Radicals hijack Wikipedia's Onam page, online slug-fest ensues

Design: Onmanorama

"Religion is immaterial to observing Onam. It is a HARVEST FESTIVAL. Nothing to do with religion," comments a new editor on Wikipedia, the popular information website, after revising a line that said otherwise.

This editor's sentiments were echoed by yet another surfer, who, it seems, had made a new account just to tweak something the former had missed -- a reference labelling Onam as a “festival of Hindus”.

"Onam is not a Hindu festival, it is a festival of all," this new user wrote in the comments of his edits.

But none of this sits well with 'Jai Bhavani' - another editor on Wikipedia whose profile indicates that she is a medical student.

"It is an annual Hindu festival celebrated in South India," Bhavani writes, correcting the mistake of her less-experienced peers.

This is Bhavani's 20th such edit in just the last two weeks and she has absolute control, or so it seems.

Half the world away, Sibin Mohan - an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – is following the online Onam slug-fest.

A Malalayi, Sibin couldn't sit idle while "right-wing extremists" lampooned the identity of his favourite festival.

He tries to reason, quoting various credible sources to back his edits which removed any hue of religion from the page.

This is not the first time that Sibin is correcting the page. In 2020, Sibin had removed a line that labelled Onam as a religious festival.

Just hours later, 'Jai Bhavani' was at it again, undoing Sibin's efforts without even a remark.

Sensing a pattern, Sibin takes to Twitter for help - "Right-wing idiots are out to "Onamsplain" it [Onam] to Malayalis," he tweets.

Popular writer Shiv Ramdas is among the first to respond. But what he has to say is alarming.

As Sibin had feared, this is indeed an elaborate, premeditated attack, and not just confined to the Onam page.

"There's a whole bunch of seriously weird edits regarding Hindutva claims on Wikipedia. They [right-wing extremists] are out mauling Wikipedia in full force these days," explains Ramdas.

Enamoured by a desire to prevent at least the 'Onam page' from being besieged by those who seek to perpetuate religion above anything, Sibin sets to work again.

He corrects the page again and retreats to Twitter, where he hoped some comfort could be sought.

That was the 83rd edit on the Onam Wikipedia since August 1.

For the past weeks, right-wing extremists and good-sense individuals have waged what seemed an unceasing war on the page, tagging a religious contour to Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival.

Naturally, this attracted the attention of moderators and the admins of the volunteer-run website.

Keith D, a Wikipedia veteran with more than 1,00,000 edits on the site, had no choice but to 'protect' the site.

This Yorkshire-man then became its gatekeeper.

He cordoned off the page to new editors and temporarily suspended those who had been responsible for what Wikipedia calls 'disruptive editing'.

However, Bhavani, whose entire profile reads - Jai Bhavani (Hail the Goddess) - has escaped this punishment somehow.

Bhavani’s profile also indicates that the user is a member of Wikiproject Hinduism, designed to ensure propaganda articles on Wikipedia.

Order has finally been restored to the page.

Wikipedia's Onam page now reads as "an annual harvest festival celebrated in the southern state of Kerala".

A major annual event for Keralites, it is the official festival of the state, the page further states.

It also admits the part that religion does play - "Drawing from Hindu mythology, Onam commemorates King Mahabali".

It cites J Gordon Melton's Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia and AM Kurup's The Sociology of Onam, to elaborate that "though the festival has ancient origins steeped in tradition, it became intricately linked with Hindu legends at some later date".

The page is one of the many battlefields on Wikipedia.

Of late, the popular information website had been besieged by right-wing extremists to weave a calibrated narrative on topics that range from Delhi riots 2020 to Subash Chandra Bose and even the origins of chicken tikka masala and Pythagoras Theorem. 

In recent years, Onam has been subject to multiple political appropriations.

The festival, which has been culturally inclusive within the "secular lexicon" of Hinduism, is being increasingly turned into an event of exclusion by the radical right.

In 2016, on a visit to Kerala during the week of Onam, then BJP President Amit Shah tweeted "Vamana Jayanti" on the eve of Onam.

According to legend, Onam commemorates the homecoming of the mythological lower-caste King Mahabali, whose rule was ended by Brahmin boy Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu.

Amit Shah's tweet also carried a poster wherein a Brahmin boy was seen with a leg over the head of King Mahabali.

It invoked public outcry in Kerala.

Even Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took to Twitter to lambast the BJP strongman as having hurt the sentiment of Keralites.

Sibin, who retreated to Twitter, was met by Shruti Menon, who insisted that he "not diminish Onam's importance to the Hindus”.

"Are you saying that the entire aspect of King Mahabali being Prahlada’s grandson and the outcome of meeting Vamana which is a part of Puranas is to be ignored during Onam? Onam is a harvest festival too, but please don’t diminish its importance to the Hindus," Shruti wrote.

"It’s no different than insisting that Christmas/Easter are pagan/harvest festivals which is a very widely discussed argument. I can’t imagine going on to wiki to keep changing the definition to just that without taking into account the significance of it to believing Christians," she adds.

It is one of the sanest of comments that awaited Sibin.

Allegations of political biases on the part of Wikipedia are common.

The open encyclopedia, now in its 21st year, has been accused of partiality by figures on both the left and the right of the political spectrum across the world. 

Wikipedia is a free content, multilingual online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteer contributors through open collaboration model.

It is the largest and most-read reference work in history. It was the 13th most popular website in 2021.

It has won praise for enabling the democratization of knowledge, extent of coverage, and reduced commercial bias.

But it was also criticised for exhibiting systemic bias, particularly gender bias against women.

At various points, Wikipedia has also been censored by governments across the world.

India is the fourth country by traffic to Wikipedia.

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