Note: This is an updated version of the story which originally ran under the headline ‘BJP Under Fire After Former Volunteer Says Party Asked Social Media Cell to Target Aamir Khan’. The story was updated on December 28 to incorporate the detailed reaction of BJP IT cell head Arvind Gupta and the response of Sadhavi Khosla
In journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s new book I am a Troll, a former social media volunteer for the BJP has claimed that the party used ‘trolls’ to build pressure on various issues, including getting Snapdeal to drop actor Aamir Khan as brand ambassador after his remarks on intolerance in India were seen as critical of the current government.
Sadhavi Khosla quit the BJP social media cell in 2015, after the directions she was given made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi,” she is quoted in the book as saying, according to the Guardian. She has shared various WhatsApp messages sent to her with directions with Chaturvedi, directions which she says also went to hundreds of other volunteers. According to her, the BJP IT cell’s core team handled at least 20 different WhatsApp groups of volunteers, divided by profession and gender.
The messages on Khan’s removal, according to Khosla, came straight from BJP IT cell head Arvind Gupta, the Indian Express reported.
One of the directions was to share an online petition asking Snapdeal to stop using Khan as their brand ambassador. “Sign the Petition to Snapdeal India. Appeal Snapdeal to drop Aamir Khan from their ads,” the message from Gupta said, with a link to the petition.
Another message Khosla received from HDL (which according to her stands for Hindu Defence League) read, “Time to attack Snapdeal like…(we) did with greenply plywood and forced them to withdraw the defamatory ad!! Snapdeal customer care number…& threaten of negative publicity & ruining business if amir khan is not kicked out from brand ambassadorship!! Let’s show Hindu unity.”
HDL also apparently shared an image of a magazine cover that had a picture of a young boy alleged to be Khan’s illegitimate child, according to Business Standard. HDL’s Twitter handle – @HDLindiaOrg – was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to Chaturvedi, but is now suspended.
According to Khosla, others on the trolls’ ‘hit list’ included political opponents like Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, and journalists Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, the Guardian reported. The trolling was anonymous in most cases, she said and often veered towards threats of sexual violence.
“I simply could not follow [the] directions anymore when I saw rape threats made against female journalists like Barkha Dutt,” the Guardian quoted Khosla as saying in the book. “Every day some new person was a target and they would attack like a swarm of bees with vile sexual innuendoes, slander, rape and death threats … It made me feel suffocated as a woman.”
When the Indian Express approached Gupta with the allegations made, he said Khosla “supports the Congress” and “has all reasons to publish unsubstantiated claims”. According to him, the BJP never “encouraged trolling”. He also added that he had not “directly supervised social media activities since 2015 when the party structure was reorganised”.
Gupta took to Twitter on Wednesday morning with “6 tweets to set the record straight”.
In addition to his series of tweets claiming that Khosla never worked for the BJP social media cell, Gupta also retweeted tweets that questioned Chaturvedi’s ethics.
Responding to Gupta’s claims, Khosla tweeted the copy of an email she apparently wrote to him in February 2015, stating that she had worked as a volunteer for the IT cell and giving her point of view on the BJP’s Punjab campaign.
This article was updated on December 28 evening to add Arvind Gupta’s tweets and Sadhavi Khosla’s reponse.