the village, all of which have come up in the past four years. “Getting a phone is not difficult anymore, people from the village go to markets in Sohna, Gurgaon and even Gaffar Market (West Delhi) and get them,” says Khan.

Abdul Sattar, a teacher at Azhar’s college, complains about students fleeing early to talk on their phones. “Sabhi phones se prabhavit hain (Everyone is influenced by phones). Boys of Haryana played cricket, participated in races… Now, the village too has become like city,” says Sattar. His phone charged, Azhar prepares to leave for college. “I am not allowed to carry it, but then no one really checks,” he says. Then turning around, he instructs, “Don’t print my photograph, I don’t like it.”

Azhar changes his Facebook profile picture every day though, for all his 150 Facebook friends. It is usually a selfie.

Naseem Khan, 26, sarpanch

WhatsApp groups: 20 Facebook friends: 4,300 

Naseem Khan looks exhausted. He has just returned from a panchayat meeting where over 20 people gathered to sort out a “Facebook fight”. “There is a Palwal page on Facebook where a Hindu boy from the village had posted many offensive comments against Muslims. Three Muslim boys were angry. It took us nearly six hours to get the Hindu boy to apologise,” says Khan, the sarpanch of Nagina village, who has a bachelors degree in business administration.

“Now this is the kind of business I handle,” he smiles. “I became sarpanch in January 2016, and since then, I have been mostly resolving issues related to WhatsApp and Facebook. In cheezon se na Hindu na Musalman, poora Hindustan khatre mein hai (Social media is not a threat to just Hindus or Muslims, but the entire country),” he says.

Khan was one of the first people in Nagina to get a phone. “I got a Nokia 3250 handset 10-12 years ago. It cost me over Rs 10,000,” says Khan. “Everything has two aspects — positive and negative. But since Internet data became free, I see only the negative taking over in Nagina. There was never any Hindu-Muslim conflict, and now any trivial post can trigger a fight.”

He tries his best to be on “top of things”, Khan adds. He is part of at least 20 WhatsApp groups — Mewat ki Samasyain (problems), Sarpanch Ekta Zindabad (Hail Sarpanch Unity), Khidmat-e-Khalq (To help), Mewat News Part 1,2,3, Mewat ki Shaan (Pride of Mewat), among others. His over 4,300 friends on Facebook include many people from the village, and he also keeps a check on their timelines.

“But there is only so much one can do. There are a million fake IDs. A majority of people in the village are illiterate and don’t even understand what they are forwarding. Also, most of the youth are unemployed, that just gives them more time to create trouble online,” says Khan, who now owns a Rs 35,000 Samsung S7 phone.

“In the Daulatram case too, he simply forwarded the post and didn’t think of the repercussions. Then, the video of him being beaten up with a shoe went viral… Na sunnana, na samajhna, ab bas sabko sab cheezein viral karni hai (People don’t want to listen, or understand. They just want to make things viral),” he says. Mewat Superintendent of Police Nazneen Bhasin says they have been trying to contain the social media influence. “We are aware of the posts being put out, often giving rise to anger. We have been conducting community-dialogue programmes, with sarpanches, youth. Whenever an issue comes to light, we take strict action. Our focus is on promoting goodwill.”

It is Rajuddin, who calls himself a “social worker”, that the villagers of Nagina depend on for their daily news fix. The 36-year-old has also been held responsible for making Daulatram’s video “viral”. “I only do my job. Every morning I scan all local and national newspapers and websites and send out news updates to about 31 WhatsApp groups that have over 19,000 members from across Mewat,” he says.

Rajuddin’s WhatsApp groups range from “serious” ones such as Mewat News, Haryana Rajniti, and History of Mewat, to more lighter ones such as Salaam, for sharing jokes etc. “While we check most of the content, there are times when members post offensive messages. We remove such members,” he claims, adding that he also checks the Facebook profiles of people who want to become members of his groups.

Around noon every day, youngsters of the village gather in a room at Naseem Khan’s home, one of the few spacious residences in Nagina. “Wait till the teenagers come,” says a friend of Khan’s, who does not wish to be identified. “They only do three things on their phones — 70 per cent watch vulgar videos, the rest watch songs of Sapna Chaudhary (a Haryana stage dancer and singer), and if time is left, it is for YouTube videos,” he laughs. Adds Khan, “They may not know how to read and write, but they know the red button for YouTube. They have set it on the ‘Hindi’ mode.”

A kilometre away, at Government Senior Secondary Boys school, principal Saadiq Ahmed, 52, says he rounds up at least seven-eight boys every day for using phones at school. “We have also been telling students to be careful about what they do on the Internet. On several occasions a wrong post by a student has led to misunderstanding,” says Ahmed. “NGOs must hold camps to educate children about the Internet.”

Tushar Khan, 19, ITI student

Facebook photos: 100 WhatsApp groups: 12 

When Tushar Khan wakes up every morning around 6, the first thing he does is check his phone, for the number of ‘likes’ his profile picture has got. “It is usually over 50,” beams the 19-year-old, who is enrolled in the Industrial Training Institute nearby. Next, he checks the four WhatsApp groups he is a member of: Khan Boys (for jokes and memes), Fashion (where all the 60 members upload selfies), and the rest the Class 10 pass says he “can’t tell you about”.

Tushar has decided to skip class today and spend time with friends Mohammad Saif (18) and Asif Hussain (22). As they stroll around, barely looking up from their phones, Tushar halts to show a picture. The group laughs. “We enjoy chatting on our phones, Facebook chatting, WhatsApp chatting. YouTube is good too, but I prefer Google videos. Anything you write throws up responses,” says Khan. Agrees Saif, “That is where most of our videos come from.”

A Google search for ‘WhatsApp videos’ throws up on an average seven crore responses, ranging from funny baby and animal videos to dance numbers and porn. “We have made many new friends on Facebook and most are from outside Mewat. There are some girls too,” Khan smiles. Jatin Chawla, a staff member at the Nagina ITI where Tushar and Saif study — it takes in students who have passed Class 10 onwards — says while phones are not allowed on campus, they hardly check. “Phones are a part of life now, even I am on WhatsApp and Facebook,” says Chawla. “Only about 3-4 per cent of the students create trouble, the rest use phones for information,” he adds.

A few metres away from the institute, Sameem Khan, 24, is handing out new connections at a Vodafone mini store. “Now just a copy of your Aadhaar card and fingerprints is enough to get a connection,” says Sameem, adding that he reaches his target of selling 700 SIM cards a month easily. “I get 50-60 visits a day from students of the ITI. Most buy more than one SIM card,” he says.

For Asif Hussain, a final-year BA student and a driver, the phone is all about “education”. “I am pursuing my graduation through distance learning and I barely get time to study because of my job. The Internet is where I get all my information from. I am a member of about 50 groups on WhatsApp and Facebook and they are all related to news and education. Whatever I don’t understand in my textbooks, I Google,” says Hussain. Tushar, Saif and Asif all have Vivo and Oppo phones, which cost them Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000.

An hour later, the group is joined by 37-year-old Mohammad Azad, who is unemployed and depends on agriculture to provide for his family — wife and four children, the eldest 13. Azad, who has never been to school, recently bought a OnePlus phone. “I bought it out of necessity,” he insists. “Every afternoon when I met my friends, they would either be busy on their phones or talk about some video.”

Unlike the younger boys, Azad isn’t interested in Facebook or WhatsApp but YouTube. “I love cars. I have been watching videos of Hyundai Creta. I learnt how to type the words from these younger boys. After that, you don’t have to do much. It all works on autoplay,” he says. Soon, the conversation drifts to a video doing the rounds. “There is a girl getting a haircut and then suddenly an insect eats up all her hair and she dies. People are saying it is from Mewat… I wonder who she is,” says Azad, as the group returns to their phones.

Rahul Kumar, 23, owns a computer shop

Facebook friends: 2,200 WhatsApp groups: 5 

Rahul Kumar’s Facebook wall has been flooded with posts since morning, most of them related to the news report that students at Mewat Model Public School in Madhi had complained about three teachers “forcing them to perform namaz”. “Now the media is saying that teachers are trying to convert Hindu students… Some issue or the other keeps coming up on Facebook,” says the 23-year-old BCom graduate, who opened a computer shop five months ago in the Nagina village market. “Mostly I ignore such messages and posts, but at times, they make me angry,” he admits.

Kumar says that after completing his graduation from Government College, Nagina, he tried without success for a job. Then he borrowed money from friends to open the shop. Kumar’s father owns a vegetable shop in the market and he is the eldest of four siblings. His brother works as a driver while his two sisters “stay at home”. While setting up the shop, Kumar also saved up to buy an ‘Asus Zenfone 2’ phone for Rs 14,000. “It was a necessity for the job. Usse pehle Samsung ka saada phone tha (Before that I had a simple Samsung phone),” says Kumar, who makes Rs 20,000 a month.

Today the phone is his life, Kumar admits. “From news to social issues to connecting with other computer shops, I do it all on my phone,” he says. Plus there are his WhatsApp groups. “I am a member of five groups — Informer, Dharmik Karya (religious activity), Mewat Computer Centres, Hindu Samaaj Samasya etc. We share news of villages in Mewat… Since the Hindus are a minority in our village, we discuss our issues separately in the Hindu Samaaj group,” says Kumar.

He is aware of the tensions triggered by social media in the village in the past three months. “WhatsApp is mostly about discussion, but posts on Facebook are provocative,” he says. “Kai baar to main bhi bhavnaon mein beh jaata hoon (At times even I get carried away)… Like this teachers trying to convert students story… Everyone has an opinion and no one knows where these posts come from. Everyone thinks that if it is on Facebook and WhatsApp, it must be true,” says Kumar. Half of his 2,200 friends on Facebook are strangers.

Kumar’s computer centre, where villagers come to type letters in Hindi and take print-outs, also has a “spare computer for youngsters”. “I get about 10 boys every day who come for chatting,” he smiles. “A few girls come too, but they are mostly accompanied by their parents or siblings.” He adds, “Unlike Muslim families, we let our girls use phones.” On a condition. His sisters use his phone when he is at home. “They don’t have their own handsets.”

Mohammad Zubair, 23, driver

Facebook friends: 400 WhatsApp groups: 7 

Surrounded by his goats and clucking chickens, Mohammad Zubair, 23, sits on a cot, checking Facbook updates on his Vivo touch phone. A driver, Zubair bought the phone for Rs 7,000 a month ago. He has two SIM cards, Idea and Jio. As his father Jaan Mohammad walks in, Zubair switches from Facebook to YouTube. The song Aisa koi zindagi mein aaye rings out in the open yard. “From Palwal to Nagina, all children are just glued to their phones),” the 58-year-old Mohammad admonishes.

Listening with half an ear to his father, Zubair slips his phone into his pocket. The arrival of Zubair’s “touch phone” hasn’t gone down too well with the family. “All the fights in the village are happening because of these phones,” says Mohammad, who has six children. His elder brother Ishaaq Khan, who has 25 children from three wives, joins in, “In panchayat meetings we issue specific instructions to the youth to stay away from phones, but no one is listening. We get so many complaints from teachers.”

But Zubair is unfazed. “I make many new friends when I go on driving assignments. I keep in touch with them on my phone. Whatever these elders are talking about, I do none of it. I like listening to songs and watching films, but that is only because there is nothing else to do here in the village. The nearest cinema hall is 5 km away,” says Zubair, who studied till Class 8. Patting one of the goats, he points to the mobile towers visible from the roof of his house and says, “There is the Idea tower, there is Vodafone and there is Jio. Airtel, Tata and BSNL towers are also nearby… What is wrong in using your phone? It connects you to the world.” But doesn’t that hold true for his 14-year-old sister Hasrat as well? “No, that would be wrong,” he says.

Hasrat, 14, Class 8 student

Facebook friends: 0 WhatsApp groups: 0; No phone

Do you want to use a phone? “Hamare yahan ki ladkiyan phone nahin use karti (Girls of our village don’t use phones),” says Zubair, answering for his sister. Do you want to see the videos your brother watches? “If girls in the village are seen with a phone, people will gossip, we can’t risk that,” interrupts her father Jaan Mohammad.

Do you want a phone one day? No one says anything. Hasrat, dressed in a white salwar-kameez, her school uniform, runs out of the yard.

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