On the evening of Feb. 20 at around 8:40 p.m., while the graduate student Kanhaiya Kumar was locked up in Tihar Jail on sedition charges, his profile picture on Facebook was changed. The new photo, which showed a group of soldiers levering a flag-pole into a wasted hilltop, looked familiar except for one detail. In place of the Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind in Joe Rosenthal’s original 1945 shot of Iwo Jima, an Indian flag was flying full and proud.
It is likely that Mr. Kumar’s account was hacked, and that his picture was replaced to signal that subversive thinking will always be surmounted by nationalists, like that hilltop by the valiant warriors.
The same altered photo had recently been brandished on prime-time television by Sambit Patra, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “Look at our Indian soldiers!” he had remonstrated. “Indian soldiers, dying, but holding up the tricolor at the border.” The government has been quick to use images as political ammunition, never mind their veracity.
The B.J.P. won its historic majority in 2014 thanks partly to its masterful handling of optics. Narendra Modi, who would become prime minister, often campaigned via hologram, even winning a place in the Guinness World Records for most simultaneous virtual appearances. But well into its second year in power, with TV media acting as enablers, an image-addicted B.J.P. risks losing both technical and ethical control over what it shows the country.
For a time, the outing of manipulated visuals, usually ones aggrandizing Mr. Modi, hardly seemed to compromise the government itself. In December, the Press Information Bureau published a photograph showing the prime minister sitting at an airplane porthole, surveying the flooded city of Chennai from above. In fact, the watery view had been cut and pasted into his window. Skeptics caught on, yet the public laughed off the relatively benign manipulation: Mr. Modi’s aerial survey was real, even if the picture wasn’t.
But few people have been laughing over recent footage, broadcast on national television, that allegedly showed radical students chanting separatist slogans at Jawaharlal Nehru University, here in New Delhi. On Jan. 12 the police charged Mr. Kumar, the president of the student union, under the colonial-era law of sedition. Leading news networks rallied behind the government, keel-hauling the students and their “anti-national” apologists. Dubious images from online activists fueled the hysteria.
One photograph, circulated by right-wing student leaders and partisans on Facebook and Twitter, showed Mr. Kumar giving a speech in front of a map of a splintered India, in which the states of Kashmir and Gujarat have been annexed to Pakistan. It was the perfect visual illustration of his high treason — except that it had been Photoshopped. In the original, there is nothing behind Mr. Kumar but a neutral background, possibly a canvas wall.
In the week after the protest, news networks repeatedly aired a video clip that seemed to catch Mr. Kumar shouting slogans for Kashmir’s independence — and would clinch the state’s case that he was personally guilty of seditious speech. One night on India’s political debate show, “The Newshour,” the B.J.P.’s Mr. Patra — again — produced an iPad and announced: “Kanhaiya Kumar, that fateful day, also shouted anti-India slogans! I have the video.” The host demanded, “Show the video!” The camera drew in for the kill. There was Mr. Kumar: buffering slowly, and calling out for azadi, freedom.
It now appears that this video was a hoax as well. Forensic experts have said it splices together audio of separatist slogans with visuals from a speech Mr. Kumar did give, but that called for freedom from hunger, feudalism, capitalism and caste.
This fraud was checked, though not before top journalists and a spokesperson for the ruling party took part in it. Spectacle first, questions later. Damage done.
India has had plenty of proof that misleading images can be used to poison national conversation and instigate sudden violence. In 2012, a riot in Mumbai was set off in part by images on Facebook purportedly showing Muslims being slaughtered in the state of Assam. They turned out to be a mosaic of grisly visuals from across Asia.
Now distorted images are being used to stir up a hateful frenzy against provocative student activists.
To delete a manipulated photograph is easy; to correct a manipulated opinion is not. Doctored images can be exposed, and they have been, but each one leaves a permanent warp in the public’s mind. They chip at Indians’ confidence in what the state and the media are presenting to them. And they drive us away from the shared ground of reliable fact into the opposing trenches of hard-line conviction.
Raghu Karnad is a contributing editor at theWire.in, and the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.