“Takes PM no time to tweet about Gajendra Singh or Nitish Kumar resigning, but continues to follow the bigot who called Gauri Lankesh 'kuttiya'” tweeted Prateek Sinha, the founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website/media watchdog, on September 7. But Sinha is not the only one who is angry about the PM's appalling silence.
The assassination of Gauri Lankesh, a highly revered journalist, and subsequent reactions on social media from a section of "nationalists" has given way to a unique form of protest. Several users on Twitter have started blocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Because the prime minister is known to follow abusive trolls from his Twitter account – some of whom have not only shamed Lankesh posthumously, but have actively justified her murder.
That Prime Minister Modi is no fan of the fourth estate is actually an understatement. An IANS article earlier this year went so far as to say that in another two years, Modi may well enter the Guinness World Records for being the first prime minister of a democratic country who has avoided meeting the media at a large televised gathering. To the untrained eyes, it would almost seem like he hates the press and that would not be a far-fetched claim to make.
Modi’s hatred for the press, especially for the “cocktail-drinking", "Lutyens'-residing", "English-speaking", "liberal" media, quite possibly stems from the "persecution" he endured in its hands following the 2002 Gujarat riots. Or maybe the Right-wing prime minister just doesn’t feel comfortable with a media environment that is largely perceived to be Left leaning.
Whatever be the case, the man has successfully eliminated the need for media interactions, a key element to a successful democracy. Instead, Modi chooses to dispense information and speak his “mann” through the radio, at rally speeches and on social media.
Megyn Kelly may not know if Narendra Modi is on Twitter, but his 33.7 million followers do. Apart from his personal Twitter account, the prime minister’s office has a Twitter account that boasts of an additional 18 million followers.
Additionally, Modi has a following of 41.9 million on Facebook and 6.8 million on Instagram. Social media, for the most part, is how Modi chooses to connect with his voters, eliminating the media from the entire equation. It is also on social media that Modi follows the ones who support and vote for him. And some of these accounts he follows have been known to be vile, toxic and abusive on the microblogging website.
Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress, in a speech in the Upper House in February, accused the prime minister of encouraging online harassment by following trolls on Twitter.
“Twenty-six Twitter handles that give out rape and communal threats are followed by the prime minister of India,” claimed O’Brien.
On September 5 and 6, after the murder of Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore, several Twitter accounts that belonged to self-proclaimed Hindu nationalists and Modi supporters were spewing venom about Lankesh. Some of these accounts are those followed by Modi.
Nikhil Dadhich, a garments manufacturer/Hindu nationalist from Surat, wasted no time in declaring the following distasteful words: “Ek kuttiya kutte ki maut kya mari, saare pille ek sur mein bilbila rahe hain (It took a bitch to die a dog’s death, for all pups to howl in the same tune). Prime Minister Modi follows Dadhich on Twitter.
Ashish Singh, an IIT Bombay and IIMP alumnus, a political strategist, cartoonist and a "Hindu Narendra Modi supporter", tweeted, “Jaisi karni, waisi bharni (you reap what you sow).”
“After Burhan Wani Gauri Lankesh also killed how sad,” he added from his account that is followed not just by the prime minister but also by Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union minister for law and justice, and Vijay Goel, the former minister of state (MoS) for sports and the present MoS for parliamentary affairs.
In response to tweets like these and no response/condolence message from the PM, and the general trollish behaviour of the "nationalist Right", several users on Twitter have decided to block Narendra Modi. Their point is simple: if the PM continues to follow abusive folks like these, then there is no point in following the PM.
But this toxic ecosystem of disrespecting, abusing and harassing journalists has been there in the BJP culture for a long time now. Author and journalist Rana Ayyub, in a column in DailyO mentioned how a BJP member has harassed her online. She wrote:
"Barely three days ago, the Modi government inducted one of the most radical faces from Karnataka, Anant Kumar Hegde in its Cabinet. Hegde is the same leader who — in the last one year — has made the most derogatory and communally charged statements against Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. He is the very leader who, through his tweets, recently asked the government to keep me and few other journalists including Barkha Dutt under surveillance for our views on the government. Yet, this is understandable coming from a government that has made no pretence of its biases and affiliations."
In November 2016, when Lankesh was convicted in a defamation case filed by BJP MP Prahlad Joshi, Malviya tweeted, “Prahlad Joshi, BJP MP from Dharwad, gets Gouri Lankesh convicted in a defamation case. Hope other journos take note.”
The worrying lack of press freedom in India is also clearly visible from the number of journalists who have been attacked. An IndiaSpend report claims that in the past two years, 142 attacks on journalists have been reported. Of the 142 cases registered, 114 were reported in 2014 and 28 in 2015.
According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters without Borders (RWB), India was ranked 136 out of 180 countries. The report noted, “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals… journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent.”
India also ranks 13th on CPJ's Impunity Index, a measure of countries worldwide where journalist are killed and the murderers go free.
BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union minister for law and justice, quite possibly aware of the building outrage on social media, tweeted, “I strongly condemn and deplore the messages on social media expressing happiness on the dastardly murder of Gauri Lankesh.”
I strongly condemn & deplore the messages on social media expressing happiness on the dastardly murder of #Gaurilankesh.— Ravi Shankar Prasad (@rsprasad) September 6, 2017
Of course, it was more than evident from the responses to that tweet, just how the nationalist Right felt about such a condemnation. A user who goes by the name Rita on Twitter replied, "Bowed down to media, secular and liberal bullies? We work for you tirelessly, selflessly. This is the reward?”
Commie, Naxal, presstitute, Pakistani and myriad names have been given to journalists in India by trolls. These are words that are found on the replies of all famous press folks, especially women. A lot of them are accompanied by expletives, and sometimes even death and rape threats. This is what social media looks like now. Threats that could once be shrugged off, can no longer be ignored, after the murder of Gauri Lankesh.
And yet, the prime minister keeps silent and continues to follow those who harass, threaten and gloat over the death of fearless editors. At some point someone had to ask, why do we still follow our dear leader?