Who Let the Bigots Out?

Social media trolls are a vital part of the entire hate-mongering ecosystem because they build up an atmosphere of distrust.

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This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

Close on the heels of BJP MP Tejaswi Surya’s tweet about a FabIndia ad on Diwali using the phrase Jashn-e-Riwaaj, comes another tweet pointing out that the women in the ad were not wearing a ‘bindi’. This then became the subject of unending back and forth on Twitter with earnest discussions and memes.

Less high-profile was a tweet on another ad asking why two women in an ad about the festive season showed them wearing green, presumably instead of saffron. Somewhere in the bowels of the social media site, was a poster of a Hindi film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, translated into Hindi as ‘Pralay Se Pralay Tak‘. Whether these were satirical or not is unknown – the line between parody and fact has blurred.

But there is no saying when any obscure mention like these could take off and go viral. All it would take is some trolls giving it traction and well-meaning folks, who are opposed to this kind of cheap bigotry, could retweet them and launch into outrage and condemnation, giving them more publicity. Other trolls follow, encouraged by these controversies – already some freelancers have gone after other Muslim stars appearing in ads, and newspapers, always looking for sensationalist stuff, have dutifully reported these in detail.

Last year, there was an uproar — a manufactured one — when a Tanishq ad showing a mother-in-law lovingly respecting her daughter-in-law’s (different) faith. By showcasing an interfaith marriage, Tanishq broke new ground, but this did not please those who don’t want Hindus to marry Muslims. Two years ago, a customer in Jabalpur cancelled an order on a food delivery site because it was brought to his home by a Muslim.

The point of listing these examples of objections to what should otherwise go unnoticed is the growing hate-mongering about anything perceived as connected with Muslims, such as Urdu, like Surya did. A bindi, for example is projected as a Hindu tradition, which it is not – women from all religions wear it and many Hindu women don’t. More serious is objecting to the very notion of a mixed marriage between the two religions.

Such ‘controversies’ immediately put the company on guard and its first reaction – as in the case of both, Tanishq and FabIndia – is to withdraw the ad, primarily to avoid a consumer backlash. Surya was clear that companies such FabIndia be made to pay ‘economic costs’ . The message couldn’t be clearer and not surprisingly, companies just cave in.

And other companies will be discouraged from ever attempting anything that showcases India’s diversity and its ease with living with all the many cultures that around us. Nobody has ever thought of all that ‘Muslim’ culture around them; it is just there. Nor has a bindi ever been perceived as part of ‘traditional Hindu attire’. In food, clothing and language, to say nothing of traditions, both — and the rest of the population — comfortably slide into the other, without making a distinction.

Also read: The BJP Has Turned Diwali Into a Festival of Hate

We cannot imagine the Mumbai film industry without Muslim actors, directors, musicians and lyricists, as much as no one finds photographs of Muslim kids dressed up as Hindu deities for a school function as weird. This is India’s syncretic culture.

That is what these bigots wish to destroy. Surya is a member of the BJP, which has made no secret of its anti-Muslim platform, but the others undoubtedly subscribe to Hindutva. They keep the hate pot boiling, ensuring that such issues in the public eye, sowing doubt and fear. Behind this smokescreen, there are serious moves to hit Muslims economically – in Gujarat, they are warned not to buy houses in ‘Hindu’ neighbourhoods, and Hindus are not allowed to sell property to Muslims. This is not government policy, but enforced by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and then followed up independently by property owners.

In some states, laws aimed specifically against Muslims have been enacted — the ‘love jihad’ law in Uttar Pradesh, for example. In Assam, last month, the homes of 800 families, mostly Muslim, were demolished by the government. The motivations and impact of the Citizens (Amendment) Act of the Union government are well known.

All are part of the same ecosystem, to marginalise Muslims in every way possible, to reduce them to not just second-class citizens but also hit them economically. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario when companies are asked not to hire Muslims and, one day, objecting to a Muslim actor playing a Hindu character on screen.

The online trolls are a very important part of this enterprise. Their larger objective is to completely separate Muslims from the mainstream They build up an atmosphere of distrust, and keep up the drumbeat of hatred and bigotry. And it is this drumbeat that, after a while, begins to play in the heads of even those who, earlier, never thought of such things before.