Online abuse of journalists, Opposition leaders, the Gandhi family, Bollywood actors and other celebrities – practically anyone who questions the ruling party at the Centre or Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP – has been the bitter reality for about two and half years now.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any systematic investigation and exploration of this murky underbelly of the BJP’s social media dominance, which, as a new book suggests, is built upon a pyramid of orchestrated and vicious attack.
In a stellar move, independent investigative journalist Swati Chaturvedi, who also has a column with DailyO, has put forward a high-voltage confession by a former “troll”, in a book titled I Am A Troll.
37-year-old Sadhavi Khosla, formerly part of the BJP’s social media cell under the steerage of Arvind Gupta, who is now the chief of the Digital India project, has claimed that the order to target superstar Aamir Khan after his November 2015 comment on “intolerance” came directly from Gupta on WhatsApp.
The book goes on to document definite instructions, planned social media campaigns, mass tweets that scrape the rock bottom of the indecency barrel, sexually explicit images and words, religious hatred against minority community members, as well as choicest of slanders against “sickular presstitutes”, as liberal journalists in this country are often called, that have been used and abused over and over again against the government’s critics.
But the biggest claim that the book makes, via Khosla’s account, is that these happened directly at the behest of the BJP’s IT cell, and therefore had blessings from the top-most leaders of the ruling party. It is also interesting that some of the most vicious “trolls” on Indian Twitter – those who have sent rape threats to journalists and women leaders – have PM Modi as their “follower”.
Khosla admits that she had bought into the dream of development, as floated by the ascendant BJP led by Modi, then the PM aspirant, during the 2013-14 Lok Sabha election campaign. She had enthusiastically participated in targeting the then UPA government, as well as members of the Gandhi family, various prominent ministers and leaders, as well as journalists who appeared to have big reservations about a Hindu majoritarian sentiment sweeping the nation.
As Khosla says in Chaturvedi’s book, the order to get Snapdeal drop its contract with Aamir Khan came directly from Arvind Gupta. “Sign the Petition to Snapdeal India. Appeal Snapdeal to drop Aamir Khan from their ads,” said a WhatsApp message from Gupta, according to her. By early 2016, Khan was removed as the brand ambassador of Snapdeal, which did not “renew” its contract.
|We need to ask if this is the face of the Digital India that PM Narendra Modi wants us all embrace.
Khosla says she started getting uncomfortable with the rabidity of the orchestrated hate campaigns against the liberals, regime critics and celebs with a view, especially the rape and murder threats that were ritually issued en masse, copying the same grammatical and syntactical errors as if a swarm of bees with terrible English, incorrect Hindi and a general lack of education.
Once the Aamir Khan campaign took root, Khosla couldn’t bear it any longer and left the BJP IT cell. She says, “For 25 years they were our superstars and now for two years, they are terrorists?” Not only Aamir Khan, but even Shah Rukh Khan has had to face immense difficulties “proving his patriotism” to the online mob of Hindu zealots out to tarnish the superstar’s image as the Bollywood Badshah.
While Arvind Gupta has rubbished the charges by branding Swati Chaturvedi as a Congress sympathiser, we have enough empirical evidence to think otherwise. Recently, a gaffe by Gupta was criticised on Twitter when he tweeted his payment by card at a high-end hair salon, while praising demonetisation and PM Modi’s personal plea to go cashless to all Indians.
However, Gupta isn’t the only one, though he sure is one of the leading men in the star-studded cast of the ruling BJP’s social media dominion. Current IT cell head of the BJP, Amit Malviya, has publicly said (tweeted) that journalists should “take note” from Gauri Lankesh’s conviction in a defamation case over an anti-BJP story.
That the trolling occurs at the behest of the topmost leaders of the BJP is exactly why there has been little action against the perpetrators. As Chaturvedi recounts in an excerpt from her book:
“On 10 June 2015, I filed an FIR at south Delhi’s Vasant Vihar police station against an anonymous Twitter handle, @lutyensinsider. @lutyensinsider had over 40,000 followers and had systematically targeted me over a period of six months in a vicious campaign that insinuated I had a sexual relationship with a politician.
“Each day I would wake up to hundreds of notifications discussing my ‘rate’, ‘last night’s amazing anal sex’ and the fictitious trysts where I ‘the nymphomaniac could not get enough and was begging for more’. Yes, that was me being described on a public medium for posterity, my 20-year-old professional career – which I take huge pride in – reduced to slander.
There was a base quality to these attacks, a hateful sexism that I had never encountered in all my years of being a reporter. My mornings were filled with rage and a sick, slightly nauseous feeling. The attacks were personal and after six months I had had enough.”
Even though the Union minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, has set up a helpline against online abuse, it’s simply not enough when the entire regime is complicit in carrying out this kind of poisonous smear campaigns against its critics, while itself basking under the privilege of defamation law, increased governmental opacity and making a mockery of law and order.
We need to ask if this is the face of the Digital India that PM Narendra Modi wants us all embrace.