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At a time when fake news ecosystem is reportedly drumming up hatred against minorities on online media, the BJP, led by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman picked one reported by an Urdu daily owned by a prominent Hindi newspaper group to allege that the Opposition Congress is “playing a dangerous game… of communal politics” and will be “solely responsible if any disharmony plays out between now and the 2019 elections”.

Attacking Congress president Rahul Gandhi over an alleged remark attributed to him during an interaction Wednesday with Muslim intellectuals, Sitharaman — who told reporters she was speaking in her capacity as a party leader — alleged Gandhi told Muslim intellectuals that “Congress is a Muslim party.”

The Urdu daily had quoted Rahul as telling Muslim opinion leaders that his party was a Muslim party and that he was on a course-correction. According to Sitharaman, Rahul Gandhi apologised to Muslim intellectuals for losing track during 2014. According to Union Minister, Rahul Gandhi said that the episodes of Karnataka temple visit won’t happen again and the party will do course correction.

The Congress has denied the report and dubbed it a ‘rumour’.

Historian Syed Irfan Habib, who was among the Muslim intellectuals who met Gandhi Wednesday, also denied that the Congress leader made any such remark.

“There was nothing like that. There was no issue of this nature raised, neither by the people present over there nor Rahul Gandhi himself. Nobody raised any such thing. It is just a figment of imagination of all those who want to give it a twist because they are doing it for their own political advantage. There is nothing at all. There is no basis at all,” Habib told The Indian Express.

Habit tweeted: “Taken aback to hear that Rahul Gandhi is being accused of calling the Congress a Muslim party in a meeting where I was present. It seems to have malicious intent, no such issue came up at all.”

Sitharaman, however, built up an entire narrative based on it, demanding an explanation from Rahul.

Sitharaman said: “This needs to be clarified, probably he wants to say that to call himself a janeudhari (one who wears the sacred thread) was wrong, probably he wants to say now he is Muslim-dhari. You can’t be a janeudhari at one point… a Muslim-dhari at another…. This is playing with the people’s trust.”

Sitharaman wanted to know what kind of course correction Rahul had assured the Muslim intellectuals of.

After laying emphasis on need for Rahul to clarify his religious affiliation, Sitharaman paradoxically said, “It is very clear the Congress wants to contest the 2019 elections on the basis of religion.”

She added that the Congress would be solely responsible if there was any disharmony in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.

“Congress party is playing a dangerous game, playing communal division, playing up the card of religion. It is frightening that it may lead to the kind of division and kind of communal disharmony that prevailed during the 1947 partition. Congress party shall be solely responsible if any disharmony plays out between now and the 2019 elections,” she said.

“We think Congress is getting back at this Divide India mindset. It is clear that 2019 election, they want to contest it at dharm ki aadhaar par (on the basis of religion). Its foundation has been laid,” she said.

After the newspaper report claiming that Rahul had said “yes, Congress is a Muslim party” began doing the rounds on social media, Congress’ communications in-charge Randeep Surjewala, responding to a question on the report, said when governance fails, rumours take precedence. “When the government is on the path of lying, then rumours become the main policy of the government,” he told reporters.

Noting that the history of the Indian national movement and the history of the Congress are well documented, Surjewala said the Congress is a party of 132 crore Indians, and will remain so forever.

He said in a tweet: “When governance fails, rumour rules! Congress is a party of 132 crore Indians, bereft of your faith-ethnicity-colour of one’s skin-region-belief. For Congress is the foundational idea of India. No Bhakt will deter us from treading the path! Jai Hind.”

The Congress hit back at the BJP, saying Sitharaman’s remarks are aimed at creating tension in the society. “Sitharaman is a responsible Defence Minister and her statement today is clearly in line with Prime Minister Modi’s agenda of polarising this country,” Congress spokesperson Sushmita Dev told reporters.

“We request you that do not through your press meets increase division, do not through your press meets go ahead towards polarisation because that is the only thing prime minister falls back on before every election. If the peace shattered in the country, the government is responsible and not the opposition,” she added.

“The news of Tharoor’s comments, the media report on Rahul are being twisted in the media. The prime minister has made repeated attempts to polarise. What were his intentions. Nirmala Sitharaman must answer this and then question the Congress.”

“Till today the biggest black mark in the history of India has been the riots of Gujarat and Prime Minister Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at that time and till today he has not taken moral responsibility for that,” Dev said.

“While we are days away from the monsoon session of Parliament where the government has absolutely no answers about the complete mess they have made in J&K, no answers on price rise, fuel price hikes and agrarian distress, it is expected of the Defence Minister to take up issues unnecessarily to create a controversy and move away from the real issues,” Dev said.

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