Vishal Jood’s victims say he brought terror and hate to Harris Park. The 24-year-old Indian student allegedly committed three violent assaults during a rampage in the western Sydney suburb between September and February.
In the first incident, a group of five men allegedly attacked a man with a baseball bat, and kicked him. Then on Valentine’s Day, Jood and four others are alleged to have set upon a man in a Range Rover. And two weeks after that a 10-person armed mob allegedly attacked a man in a car, causing about $10,000 in damage to the vehicle and chasing the victim down the street.
Jood is a Hindu. His alleged victims are Sikhs who believe the attacks were hate crimes inspired by bitter divisions over farm protests which surged through India from last year.
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Yesterday Jood was denied bail in the Parramatta District Court. He will remain in custody until a court date in January.
But to many in India, Jood is a hero. Since June, a false narrative has emerged, pushed by social media influencers allied with India’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Jood, they claim, is a brave patriot trying to protect the Indian flag from violent protesters, and say he’s been unfairly imprisoned, tortured, and denied legal rights.
It’s a conspiracy theory that’s been spread by prominent Indian news outlets, celebrities and high-profile politicians who’ve tried unsuccessfully to kick off a diplomatic storm.
From Haryana to Harris Park
Jood’s story starts with Narendra Modi, India’s far-right Hindu nationalist prime minister and one of the most popular politicians in the world. He has built an unshakeable cult of personality that has remained potent, even as India’s democracy, economy and civil liberties have deteriorated under his rule.
Last year Modi — emboldened by an increased electoral majority in 2019 — passed laws designed to radically overhaul India’s agricultural sector. What followed was one of the largest protests in human history, as millions of farmers, largely from India’s grain belts of Sikh-dominated Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana, marched on Delhi.
Those months of protests met with resistance which at times turned violent and then spilled over into Harris Park, the heartland of Sydney’s Indian diaspora community. Local Sikh groups held small, peaceful protests in solidarity with the farmers which were met with counter-protests led by young Hindu nationalists, including Jood, often carrying Indian flags.
The counter-protesters framed their rallies as defending India and the flag from separatists. The largely Sikh protesters have been tainted in India’s right-wing media as Khalistanis, a reference to a now-dormant Sikh separatist movement.
Deepak Joshi, co-founder of Indian diaspora organisation The Humanism Project, says the message sent by the Tiranga, or Indian flag, rallies was clear:
This was some kind of dog-whistle to imply ‘we’re patriots’, and by inference people who are protesting in support of the farmers are anti-nationals.
At the same time, Sikhs in Harris Park started reporting harassment and violence linked to toxic social media misinformation about the protests that spread through the diaspora.
One local Sikh community worker said that although things had settled down since media coverage of the last alleged assault and Jood’s arrest in April, there was plenty of propaganda spreading through the community, smearing people who supported the farmers as Khalistanis.
Conspiracy theory blossoms
Jood remained largely anonymous after his April arrest. But in June, weeks before he was first slated to appear in court, his story went viral in India. His family in Haryana started lobbying local politicians for support, claiming he’d been imprisoned for trying to defend the Indian flag from a violent mob.
“I think the pressure came from his home state of Haryana where his family, with the help of local politicians and celebrities, tried to raise the issue,” Joshi said.
Videos were widely circulated on social media of Jood raising the flag at a rally. A separate video, showing a flag being burned before cutting to Jood at a protest, has been widely shared as evidence of his patriotism and innocence. Kapil Mishra, an MLA with the BJP in Delhi and a rising star with the party, was an early adopter of the cause, urging his followers to contact the Australian High Commission in India.
Mishra is widely accused of instigating a violent anti-Muslim riot which broke out in Delhi early last year after protests against the Modi government’s controversial citizenship laws. He’s also at the centre of the Hindu ecosystem, an online network for Hindu nationalists dubbed a social-media “hate factory”. He’s very influential among Hindu nationalist social media networks.
Local celebrities also voiced their support. Yogeshwar Dutt, an Olympic bronze medal-winning wrestler who has since joined the BJP, tweeted that Jood “raised his voice against Khalistan” and saved the Indian flag. So did Neeraj Chopra, who won gold for javelin at the Tokyo Games.
The narrative was quickly picked up by Indian media. Republic TV, a news channel that regularly promotes misinformation and pro-government propaganda, covered the case in depth, interviewing Jood’s father and claiming he’d been denied legal representation and was unfairly arrested.
Times Now, India’s most popular English-language news channel, has also promoted the false narrative that Jood was arrested for leading a pro-flag rally and that the charges were a result of pressure put on the NSW Police by separatists. There have been rallies in India held to support him, and also Canada and Germany.
NSW Police wouldn’t comment because Jood’s case is before the courts. But the videos used as evidence of Jood defending the flag are from a protest on January 26, India’s Republic Day, a date not mentioned in the charges.
The police media release points to a series of unprovoked attacks with a gang of assailants targeting individuals. There is no reference to rallies or clashes or an Indian flag. Joshi says the narrative about Jood’s innocence is “misinformation”.
The case against Jood is telling and rarely fleshed out in Indian media. He is charged with three counts of affray, three counts of armed with intent to commit an indictable offence, two counts of destroying or damaging property, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm in company of others. If convicted he could face years in prison.
The political pressure
One of the most prominent voices in Jood’s corner is Manhohar Lal Khattar, Haryana’s BJP chief minister (equivalent to a state premier) who comes from the same town as Jood’s family.
“For the honour of the tricolour in Sydney, Haryana’s young Vishal Jood fought firmly with anti-national forces and did not allow the tricolour to be insulted,” the state government said in a statement.
Khattar also says he lobbied India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to fight for Jood’s release from prison. He claims Jaishankar promised to contact the Australian High Commission to push for his release.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade tells Crikey it was aware of the media attention around Jood’s case but would not comment because the matter was before the courts.
However, the pressure has been to no avail because as well as being denied bail his visa has expired and he faces deportation.
When Jood returns to Haryana he’ll be welcomed as a hero, and his case remains a chilling reminder of how Hindu Nationalist hysteria has disfigured a post-truth India.