In Gauri Lankesh’s home-state, a frighteningly real story of ‘fake news’, with the clumsy footprints of BJP and RSS—and embedded ‘sangh’ journalists and newspapers. (And, yes, a serial fabricator followed by Narendra Modi.)

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A leading Kannada newspaper owned by a former three-term BJP MP and a serial fake news peddler followed by Narendra Modi on Twitter, have been embroiled in a forged letter scandal, following the arrest of a “journalist” owing allegiance to the RSS.

# The newspaper is Vijaya Vani owned by former Dharwad (North) MP Vijay Sankeshwar.

# The fake news peddler is Mahesh Vikram Hegde, the so-called editor of the fake news website Post Card News, which has links with at least two BJP MPs.

# And the embedded ‘sangh parivar’ journalist whose arrest has landed them in trouble is S.A. Hemanth Kumar, 57,a “special correspondent” for the Delhi-based right-leaning magazine Uday India, who also performed media duties for the BJP.

Hemanth Kumar’s arrest has resulted in prominent BJP members in Karnataka meeting the Karnataka police chief in a delegation. And an outgoing BJP MP has shot off a petition to the Union home minister Rajnath Singh.

Hemanth Kumar had previously worked for The Asian Age, The New Indian Expressand The Times of Indiain Bangalore, and the Delhi-based Rashtriya Sahara.

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At the heart of the “fake news” scandal is the facsimile of a letter published by Vijaya Vanion April 16, 2019—two days before voters in 14 constituencies in southern Karnataka cast their ballot in the elections—as part of a full-page “package”.

The headline read: “Matthe pratyeka kidi hothisida M.B. Patil” (M.B. Patil kindles separate religion status again).

M.B. Patil is a Karnataka Congressman, minister, and a Lingayat educationist. In the previous Congress government of Siddaramaiah, he played a key role in the demand of Lingayats to be considered as a community distinct from Hindus.

(Vijaya Vani‘s owner Vijay Sankeshwar is a Lingayat too.)

The 2017 letter in English (below), purportedly from M.B. Patil to Sonia Gandhi, bragged of a “Global Christian Council” and “World Islamic Organisation” working in cahoots with the Congress, at the behest of its then Congress president, for the division of the Lingayat community, which has a sizeable presence in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

All very juicy, except that the letter had been exposed by the fact-checking website Alt News as a ham-handed “fake” in May 2018 during the Karnataka assembly elections. A simple Google search showed that there were no organisations by those names.

Although the “fake letter” had floated around since last year, no other Kannada newspaper published it this time, except Vijaya Vani whose whole package was based on social media.

(Vijaya Vani is reported to have published contents from the same fake letter on May 12, 2018, too, but that edition is not available on its e-paper website.)

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After the fake letter was published by Vijaya Vani this time on April 16, M.B. Patil, who is president of the Bijapur Lingayat District Education (BLDE) Association, took out a quarter-page advertisement in the offending newspaper the next day.

In the advertisement, Patil dismissed its authenticity, pointing out the differences between his actual letter head and the fake one, the spelling mistakes, and font changes. The fake letter had even got the phone number, website and pin code wrong.

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In the advertisement in Vijaya Vani (above), Patil does not mention Vijaya Vani‘s role in the publication and dissemination of the fake letter. He mentions Post Card News, on whose website the letter had been published last year, which Alt News busted as fake.

“When questioned, Post Card Newsclaimed it had received the fake letter from a reliable person, who has stopped taking our calls,” Patil said in the ad.

But in a formal police complaint filed in Vijayapura (Bijapur), M.B. Patil names Vijaya Vani and claims he had been defamed by the Vijaya Vani article.

On the basis of the complaint, police interrogated Post Card News‘s so-called editor Mahesh Vikram Hegde.

(Hegde had been arrested last year for fabricating news about a Jain monk being attacked by Muslim youth and was represented in court by BJP’s Bangalore South candidate in the 2019 elections, Tejasvi Surya.)

Mintreports that Prime minister Narendra Modi, who follows Hegde on Twitter, had alluded to the contents of the fake letterduring an election rally in Bagalkot last week.

A report in Deccan Herald says Hegde sought more time to find out the source, but the police interrogation on the basis of M.B. Patil’s complaint was sufficient for BJP folk to go ballistic about Hegde’s “arrest” when he had only been detained for questioning.

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Another version has it that it was Hegde who led the police to S.A. Hemanth Kumar, who has handled media duties for two BJP leaders in Karnataka, the late B.B. Shivappaand former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa.

(Both Shivappa and Yeddyurappa hail from the same district, Shivamogga.)

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Hemanth Kumar, who has been spotted by journalists in the media cell of the BJP writing its English press releases, was picked up by the CID police on April 27 when he returned from a TV show, and remanded to custody till April 30. (His custody has since been extended to May 2.)

“Hemant Kumar has been arrested on credible evidence corroborated by oral statement,” a CID press release quoted by The New Indian Expresssaid.

Reports in a number of newspapers termed Hemanth Kumar as a BJP sympathiser of the party. At least one journalist remembers seeing Kumar march in the trademark half-pants of the RSS at a meet in Bangalore last year.

Vijaya Vanidid not report the arrest of Hemanth Kumar or M.B. Patil naming the paper in his police complaint but reported that a bunch of BJP leaders met the state DGP to demand his release.

Like with Mahesh Vikram Hegde’s arrest last year, which saw a host of BJP leaders springing to his support, Shobha Karandlaje, the BJP MP from Udupi-Chikmagalur, jumped to Hemanth Kumar’s rescue with a letter to the Union home minister.

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So, the incredible fake letter story as it stands:

# Post Card News publishes the fake letter on the day of the assembly elections in Karnataka in 2018. Asked to prove its authorship its so-called editor says he “received it from a reliable source” and pulls out the tendentious story.

# M.B. Patil complains to the Election Commission but does not follow it to its legal and logical conclusion.

# Vijaya Vani republishes the same fake letter in 2019 under the facetious claim that it was dominating the discourse on social media.

# M.B. Patil names Vijaya Vaniin police complaint.

# Detained by police and questioned in 2019, Mahesh Vikram Hegde seeks more time to find out who created the fake letter in the first place which he published in 2018.

# Journalist and BJP-RSS media functionary S.A. Hemant Kumar reportedly tells police during interrogation that he took it off the net.

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At one level, the arrests of multiple fake news peddlers and journalists in Karnataka with sangh parivar links at election time underscores the BJP charge that the Congress and JDS were misusing the police to carry out vendetta politics.

(In February this year, another journalist working for BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappahad been named in a first information report.)

At another level, though, it shows the deep penetration of fake news, images, insinuations and innuendos in Karnataka at a time of heightened social media use—and the political patronage it enjoys from the BJP and RSS.

In a state where journalists and writers have been killed at their doorstep or in their verandah, the mainstreaming of fake news by a leading newspaper, which also owns a TV channel, has grave implications for journalism and politics.

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In March this year, the arrested BJP-RSS journalist Hemanth Kumar had been quoted by Rollo Romig in a profile in The New York Times magazine of the slain Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh.

“In the crowd I met a friendly middle-aged journalist named S.A. Hemantha Kumar who introduced me to Sabitha Rao, a BJP supporter who used to work for a mainstream newspaper called the Deccan Herald.

“When Kumar learned I was writing about Lankesh, he excitedly gave me a copy of an issue of the magazine he writes for, a right-wing weekly called Uday India, with a cover story on Lankesh. Kumar’s own article described her as “a so-called journalist with a devious agenda, dubious character & malicious intent.”

She had a concern for the poor, no doubt about it, Kumar said of Lankesh. She was a very passionate person, eccentric and perverse. Pervert thinking. She had no children. A strange marriage. But she had a lot of boyfriends. That has nothing to do with it, just telling you. She was taking drugs as of late. (There is no evidence that this was the case.)

“Substances,” Rao said.

She was drinking, she was smoking, she had taken to drugs, Kumar continued. She lived alone. Huge house. (It is actually fairly modest, and her mother owned it.) She was not a good journalist.

“Very coarse,” Rao said.

“Very coarse,” Kumar agreed. But ultimately, killing is sad. Killing is not acceptable. You cannot justify it.

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Screenshots: courtesy Vijaya Vani, The Hindu, The New Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle, Deccan Herald, The Times of India, The New York Times magazine

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