In a small room tucked away inside the AIADMK party office in Chennai, a group of young professionals is working round-the-clock in breakneck shifts. There is no major election in the offing but the team has hardly any time to look up from their computer screens.
The men and women comprise the party’s IT wing who are battling a storm of rumours and speculations swirling across Tamil Nadu about chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s health. Every day, they scour Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, WhatsApp and other media to scorch possible falsehoods, fake photos and videos and identify rumour mongers to hand over to the police.
“We work in three shifts, round the clock,” said G Ramachandran, AIADMK IT wing secretary. “A majority of offenders are people from opposition parties, and a few are attention-seeking. But the damage they do is equally dangerous.”
The dedicated team is only one cog of a massive machinery involving the state police, ruling party and government officials who are leading a massive crackdown against anyone spreading rumours about the chief minister, who has been hospitalized for more than three weeks.
The AIADMK chief was admitted to Chennai’s Apollo hospitals with high fever and dehydration on September 22 but news of her treatment has been tightly controlled with cryptic health bulletins adding to the many rumours flying around.
On Friday, police arrested two Canara Bank employees in Coimbatore – gold appraiser Suresh and clerk Ramesh – for spreading rumours about the chief minister’s health in front of an AIADMK local leader, Punitha Devi.
Devi complained to the police, who arrested the duo under non-bailable charges and threw them in jail.
Too stunned to react, relatives of the two employees or even the bank staff are scared even to talk, lest it complicate their situation further.
Their lawyer told Hindustan Times on Saturday morning that “these two are normal, respectable and law abiding citizens. On an oral complaint of a political person, they have been charged with offences that are non-bailable. But I will move an application on Monday.”
They aren’t the only ones. Police have registered more than 50 similar cases for “spreading rumours about the CM’s health”. The last arrest was on Saturday morning of Antony Sesuraj from Tuticorin district. He said he had merely shared a social media post of a France-based Tamil person.
“We have formed a special team and are scanning different sites. More arrests are likely,” said a senior officer of the Cyber Crime Cell. “We cannot allow people to spread rumors and create panic among people.”
But activists condemn the arrests and the branding of people as criminals just because they gossiped. “The state itself is in a paranoia and this is the reason why people are being slapped with criminal charges and thrown into jail for speculations on the health of a person in public life. You cannot brand them as criminals,” said Sudha Ramalingam, senior advocate and activist.
“I am surprised as none of the accused so far filed for quashing of charges.”
The AIADMK says it is happy with the success of the crackdown.
“The police crackdown by the cyber cell and the party’s own monitoring have resulted in a significant drop in the number of fresh rumour-mongering cases, “said Radhakrishnan.
The arrests started with software engineer, Sathish Sharma, who was picked up for posting allegedly derogatory information on the CM’s health. A mechanic was arrested from Pandian Nagar in Madurai after he posted a conversation, purportedly by a member of the Apollo Hospital satff, giving details of the treatment given to the chief minister.
The two, who were brought to Chennai, accepted their guilt during questioning, were remanded in judicial custody and lodged in Puzhal central jail. Another two persons were picked up two days ago on similar charges.
But activists say this trend is not surprising in a state whose government filed more than 200 defamation cases against media and political opponents.