India has stepped up a fake news and disinformation campaign targeting Pakistan as part of a bid to deflect attention from its two-week-long siege of Kashmir in the wake of its decision to strip the disputed territory of its nominal autonomy.

The Curious Case of Yana Mirchandani

On August 8, Ram Madhav, the national of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP shared a video of a young woman purporting to be a Kashmiri Muslim thanking Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his decision to revoke Kashmir’s nominal autonomy.

The video was originally posted by a Twitter user by the name of Yana Mirchandani. Given the peculiarity of the video — Kashmiris oppose the annexation by India and the woman has a non-Kashmiri surname — debate stirred on the internet as to whether or not the girl was who she claimed to be.

The anti-fake news department of India Today discovered that the woman’s full name is Suhani Yana Mirchandani and she is a resident of Mumbai, which is around a thousand miles from Kashmir.

According to India Today, Mirchandani claims that she was born in Kashmir, but her ancestors migrated from Sindh — a province of Pakistan — a decade before the partition. That may explain how someone with an ethnic Sindhi surname could claim some connection to the Kashmir region, but Mirchandani refused to provide evidence to India Today to back her claims.

Curiously, she claims that she comes from a Muslim family but later embraced Hinduism.

However, in her viral video hailing Modi on Kashmir, she clearly tries to appear as a Muslim, wearing a headscarf and beginning with the Muslim greeting of “As-salam alaykum.” As of Wednesday, August 21, the video has received over 7,700 retweets and 17,100 likes. The tweet by Madhav sharing Mirchandani’s video now has more than 13,000 retweets and 35,000 likes.

An anonymous Twitter user, who provided no substantiation, claims that Mirchandani is not her real name and that she hails from the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Despite serious questions about whether Mirchandani is who she claims to be, she appeared on a debate program on the NDTV news channel where she made a case for the annexation of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir with India. While such odd characters promoted by the BJP generally appear on channels linked to the party, NDTV has maintained a more independent stance. As a result, it has been targeted by the Indian government.

This month, NDTV’s owners were stopped at the airport at prevented from leaving India. And they were charged today with violating rules on foreign investment. NDTV producers could be trying to do the BJP a favor by bringing on a dubious character like Mirchandani.

India’s Fake Pakistan Army Officers

Entities in India also appear to be creating fake accounts purporting to be of disaffected Pakistani army officers from religious minority communities.

There’s a clear pattern with Indian disinformation campaigns targeting Pakistan:

  • fake accounts are created and quickly amass large followers; 
  • their tweets are shared by members or sympathizers of the BJP and linked groups; 
  • and then pro-BJP websites spread the disinformation through the rest of the internet.

One such fake account was purporting to be of a “Lt Col Adnan Gulmirza” of the Pakistan Army. An investigation by AltNews, an Indian website that counters internet disinformation, reveals that the display photo for the account is actually a doctored version of the official photograph of a senior Pakistan Army officer, Lt. Gen. Syed Mohammad Adnan. A beard was added to Adnan’s photo, his eye color was modified, and an emblem was removed from his uniform.

A tweet of the account where the fake army officer claims that his son was kidnapped after he resigned from the Pakistan Army was shared by a retired Indian army officer, Gaurav Arya, who frequently appears on right-wing Indian news channels. Arya’s quote tweet — a clear attempt at directing the discussion from the persecution of Muslims in India to conditions of minorities in Pakistan — was retweeted almost two thousand times.

The right-wing website Swarajya Magazine then published an article based on the tweets from the fake account. Both the article and Arya’s tweet remain up despite the fake account having been suspended. The spokesman for the Pakistani military claims that the account was run from New Delhi, though it’s unclear how he obtained its IP address.

The fake Pakistan army officer accounts generated by right-wing social media teams in India generally are amateurish attempts at disinformation. One fake account made spelling errors that revealed that the actual author of the tweets was a Hindi-speaking Indian, not a Pakistani.

India and Pakistan have fought three full wars and numerous proxy wars. And it’s clear now that they are taking their battle to the virtual domain as well.

Urooj Tarar covers South Asia and pivot states for Globely News. She previously worked for the English-language edition of Daily Pakistan.

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