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.
“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.
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.
No 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.
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.
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.
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.