New Delhi, February 09 (KMS): Leading American newspaper The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has reported that Facebook users offered “handguns, rifles, shotguns and bullets” for sale to members of a forum devoted to the Hindutva organisation Bajrang Dal, which has a history of violence in India.
Eight posts, some of which had been up since April 2022, were spotted by Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of Hindutva Watch, a group that monitors attacks against religious minorities in India. He began reporting them to Meta in January, as per WSJ, because they contravene “the company’s publicly stated policy that prohibits private individuals from buying or selling firearms or ammunition on Facebook platforms.”
The newspaper claims it reviewed documents that established that “Facebook declined to remove them, saying the posts didn’t violate the company’s rules.” The newspaper says that after it inquired about the posts, Facebook on February 7 removed them, saying “they ran afoul of the company’s policies.” It cites a Meta spokeswoman saying, “We prohibit individuals from buying or selling guns on our apps” and “remove violating content as soon as we see it.” The newspaper says the spokesperson “declined to comment on why the posts hadn’t been removed when first reported.”
The posts offering firearms for purchase, now taken down, appeared in groups on the social media platform, “that pledge allegiance to Bajrang Dal,” a youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Bajrang Dal was deemed a “militant religious organisation” by the US Central Intelligence Agency in 2018, along with the VHP. Members of Bajrang Dal have in past years been “jailed in India for religiously motivated killings”, the WSJ report adds.
A spokesman for Bajrang Dal and the VHP told the newspaper that the US government’s assessment of Bajrang Dal is misguided, that none of its members would purchase firearms and that the groups don’t believe in violence.
The posts offering guns for sale in five groups dedicated to the Bajrang Dal in which some sellers purportedly promised they could deliver firearms within 24 hours. In one post, reports the newspaper, “a user shared images of five pistols, some silver and some black in colour, with one resting on a motorcycle seat and another held in someone’s hand. Bronze-coloured bullets emerge from a clip in one photo.”
One post said in Hindi that any “brother” who needs a “desi katta pistol” – an Indian homemade gun – should “contact the user via Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service at a mobile number provided”, according to WSJ. When Naik contacted the seller via WhatsApp, the person said that the pistols could be purchased for Rs 11,000 apiece. The WSJ claims it reviewed these messages.
Users in Facebook Groups devoted to Bajrang Dal have also made threats to use weapons against Muslims, according to separate posts the newspaper says it has seen.
Two years ago, WSJ reported on internal Facebook documents that established how the company’s services were full of inflammatory content, “that one internal report connected to deadly religious riots in India.” Facebook said at the time that the company had invested significantly in technology to find hate speech across languages and that globally such content on the platform was declining. But the India Report has never been released.
Facebook has also been under fire for not releasing its Human Rights Impact Assessment for India.
Then, despite Facebook in 2020 saying that the Bajrang Dal was likely qualified as a “dangerous organisation” that should be banned from Facebook, the group was not taken down, as a report from its security team said that “cracking down on it (Bajrang Dal) might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India”.
The spokesman for Bajrang Dal and the VHP told WSJ that Facebook’s staff would “have no reason to fear Bajrang Dal members.” He also said that Bajrang Dal has no official presence on Facebook, though there may be Groups and pages dedicated to the organisation.
Facebook has its biggest presence in India, with 300 million using Facebook and over 400 million on its messaging service, WhatsApp.
The newspaper writes that “VHP is affiliated with Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organisation, known as the RSS, for which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked for decades before his landslide election victory in 2014.” It contacted the RSS and the Prime Minister’s Office too for comments but did not receive a response.