In the Face of Death Threats, Online Hate, Telugu Journalist Thulasi Chandu Refuses to Back Down

'Someday, some innocent youth will attack me by turning the hatred filled by the party he loves into a sword or a bullet,' she wrote in a Facebook post on June 24.

New Delhi: For Telugu journalist Thulasi Chandu, vitriolic trolling and online harassment are not new.

In the three years since she started her eponymous YouTube channel ‘Thulasi Chandu’, the 36-year-old independent journalist has been branded as “anti-Hindu”, “Urban Naxal” and “communist”, among others.

However, in a Facebook post last week, Chandu said that she feared for her life.

“Someday, some innocent youth will attack me by turning the hatred filled by the party he loves into a sword or a bullet,” she wrote in Telugu on June 24.

“They are hating me because I am saying that religious hatred is the most dangerous thing for the youth of any country.”

Speaking to The Wire, Chandu said that in her 15 years of being a journalist, she has never felt as fearful as she does now.

“There is so much fear,” she said.

“I fear for my young children (aged five and 12), my aged mother. My husband has been very supportive of me. But I am a single person, and they are attacking me as an organisation.”

“They are not criticising my video, but they are directly attacking me with personal attacks, body shaming me and showing me as anti-Hindu, even though I haven’t made any videos on the Hindu religion. My videos are only to educate people and to give the complete picture on any issue in current politics.”

Chandu said that the abuse started within three months of starting her YouTube channel.

“Three months after I started my channel, I posted a video that tried to explain how the BJP and the AIMIM [All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen] are the same. Titled “Dear people, religion is coming, be aware”, the video talked about how these two parties are dividing people along the lines of religion.

“The video was widely circulated and went viral very quickly. That is when I first started receiving threats and abuses from right-wing Hindu groups.”

Also Read: WSJ Reporter Who Asked PM Modi Question About Human Rights Faces Twitter Abuse

Chandu said that apart from comments under her video on YouTube, people started calling her with the sole intention of abuse.

“They started saying ‘why do you teach lessons only to Hindus and not to other religions?’”

“Since I am a journalist, people can easily get my number. I have received calls even from Kenya using bad language, saying ‘who are you to teach Hindus?’.”

Between 1992 and 2023, 91 journalists have been killed in India according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In 2022, India slipped to 163rd place from 150th the previous year on the World Press Freedom Index released by Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“Supporters of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu far-right, wage all-out online attacks on any views that conflict with their thinking. Terrifying coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder are conducted on social media, campaigns that are often even more violent when they target women journalists, whose personal data may be posted online as an additional incitement to violence,” RSF’s report noted.

“Power of social media”

Prior to starting her independent journalism career, Chandu worked at popular Telugu news outlets including Eenadu, Andhra Jyothi and Sakshi.

“When I became a member of the Network of Women in Media, India, I was inspired by the work done by independent women journalists and decided to start my own YouTube channel.”

“I saw the power of social media and started making videos with my phone. Until about three months ago, I was even editing my own videos on my phone and my small system. Now I have a video editor.”

Despite the abuse she received with the video on the AIMIM and the BJP, Chandu decided to take it in her stride and continue with her work.

“I did not file any case because at the time I felt that it is very normal for a journalist to get such abuses. Even then I did not receive any threats as such, it was only abuse.”

Screenshot of Thulasi Chandu’s YouTube channel on June 30, 2023.

Chandu said that she decided to focus on national politics in her videos.

“In Telugu media, the focus is not on national politics. So I chose to explain national developments and issues in my videos.”

When the farmers began their protest in Delhi against the three farm laws in 2020, Chandu made videos explaining the farmers’ stance.

“I made a video explaining why they are protesting. I was branded as anti-national in the comments, and my inbox was flooded.”

“I tried to patiently convince them, which was my biggest mistake, as I have a habit of replying to my YouTube comments.”

But the vicious trolling did not stop.

“Anti-Hindu” hate and abuse

In the 337 videos that have been uploaded on her YouTube channel, Chandu has sought to question all governments, irrespective of the political party in power.

Some of her recent videos include explainers on the Indian Railways in the aftermath of the Balasore train crash, the wrestlers’ protest in the national capital against sexual harassment, the BJP’s silence on Adipurush, “How India sold out to Adani”, Chandrababu Naidu’s Kandukur roadshow, the Agnipath protests, the Telangana State Public Service Commission paper leak, and why Andhra Pradesh government employees opposed the implementation of the 11th Pay Revision Commission.

However, Chandu said that the right-wing trolls always sought to portray her as “anti-Hindu”.

“Right-wing channels tried to show me as anti-Hindu because I tried to show how The Kashmir Files was a propaganda movie, I did explainers on the Gujarat riots and Bilkis Bano and Sanjiv Bhatt, the Karnataka Hijab controversy etc.”

On January 5, 2022, Chandu filed an FIR after a Facebook page named ‘Pastor Paramjyothi Raju’ uploaded her morphed photographs.

Despite Telangana minister K.T. Rama Rao amplifying the abuse on Twitter and directing the police to take action, Chandu said no action was taken.

On Monday, June 26, Chandu filed another FIR, this time naming Pastor Paramjyothi Raju Facebook page as well as three YouTube channels, ‘Ahambramhasmi’ (@Ahambramhasmiol), ‘RJkiran’ (@rjkiran379), and ‘Mathonmadampai Ramabanam’ (@Mathonmadampairamabana).

“These three YouTube channels abuse me and provoke others saying, ‘If you are real Hindus go and report her channel’, ‘Expose this Urban Naxal’, they call me a communist and inundate me with comments like ‘we have to kill her’, ‘we have to put rods on her vagina’, ‘we have to give her to terrorists to kill her’.”

According to Chandu, these channels leave their video links in the comment section under her videos.

“My viewers automatically watch these videos and question me. Nameless, faceless accounts come to my Facebook and Instagram DMs and abuse me constantly.”

The abuse has been noted in the FIR that was filed on Monday and accessed by The Wire.

“These YouTube channels and Facebook pages have created various videos against the complainant, alleging that she is against Hinduism. It appears that they are attempting to defame or discredit the complainant by portraying her in a negative light and misrepresenting her views on Hinduism … further, all the accused were threatening the complainant with dire consequences,” the FIR says.

Also Read: Online Trolling of Indian Women Is Only an Extension of the Everyday Harassment They Face

Chandu said that the constant abuse has even reached her 12-year-old son, who now fears for his mother’s life.

“Because he observes everything. He keeps insisting ‘amma stop this, don’t do these political videos, we don’t want to lose you’.”

“He searches online and reads articles which say journalism is the most dangerous profession in India and gets very scared.”

When asked if she wants to give up journalism in the face of such attacks and immediate threat to her life and security, Chandu’s refusal was prompt.

“No. It is my passion and my livelihood. I am not doing social service. This is my job,” she said.