India: Tweet Fuels Communal Tensions in Kolkata

Earlier this week, certain areas of Kolkata in West Bengal, India, were brought to a grinding halt by protesters protesting against a certain tweet, allegedly posted by an Indian model, which was in turn published in a leading English daily.

It started innocuously enough. On the 16th of this month, when the Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar scored his much-awaited 100th international hundred in Dhaka, cricket loving fans in India went all out to celebrate the occasion. Adulation poured in from all over.

Indian kite maker Jagmohan Kannojia displays his creation dedicated to Tendulkar on his 100th century in world cricket. Image by Sanjeev Syal. Copyright Demotix (16/3/2012)
Indian kite maker Jagmohan Kannojia displays his creation dedicated to Tendulkar on his 100th century in world cricket. Image by Sanjeev Syal. Copyright Demotix (16/3/2012)

The model in question, Poonam Pandey, too joined the bandwagon. She tweeted:

@iPoonampandey: Thinking wht pic shud i gif the ”God of Cricket”…

It was in this context that the controversial picture, apparently morphed and put together by one of her fans, came about. It showed a nude Poonam Pandey holding a picture of the Hindu God Vishnu whose head had morphed into Sachin, while a cricketer in green was bowing before the image. Poonam posted the picture on her timeline but it was only after the tweet (along with the picture) was published in the newspaper that trouble started brewing.

Offended by the picture, a section of the Muslim community in Kolkata took to the streets in protest. Soon, communal tensions threatened to escalate, so much so that the Chief Minister of West Bengal, along with opposition leaders as well as religious/ community leaders, had to step in and appeal to the people to maintain peace and harmony and not get provoked.The newspaper in question later tendered an unconditional apology, claiming that the tweet was published due to a ‘technical error’.

Screenshot of the apology published by The Telegraph, Kolkata, on 20/03/2012

Zaidul Haque reported in

Kolkata remained tense throughout Tuesday as protestors showed up at places to block vehicular traffic while some minor sporadic incidents of violence were also reported. Members of the Muslim community were protesting against the publication of nude picture of model Poonam Pandey with a frame showing Sachin Tendulkar as God and a Pakistani cricket player offering sajda before the frame. The image was published on Monday in English daily The Telegraph.

[…] The news of the nude picture spread rapidly throughout Kolkata’s Muslim dominated areas. Traffic was blocked in the Park Circus area, the heart of the city, and people gathered to protest against the newspaper. Rajabazar and Metiaburuz also remained tense….People demanded arrest of the Editor of The Telegraph. Schools in area were closed early. Then police came out on the street and requested people to maintain peace.

Though the mainstream media adopted somewhat of a studied silence, reports poured in through social networks. Tweets flew in, fast and furious:

@prasanto: Major ruckus at ABP, Kolkata now with cops, protesters after Telegraph carried Poonam Pandey tweet and pix

@IamAkimana: #poonampandey's stupid tweet nearly triggered a riot in some parts of #Kolkata.Social is getting serious.

@SandeepGhose: The Telegraph published an offensive Tweet allegedly by #PoonamPandey that caused outrage among the Muslims of the city #Kolkata

A section of the tweeple called into question the possible motivation behind posting such a tweet. Others wondered about the role played by the mainstream media  in this entire episode.

@DebsankarMisra1: A pic uploaded by Poonam pandey cause a communal clash at Kolkata….is it the right way to get fame?

@vschanna: Isn't pic of nude Poonampandey in telegraph, “open porn”? Why has the media underplayed this? The media indeed is “PORNSTRUCK”.@mediacrooks

@SreenandaSharma:@Raj_Shake_Her nothing's being reported strangely! maybe they don't wanna escalate it. my office is near Park Circus, so I know first hand.

@SandeepGhose: #Kolkata media largely ignore/down-play Park Circus incident (presumably, in d interest of communal harmony). Is that the right thing to do?

Some of those who were in the vicinity of the troubled area(s) tweeted from the scene. For example, Anushree (@anushrees) posted frequent updates with images from Park Circus – one of the key protest zones.

@anushrees: #Kolkata comes to a stand still thanks to poonam pandey

@anushrees: All buses and trams have emptied out

@anushrees: 7 point crossing park circus

FahdHussein (@FahdHussein), who observed the protests from his balcony, tweeted:

@FahdHussein: Huge mob just started breaking public vehicles randomly in park circus. Stopped now. #kolkata

When asked from where he had got the information, he clarified in another tweet:

@FahdiHussein: from my balcony?? It was weird. There was no rage in the mob.. Seemed more like a party.. And orchestrated.

A while later, he updated:

@FahdiHussein: A lot calmer now at park circus. There is police presence so doubt it will spiral out of control.. But avoid moving around.. #kolkata

@FahdiHussein: RIOT RUMOURS ARE FALSE.. Park circus is calm. Mob has either dispursed or chilling near 7-point. #kolkata

Some of the netizens however, wondered what the uproar was all about.

@SouravMaulik: trust some people to cause blockades due to a photoshopped tweet featured in a local newspaper.

@p_adic_Saurav: I still haven't figured out why a morphed picture of Poonam Pandey, Sachin & a Pakistan cricketer stirred up Kolkata Muslims…

Poonam Pandey, on her part, tried to distance herself from the controversy and commented on the incident as follows:

@iPoonampandey: I am really Shocked and Hurt over the incident in Kolkata, A fan made stupid morphed pic of mine was published by mistake on a News Paper

@iPoonampandey: I am a peaceloving person and I don't advocate any kind of violence… And crazy fans plz stop Morphing my pix

* Thumbnail image from Wikimedia Commons, used  under [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0].

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