NEW DELHI — On 25 February, as communal riots swept through Delhi, a TikTok user whose handle loosely translates to Jat attitude (JA) posted a video tagged #Team_Maujpur. Maujpur was one of the worst affected neighbourhoods, and the video was of a crowd of rod-wielding men marching down a narrow lane. The men were in denims, a few wore helmets. A young man with side swept hair and an orange tilak on his forehead led the mob.
The background score — because every TikTok video has one — was ‘Shoot Da Order’, a wildly popular Punjabi song by Jass Manak and Jagpal Sandhu.
“Shoot da order ho gaya ni
Ho tere yaar nu pataliye naare,
Sher de barabar ho gaya ni,
Ho tere yaar nu pataliye naare.”
(Shoot at sight orders have been issued,
Against your man, hey girl
He is like a lion,
Your man, hey girl.)
The video is classic TikTok: kinetic action overlaid with a persistent earworm of a song. Except this was real world cell phone footage of crowds rioting in the national capital, set to popular Punjabi and Haryanvi songs.
In the surreal Internet to IRL continuum that we all now inhabit, the TikTok video was uploaded around the time the Delhi police issued ‘Shoot At Sight’ orders in northeast Delhi in a bid to control the riots that have claimed at least 42 lives thus far. Over the past week, riot-footage from Delhi has saturated platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter. The videos have prompted angry debate, anguish, rage and have prompted the press to verify many of these incidents.
TikTok offers a very different view of the Delhi riots. If the footage shared on Twitter was a documentation of the Delhi riots, the videos on TikTok are a personal expression of the riots by those who — judging by the camera angles — were present amidst the rioters, if not participants themselves.
In much the same way that the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 revealed how a whole new generation of young people had been drawn into a defence of India’s secular constitution, the TikTok videos of the riots reveal how the counter-protests have deep reservoirs of support as well. TikTok also has a significantly younger user base compared to more entrenched platforms like Twitter, so the videos offer a glimpse into a very different Indian demographic.
And while a robust ecosystem of fact-checking sites regularly debunk fake news on Facebook and Twitter, TikTok mostly flies under the radar — making it a fertile ground for hate speech and misinformation.
HuffPost India reviewed dozens of videos on the riots on TikTok to discover an intimate, uncanny, and eerie view of the violence: In some videos, young men literally dance with excitement as those around them shout slogans.
One such video, posted soon after the riots began, shows men, women and children smiling, singing and shouting as a someone sings “Bharat Main Rehna Hoga, Jai Shri Ram Kehna Hoga” (if you have to stay in India, you have to chant Hai Shri Ram). Soon the song gives way to another round of sloganeering.
This one goes: “Modi ji latth bajao, hum tumhare saath hai.” It translates to, ’Modi ji, swing the sticks, we are with you.” One man chimes in, “Lambe lambe latth bajao (crack down with huge sticks)”. Another video shows young men are seen dancing with joy to the same slogan.
The archived videos of these users also offer a glimpse of the internal lives of those who participated in, or at the very least supported this violence, and reveal how footage processed through TikTok’s easy to use filters and audio-overlays quickly becomes propaganda.
There is a rich body of academic work on the adrenaline-fuelled exhilaration that moments of hyper-violence, like riots, produce. In Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan, Oskar Verkaaik traces the allure of political violence in Pakistan through an ethnography of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). But the Delhi violence, Verkaaik said, was different.
“It seems to me that this there is at least one huge difference in that the recent Delhi riots are triggered by an anti-Muslim state politics, whereas the MQM’s power base was much more restricted to Karachi alone and often under attack from the military and other powerful state forces,” Verkaaik, now an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, told HuffPost India in an email. “The fun I wrote about had partly to do with the thrill of being part of a provocative protest movement that all of a sudden, and unexpectedly, won considerable power locally.”
“The anti-Muslim crowds in India are probably better compared to for instance anti-Jewish pogroms that were the most violent and militant expression of discriminatory regimes,” Verkaaik said. “The fun and laughter that go with it seems to me an effort to humiliate your victims even more.”
The Portrait Of A Riot
When Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014, videos of vigilante violence — like those of gaurakshaks lynching supposed cattle-smugglers — were very much a YouTube phenomenon. Delhi’s recent riots are all over TikTok.
On Feb 23, the timeline of the Jat attitude handle mentioned earlier took an abrupt turn (HuffPost India is not naming the handle, as the user appears to be a minor). Thus far, his timeline was mostly dashboard videos of him driving across the National Capital Region.
Then on 23 February, the user uploaded a clip of a television screen showing visuals of a street with chyrons describing violent protests in Jafrabad, set to Gangland — a popular Punjabi song about a fictional village consumed by gang violence. “In future, come and see me in jail only, my village is now Gangland.”
JA’s posts hold a mirror to the rapid escalation that north-east Delhi witnessed, starting with the high-pitched, dramatic reportage on the protest. His next couple of posts are footage from gatherings of CAA supporters, and riot police, with songs like Sidhoo Moosewala’s hit song ‘Daakuaan Munda’ (Dacoit Boy). His last two posts are the footage of the lathi-wielding men.
His posts are of a pattern: As the riots unfolded, Anshu, a bespectacled teenager uploaded footage of a gathering at Maujpur chowk where a crowd of men and women shout ‘Ram Rajya Aayega’ and ‘Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram’ in a frenzy. Anshu captioned the video: “Azaadi mil rahi hai le lo (You are getting azaadi, take it).”
Anshu’s video and his caption — riffing on the ‘azaadi’ refrain used by anti-CAA and anti-Modi protesters — speak the language now associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s violent attack on those opposed to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019.
On the TikTok timeline
If his TikTok timeline is anything to go by, Anshu is a teenager who posts dramatic, sad photo collages of his mother, whom he ‘misses’. Prior to his riot video posts, most of his posts are of him playing with a baby, of him chasing a pug, of him lip-syncing to funny Hindi film dialogues with his friends, all of whom look no older than 14-15 years of age.
Another user, who goes by the name ‘Devil’, posted screen-capture footage of himself playing PUB-G till 24 February. Then over the next two days, the teenager posted videos of rioting at #Maujpur chowk where you can see crowds running around shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in the day, and fires burning at night.
One of the videos he reposted with a laudatory caption shows an elderly, saree-clad woman cradling bricks with her left arm and then rushing to throw one with her right. A young boy runs beside her waving a lathi.
Deep, another teenager, shared the same video. These were the first political posts on Deep’s timeline, the rest of his posts being borrowed wisecracks about how to ‘win’ girls, duets with friends and videos of his dog sunbathing or playing. Several other users also shared the video with captions like “Hindu Tigress”.
One video from riot-hit Babarpur, viewed almost 21,000 since it was uploaded by a user called Avi, shows dozens of young men roaming, or sitting on a low wall — each one of them holding a rod — chatting or taking photos.
“Khoon hamara garam hai, Hindu hamara dharam hai, Hinduo mein na hai ekta, kuch logon ko yeh bharam hai,” goes the song in the background. The lyrics translate as Our blood is boiling, our religion is Hindu, Hindus are not united, some people have this misconception.
The video, captioned ‘hindufaaddege’ (Hindus will tear you apart), ends with a glimpse of the user himself, smiling into the camera and running his hand through his gelled, coiffed hair. The video has since been taken down from his profile; HuffPost India has archived a copy of the video.
Avi’s TikTok profile is slightly different from those of the teenagers mentioned in this story. There is a video of him asking a baby to say “Vote For Modi”; but his handle has the usual clips of him dancing at weddings, lip-syncing to duets lamenting his singlehood, and hanging out with his friends.
Teenager Rohan shared another video of the ‘latth bajao’ sloganeering with the caption: ‘lambe lath lagao desh drohi ko’. Like the other teens posting this content on TikTok, the rest of his timeline shows him cracking jokes with his friends, photos of birthday celebrations and cake-cutting,
Keeping hate alive
While Delhi counts its dead, the vestiges of violence survive and often resurface on social media — raising the now persistent question of how platforms intend to control the inflammatory content they host.
“We have an efficient machine moderation system that weeds out these posts,” a representative of TikTok said, in response to a tranche of videos shared by HuffPost India. Most of the videos are still online.
TikTok claims the company uses a combination of machine moderation and human oversight to keep a check on hate content, but a quick review of the content still on the app suggests otherwise.
Nadine Strossen, professor at New York Law School and former president of American Civil Liberties Union, told HuffPost India that pushing for more censorship is often counterproductive.
“Censorship consistently is disproportionately used to silence and punish the very voices and views of those who are the targets of discrimination, and to amplify the voices of powerful, majoritarian elements in society,” Strossen said. “In the current Indian situation, I have seen that at least one powerful political official whose rhetoric seemed to encourage anti-Muslim violence claimed that those who were criticizing his views were the ones who were engaging in “hate speech.” Since that is an inherently subjective concept, it vests those who enforce the law with essentially unfettered discretion to selectively and discriminatorily punish individuals and ideas they dislike.”