General Narendra Modi and His Troll Army

Modi has been called out several times for following abusive Twitter handles, most recently after the murder of Gauri Lankesh, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

“Bowed down to media, secular and liberal bullies? We work for you tirelessly, selflessly. This is the reward,” tweeted @RitaG74, who is “blessed to be followed by Modi”. This was an attack on Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad for saying, “I strongly condemn and deplore the messages on social media expressing happiness on the dastardly murder of Gauri Lankesh.” The troll was upset that she was being scolded for celebrating a brutal murder.

This is the mindset of scores of handles – I’d like to say ‘individuals’, but there is no way of knowing who is behind these Twitter identities and whether they represent real people or have been spawned on an industrial scale for political purposes – that Prime Minister Narendra Modi follows. In my investigative book I Am a Troll: Inside the secret digital army of the BJP, I have written about this phenomenon in detail. Modi follows such people and, despite international opprobrium, has not unfollowed a single handle that routinely tweets hate. Some of the handles he follows send out rape threats, death threats and indulge in communal incitement. Modi is the only leader in the world to follow such handles.

Also Read: It’s Not What Modi Is Tweeting – It’s What He Is Reading

After a person followed by Modi and photographed with information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani tweeted “a bitch died a dog’s death” on the Lankesh murder and three other handles followed by Modi drew huge condemnation, critics of this abuse trended the hashtag #BlockNarendraModi on Twitter.

narendra modi, trolls, twitter, gauri lankesh, swati chaturvediNo doubt the prime minister is too busy to take note, but the campaign did prompt Amit Malviya, the BJP’s national head for information and technology, to offer an explanation. Malviya said, “Modi is a rare leader who believes in freedom of speech and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone. PM following someone is not a character certificate and is in no way a guarantee in how a person would conduct themselves. However, PM also follows Rahul Gandhi who is an accused in loot and fraud. PM also follows Arvind Kejriwal who abused him and told a woman settle kar loh.”

Malviya is lying when he says Modi has never unfollowed anyone. Yes, he has not unfollowed a single troll despite the Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’Brien holding my book up in parliament and calling out the prime minister for following hate mongers.

However, Modi unfollowed Jwala Gurunath, a staunch supporter, when she complained to him repeatedly on Twitter that she was allegedly sexually harassed by Tajinder Bagga, who has now been made a BJP spokesman. Bagga was earlier caught on camera assaulting the well-known public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Bagga is, of course, followed by Modi.

Malviya claims that Modi is a passionate believer in the freedom of expression. This is a laughable claim, as during his tenure as Gujarat chief minister, Modi banned former BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah and Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.

And if it is kosher to call a brutal murder “a bitch dying a dog’s death” as part of the freedom of expression, as implied by Malviya, then why did the BJP and Modi’s government make such a hue and cry over last year’s fracas at Jawaharlal Nehru University, going to the extent of labelling the entire university “anti national” and pushing for sedition cases to be filed?

A well-known spoof on Modi, Mitron, was pulled by Radio Mirchi – the FM channel of the Times of India group – after senior BJP leaders complained about it to the owners of the group. So freedom of expression for Modi and the BJP is selective. It clearly does not apply to JNU and those who lampoon the prime minister. Nor does it apply to scores of tweets and handles that the government wants Twitter to block – including some that talk about political gossip and human rights violations.

Also Read: Modi Sarkar Doesn’t Want You to Read Lutyens’ Gossip, Tweets on #KashmirUnrest

Modi’s understanding of freedom of expression is pretty faulty. The US has the freest speech laws in the world, yet hundreds of people are prosecuted and sent to jail every year for hate speech and for actionable threats of the kind the handles that Modi follows make routinely. Incitement, rape and death threats are not entitled to the protections of freedom of expression.

narendra modi mobile twitter

Photo credit: www.narendramodi.in

The way Malviya tried to drag in Gandhi and Kejriwal is puzzling. Both are public figures. Gandhi is the vice president of the Congress party and Kejriwal is the chief minister of Delhi. How can Malviya compare following them with the trolls Modi follows, many of whom spew venom and hatred? Besides, do Gandhi and Kejriwal make rape and death threats? Do they incite others to commit crimes? This is a nonsensical claim.

Modi was called out for following violent handles. He continues to follow more than a dozen handles that are trolls and, going by Malaviya’s statement, is absolutely obstinate in his determination to keep following them. Modi earlier held a tea party with his troll army at the prime minister’s official residence and the 150 invitees got photographs taken with him and used it as their display pictures.

Also Read: Gauri Lankesh Assassination: How the Right Wing Is Trying to Spin the Narrative

As Arun Shourie pointed out, this is direct encouragement to the trolls to attack those who threaten the BJP’s agenda in any way. The IT cell of the BJP has a “hit list” of journalists who are meant to be relentlessly targeted. Anyone who is remotely critical of Modi is immediately attacked.

Can we call ourselves a democracy when the party in power and the government, including the prime minister, are accomplices in this kind of vile abuse and intimidation of citizens?

Modi is reportedly obsessed with social media and in reply to an RTI petition, the prime minister’s office said that he managed both his Twitter handles himself. So brace yourself, Modi is determined to keep bestowing his “blessings” on trolls and it’s going to get even uglier in the run up to the general elections.

Swati Chaturvedi is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.

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  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    “The US has the freest speech laws in the world”

    Yes, and in comparison our “free speech” is a joke – rather, it is a perverted and twisted version of what is generally understood to mean free speech.
    Watch any of the American mainstream media channels criticize, ridicule and basically rip Trump apart, day after day, from his policies to his words and mannerisms – and one realizes what free speech truly means. Yet, hate speech is NOT free speech. As the author notes, many people have been jailed in the US for making death and rape threats.
    Here, it is the reverse: criticism or dissent is viciously abused, threatened and punished, even with murder. But hate speech is applauded, followed, retweeted in the name of free speech!
    And the reason is quite simple – encouragement for this toxicity flows down right from the top, to such an extent that the social media lynch mob is almost institutionalized.
    But the truth, IMO is this: ideas and beliefs cannot be destroyed by moronic trolls.
    “Behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea… and ideas are bulletproof.”

    • Very well said: “… ideas are bulletproof.” Indeed, they are, they can’t be eliminated. They will stay and ferment, and only get bigger by the day. Mercifully, we still have sane people around, reasonable and who respect other people’s ideas, no matter how much they disagree. Today, more than ever before, I am often reminded of De Gaulle’s immortal words when he was informed of the radical Marxist group – the French Maoists – fomenting the Paris civil unrest in May 1968 that included such luminaries like Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre: France doesn’t arrest Voltaire! I hope we work towards an environment where we do not arrest “dissent” because dissent in democracy is not a contradiction, but instead is a true touchstone of a functional democracy.

  • Amitabha Basu

    It would be hardly surprising if it turns out that Narendra Modi himself sponsors and patronises the army of trolls hurling filthy and sexist abuses at anyone who questions the ‘Pradhan Sewak’ and his ilk …. Modi himself has given enough evidence of his blatantly bigoted mindset during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 that he oversaw, comparing the Muslims killed to a puppy coming under the wheels of his car, stating that Muslims were baby-producing factories, and so on.

  • Anjan Basu

    While nothing that Modi does or doesn’t do surprises me any more — after all, we are familiar with the behaviour patterns of humans, not crazed megalomaniacs who are prepared to rip all civilised norms apart for furthering their own nasty causes — what I find harder to come to terms with is this: where have all these goons and thugs, most of them reasonably well-off, at least literate, middle class urban ‘gentlemen’ been coming from? Or are they simply products of the BJP’s versatile IT cell, ably helmed by

    • Basu Sahib, you duck the question. You appeal to your own evident worthlessness. You invoke God to protect you from… what precisely, Basu Sahib? This less ‘livable world’ where worthless and vacuous rhetoric earns you no praise?

      Come, come, Basu. You are reasonably well off yourself. Was it thanks to Jyoti Basu? Did he extend a hand to light your colony when Industrial Bengal inherited Darkness?

      Your class is now considered not educated at all. The bhadralok were the bilungsburgertum of a worthless Paideia. Appeal to God all you like Anjan. You and your ilk add but negative value to any cause you espouse. Why? You guys are rubbish. I know you can get one or two of you number into worthless International organisations. I know you make marriage alliances on that basis. So what? You have misdirected your energies. You have crossed the River Lethe, the Amba ‘punyanasham’, and are no longer possessed of virtue enough to make alethic arguments.

      Shame on you. Redeem yourself.

      • I’ sorry, Mr. windwheel, this is no way to disagree with someone else’s views. Your words are dipped in acid, your comments are ad hominem, and your views expressed are nothing but a personal diatribe against Mr. Anjan Basu. Inadvertently your comments have turned out to be the best examples of the line of argument that this incisive piece by Ms Swati Chaturvedi tries to bring out and what Mr. Basu agrees with. My humble request to you is this: can we desist from getting personal while expressing our views (yes, even strong views)? Who can question your right to express your thoughts, but I’ sorry the way you’ve done here not only diminishes your thought but diminishes you in the eye of the reader. And in the process, the thrust of your argument is lost!

        Let me make a disclosure here: I don’t know Mr. Anjan Basu at a personal level. But I know him (well enough) now through his views expressed in the columns of The Wire. All I can say is that his views invariably are sensible, rational and well thought out. And couched in polite language; and I never miss reading his views. I (naturally) respect them, and, in turn, Mr. Basu.

        May I very humbly request you, Mr. windwheel sahib, to kindly stop ranting and getting abusive with people whose comments you don’t agree with. My impression is that you’re a very knowledgeable commentator, very articulate and with a command of the English language and vocabulary (e.g. bilungsburgertum) that’ll be envy of others; and we would certainly like to read your views but sans vitriol and personal attacks. Please don’t demean yourself and your views with such out-of-context comments (how is Mr. Jyoti Basu relevant here? How these thoughts are pertinent in the context of this piece? “I know you can get one or two of you number into worthless International organizations. I know you make marriage alliances on that basis.”). I suppose we all need to work towards an ecosystem where everyone must have a right to express his viewpoints politely and for others to hear them respectfully, no matter how much one differs; and, in turn, too to rebut and debate if so felt.

        • I’m sorry Mr. Mohanty, this is no way to critique some one else’s comments. You need to demonstrate sufficient knowledge and intellect to be judged adequate for that task. Adequatio rei et intellectus.

        • AM

          Dear Mr Mohanty,there’s no word like “bilungsburgertum” in English.There’s a German compound word “bildungsbürgertum” which roughly translates as “education bourgeoisie”.

          “Bilungsburgertum” probably means a person fond of jeering from the sidelines,unnecessarily venting bile,being insufferable,vain, fond of his own reflection in the mirror and very keen on showing he’s superior to the rest of us by using compound foreign words where plain English will do ….in short -a supercilious windwheeling windbag tilting at his own windmills.

  • I was merely attempting a Tardean mimesis of Basu’s gorgeous Jeremiads.

  • Anjan Basu

    Yes, she has done some excellent work in her book. It took a lot of courage to research her subject on the ground and explore the murky world inhabited by right- wing trolls. This piece here carries on with the same valuable work.

    • Ravindra Malve

      We are half way through.Exposing has become easy now,next step should be to brought these trolls to justice with stringent action.Then only Trolls will realize severity of crime they commits,i.e. online abuse.

  • Good journalism. Line by line, word by word fact checking.

    I am seriously thinking of donating to The Wire.