On 13 March at noon, as the chief of the consumer rights body briefed journalists about its investigation into the latest Sultan's Dine controversy, a question came to the fore.
Where is the person who first suspected and claimed that Sultan's Dine served something other than mutton in its kacchi biryani? A bold claim that soon proved tenacious and eventually fatal to the establishment's reputation.
The question was even more pertinent as AHM Shafiquzzaman, the head of the Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection (DNCRP), informed the media that the investigators did not find any evidence of wrongdoing by Sultan's Dine.
The primary complainant seems to have disappeared. In our several attempts to contact them, we found their cell phone switched off. Yet the wildfire of memes and scaremongering posts on social media, inspired by the complainant's initial post, had already done its damage.
So what really happened?
A defamatory social media wildfire
The fiasco brings to mind an episode of the famous comedy show "The Three Stooges". The plot was of a restaurant where Moe Haward and his brother Shemp, acting as waiters, had just welcomed two visitors.
Suddenly, their friend Larry appeared on the scene chasing a cat, brandishing a sharp machete. He grabbed the pet and returned to his kitchen. The visitors and waiters heard a series of thuds and screaming from the cat.
Next, Larry again appeared, similarly chasing a dog. Larry returned and again, the four heard a series of thuds and screaming from the dog.
After a while, Larry served dishes to the visitors. He was completely in the dark about what the visitors and waiters were thinking of.
Moe and Shemp were forced to eat the food. In the meantime, the cat and dog appeared beneath the table. When Moe and Shemp touched the steaks, the pets unintentionally meowed and barked, convincing the diners that they were, in fact, eating live animals.
Since 2 March, one certain Konok Rahman Khan's Facebook post – claiming that Sultan's Dine served kacchi biryani made with the meat of animals other than goats – went viral on different social media platforms. And a plethora of memes trolling 'Sultan's Dine' surfaced and spread like wildfire.
The incident seemed to have conspicuously divided the country into Sultan Dine vs the complainant and compelled the DNCRP to carry out an investigation.
A few creative netizens illustrated a peculiar-looking animal – a combination of a dog and a goat – and named it 'The Sultan.' The strange-looking picture became viral too.
Others shared edited videos and audio too, linking a relationship between lost dogs and Sultan's Dine. For example, a long shot of a signboard of one Sultan's Dine branch rolls onto a close spot of a sitting dog and the next shot shows the dog is suddenly missing.
In most of these posts — and we have gone through at least hundreds of comments and posts — scores of commentators expressed their concerns and suspicion over the availability of 'Halal' meat in Dhaka restaurants. And this prevalent notion led many to believe and express that Sultan's Dine serves 'Haram' meat.
Those who either had tried to defend Sultan's Dine or termed the critics as "whimsical Bangladeshis" were labelled as "paid agents." What started as merely a "rumour" rattled social media platforms and the heated discourse seeped into daily conversation off the internet too, quickly becoming a prime example of defamation in the age of social media.
Especially because scores of people had formed their opinions long before the 13 March press briefing by the DNCRP.
So what consequences did the brand face, or continue to face?
"It was a complete rumour that started to spread on 2 March. Due to this bad propaganda, our daily sales have seen a negative trend, although, our regular customers who love Sultan's Dine food are still standing by us," said Sajid Zaman, one of the owners of Sultan's Dine.
He said on Monday that the chain restaurant has not assessed its losses yet.
In Dhaka, Sultan's Dine operates nine outlets with 100 permanent staff. The establishment also has one outlet outside of Dhaka.
Md Najmul Islam, the additional deputy commissioner of the Cyber Crime Investigation Division of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime, told The Business Standard that without any proof, any false post on social media to damage or tarnish the image of an individual person, organisation, or establishment or state structure, association or international entities will be considered as a cybercrime.
"The victims or affected organisations can lodge complaints with law enforcement agencies. The culprits can then be brought to book based on the nature of the allegations. In this regard, victims need to come forward," Najmul added.
Sultan's Dine's owner Sajid said a general diary was filed when the rumour initially surfaced. "We did not take further legal action as two government entities had started investigations by then. As the DNCRP has come up with their decision, we will now take further steps after taking suggestions from our legal consultants," Sajid concluded.
It was sometime between 2-8 March that the complainant reached the DNCRP. This happened after a bout of argument between the complainant and the establishment after they called 999 and then the police to complain about their "discomfort and disgust" against the restaurant's allegedly unethical practices — according to the complainant's Facebook post.
The police led the complainant to the correct agency to handle his grievances — the DNCRP.
On 9 March, DNCRP officials carried out a raid at Sultan's Dine Gulshan branch. Interestingly, at the time of the raid, the officials said, no "raw meat" was available for sampling as routine food preparations were already underway.
However, DNCRP officials found a mismatch between the demand order for meat by Sultan's Dine and the actual supply. The directorate chief explained that particular issue by himself during the press briefing, "The demand order of 150kg of mutton was made verbally, but the vendor supplied 125kg. That's it."
Moreover, DNCRP officials said that they are preoccupied with the upcoming World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March.
It is also noteworthy that the DNCRP lacks any instrument or facility to test food samples. This is primarily done by the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA), which went to the same branch earlier on 9 March.
BFSA Chairman Md Abdul Kayowm Sarker told TBS that on arrival at the Gulshan branch of Sultan's Dine, the BFSA team did not find anything out of order. The team did not find any anomaly in the meat being served at the restaurant and "that's why, the team didn't collect samples from there. But there was a concern over hygiene [pertaining to the close proximity of the bathroom to the kitchen] and the branch operators were given a fixed time to amend it by 20 March."
The lacklustre effort from the government agencies is evident in the course of actions they had taken to address this issue.
Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association Organising Secretary Syed Mohammad Andalib, also a general body member of the FBCCI, termed the current episode very unfortunate. He said restaurant owners often face such types of difficulties while their food shops are remarked negatively and raided without proper testing instruments.
Andalib believes that as a nation, Bangladeshis are very emotional.
"We have to understand that whatever we say or do on social media platforms has a certain amount of consequences. I am not claiming that everybody from our communities is practising well. If anyone raises concerns about our services, the regulatory authority should investigate the issue following concrete proof like laboratory test reports.
If the allegation is found wrong, or it is found that the accuser intentionally made false allegations, the authorities should take legal action according to the laws. The government should stop rumours at the initial stage," Andalib said.
The Business Standard's Zia Chowdhury contributed to this report.