Media

Tables Turn on Twitter's Hindutva Warriors, and It's the BJP Doing the Strong-Arming

BJP leaders have sought to delete content at saffron handles that is critical of the party, even as right-leaning websites that usually decry online censorship look the other way.

New Delhi: Much has been said about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s well-oiled social media machine, but that machine now seems to have turned on some of its biggest cheerleaders.

BJP leaders and their staff have dialled up the heat up on the party’s own social media followers – accounts which have used everything in their arsenal from memes to analysis to scathing political commentary to attacking anyone who doesn’t agree with Hindutva politics – for not fully toeing the official line.

Several right-leaning websites have also decided to turn a deaf ear to appeals for coverage – likely out of the fear of offending the ruling BJP – even though attempts to curb content online are completely antithetical to democratic practice.

Turning the tables

Startled by how a single tweet against a BJP MP from Mumbai put him at the receiving end of two threatening phone calls from the MP’s office and another call from a policeman, @RealHistoriPix, a parody account based on the older and bigger @RealHistoryPic, reached out to The Wire after he drew a blank with the right-wing media ecosystem. The account at present has more than 23,000 followers, all amassed since April 2018.

In the offending tweet from October 24, @RealHistoriPix called out a BJP MP for not visiting the family of 42-year-old Pancharam Rithadia – who killed himself by jumping in front of a train over police inaction in finding his daughter who had gone missing in April 2019. During the funeral last week on October 25, hundreds took to the streets to protest against the police, and some violence also broke out.

@RealHistoriPix, who treasures his anonymity and requested The Wire to not identify him, said he has no idea how the BJP MP’s office even managed to get his phone number as it is not listed with his account. “This is a very big question as I remain completely anonymous,” he said.

Also read: Ministers Follow Hate Accounts That Made Call to Boycott Muslims a Top Twitter Trend

“When I got the first call, the MP spoke to me in a threatening tone, saying that legal action would be taken against me if I didn’t delete my tweet immediately and that I would be taken to the police. After that, someone else from the MP’s office called me to issue similar threats. I recorded that call and uploaded it on Twitter after cropping some bits,” he said.

The edited clip is included in the tweet below and The Wire has the full three-minute recording in its possession. For fear of unwarranted legal action from the MP’s office, @RealHistoriPix asked The Wire to not name the MP.

Main police station mein karoon seedha tujhe do minute mein?” the man on the phone from the MP’s office can be heard saying in the second call. @RealHistoriPix also shared screenshots with The Wire to show the caller ID to prove the MP’s office had called him.

“I said that this is a democracy and he couldn’t threaten me like that,” @RealHistoriPix said. “If there was some misunderstanding, I would have definitely deleted it. If the MP would have written to me about having helped the family, then maybe I would have tweeted that as well. I respect the MP and it was least expected that I would get threats from the MP’s office staff.”

According to him, the third phone call, from an inspector with the Mumbai police, was more formal, more “fair”, as he was even asked if he wanted to file a complaint against the BJP MP’s office.

“My grievance with the whole issue is this: if they had politely requested me to delete the tweet without threatening me, I would have done it. But it’s not fair to threaten common citizens. More so, other right-wing accounts have also faced similar calls to delete tweets,” said @RealHistoriPix.

“If you take a look at my Twitter page, I have criticised the Congress as well as other parties. But I’ve never received any calls regarding those tweets. I used to earlier praise the BJP in my tweets. Now that I have critiqued them, I have started getting such calls,” he told The Wire

On October 29, on the day a complaint was filed against BJP Delhi leader Kapil Mishra for comparing Muslim children to pollution in a tweet, @ExSecular, another account with 75,000 followers, posted a screenshot of a tweet that she had previously deleted that called BJP’s Delhi unit the worst. She confirmed to The Wire that “someone” had asked her to delete the tweet.

The Wire spoke to another Twitter user who did not wish to be named in any way at all. He runs a very popular account with followers in the hundreds of thousands, and was recently asked to delete a satirical and more than reasonably inoffensive tweet about a Union minister.

“The difference between @RealHistoriPix’s case and my case is that I was not threatened at all. Most of my tweets are pro right-wing, until very recently when I realised not everything is right with the right and not everything is wrong with the left,” the Twitter user told The Wire.

“A friend told me that someone from the government had objected to the tweet and were requesting that I take it down. I took it down wilfully, with my consent, and it would not be ethical if my handle comes out in the open and says I was threatened,” he said.

Both @RealHistoriPix and the second user The Wire spoke to have said they are not part of the BJP IT cell – despite knowing many who are in it.

In another case, The Fauxy, a right-wing satire site (a revamped version of HMP News, for whom @RealHistoriPix has written several stories and interviews) also published an apology on October 17 to Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad over an article “in poor taste” on him that had been published on the website and subsequently shared on their Twitter account. The Fauxy describes itself as ‘India’s Finest, Fastest and Fictitious News Source’.

The Wire tried to reach out to the head of The Fauxy, run by @Being_Humor, who has a fairly hefty following on Twitter himself, to speak about the events that led up to the apology, but got no response.

The deleted story employed scatological humour to mock Prasad for using Bollywood box office earnings as a proxy for the ‘good performance’ of the Indian economy:

Screenshot of a tweet of the now deleted story on The Fauxy.

 

This episode was also not reported by the right-wing media, which has been fairly quick to report on similar issues when it stems from any person or organisation that has criticised the BJP.

Two weeks ago, @RealHistoriPix had come out in support of The Fauxy on Twitter.

“They (The Fauxy) also make satire out of the Congress or Arvind Kejriwal, but they’ve never had to apologise for that,” said @RealHistoriPix. “They were also surprised about Swarajya, OpIndia‘s silence on the fact that Ravi Shankar Prasad made them apologise.”

The fare on site when it comes to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.

When jokes run foul

In another recent instance, BJP MP Gautam Gambhir allegedly filed an FIR for a tweet from 2014 against Ankit Jain, who runs the @indiantweeter account, and is a known member of the BJP IT cell. The account has played quite a role in helping build the great BJP myth on Twitter for the past few years, since just before 2014.

The tweet from 2014.

The tweet appears to have been brought back into the spotlight this month when a user replied, and Jain, who is a contributor to OpIndia, made another remark about the former cricketer.

The tweets from October 2019.

On Twitter, more users condemned Gambhir’s alleged action over mere ‘jokes’.

The above tweet about the FIR was also retweeted by Rahul Roushan, the CEO of OpIndia – Roushan and Jain are known to be friends, and more than generally back each other up as part of the vanguard that makes up what is known as ‘elite right-wing Twitter’.

Rahul Roushan’s retweet.

Jain allegedly admitted to being harassed by Gambhir on Twitter, only to delete the tweet later. The Wire tried to reach Jain for a comment but this reporter was swiftly blocked within two seconds of following his account. Thus, The Wire has been unable to confirm from the primary source whether the FIR other users have been tweeting about has in fact been filed. We have also reached out to Gautam Gambhir’s office for a comment and will update this story when he replies.

If an FIR had been filed against Jain by Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi, then Swarajya and OpIndia would have made a mountain out of a molehill and harped on about freedom of speech and this and that. They have kept silent on this now,” @RealHistoriPix said. 

There were also rumours floating around on Twitter in the early part of October that Gambhir allegedly had Jain roughed up.

In fact, even Jain himself appears to have alluded to such an incident taking place with a reference to “gundagardi” while sharing a story on Gambhir published in The Print on October 5. In the reply section, former spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha Amrita Bhinder – who has more than 100,000 followers and is followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – expresses her sympathies over his alleged “ordeal”.

Jain’s tweet on Gambhir with Amrita Bhinder’s reply.

Jain had also tweeted at Gambhir in May 2019 when the cricketer, still new to the ways of the BJP and just a few days into being a freshly-minted MP, had slammed the harassment faced by a Muslim man in Gurgaon who was asked to remove his skullcap, and said that “we are a secular nation“.

“Either speak on every incident or stay quiet,” Jain had told Gambhir in a tweet.

You can watch an interview with Ankit Jain here to get an idea of his politics and his undying support for the BJP, with a full bout of liberal bashing included:

Turning a blind eye

When @RealHistoriPix reached out to right-leaning websites (the contents of which The Wire covers in a weekly column) – including senior reporters and columnists at Swarajya magazine and OpIndia, Swati Goel Sharma and CEO Rahul Roushan respectively – to tell his story, he was stonewalled.

“I appealed to them both publicly and privately. I told them I would hand over any and all the proof required. But they didn’t reply,” said @RealHistoriPix. “The members of our core Hindu community hate The Wire… they call it anti-Hindu. We approached right-wingers first, but they didn’t even take us into consideration.”

In fact, Swarajya‘s Swati Goel Sharma, who was tagged as the author of an article on The Fauxy less than two months ago (see tweet below), had no comment to make on social media or on the publication itself on the satire website’s apology to Ravi Shankar Prasad despite having been a valiant ambassador of free speech on previous occassions.

After the publication of this article, @Being_Humour claimed Goel Sharma never wrote for The Fauxy.

The Wire reached out to Goel Sharma for a comment on Swarajya’s silence. She said she had “blocked and muted” @RealHistoriPix’s account “long back” and said that’s why she “doesn’t know what he is tweeting to me or otherwise”.

“It’s amusing that you question me about a nameless, faceless account tagging me in tweets,” she wrote in an email.

Previously, in October 2017, Goel Sharma has taken up the cause of a ‘nameless, faceless account’ – @squintneon – in this piece for ScoopWhoop which attacks former DU student-turned-writer Gurmehar Kaur and calls her a false champion of freedom of speech, something @RealHisoriPix himself had proudly tweeted about:

“I’m not ‘nameless, faceless’ for her. In good times, she treated me like a sibling, we often helped each other and even spoke on the phone,” said @RealHistoriPix. “She blocked me first in January 2019, I had no idea why only to unblock me in February. We spoke a few times and then I was blocked again in May.”

“If I had done anything bad, she’s free to complain about me publicly. And since she believes in Hindu values, is it fair to be completely apathetic to a person whom she used to call her brother while he’s caught in a crisis?,” he asks.

As a matter of fact, Goel Sharma was tagged in several tweets about @RealHistoriPix’s ordeal, so it is far from unlikely she was unaware of the appeal being made to her for coverage.

“Even if she has a grievance against me, I expected her to help me when I received threats from powerful people over a tweet,” he told The Wire.

@RealHistoriPix has also previously tagged Goel Sharma in a short list of the “most fearless handles on Twitter”.

As to the question of being silent on an issue of free speech and the alleged story about Jain, Swati Goel Sharma dodged the questions and weaved in an attack on The Wire:

“What’s Ankit Jain-Gautam Gambhir story? I am not aware of it. I certainly didn’t read it anywhere. We happen to be tracking a freedom of speech case that is far more important and serious in nature. The Kamlesh Tiwari murder. Your portal hasn’t written much on it but the man had his throat slit for making a social media comment on Prophet Mohammad. And yes, your portal has also incorrectly said that he was convicted for his remarks. Maybe make that correction or provide evidence?”

But according to @RealHistoriPix, this is just “whataboutery by her”.

“Swati, who claims to be covering the Kamlesh Tiwari issue in detail, didn’t ask the Adityanath government a single question about the security lapse or the manhandling of his family by UP police. During the whole episode, OpIndia/Swarajya‘s only priority was to save the face of the UP chief minister and provide good PR. There is no genuine intention to give a voice to Kamlesh Tiwari’s family,” he says.

Disappointed by the way the probe is being conducted by the UP police, the family has demanded that the National Investigation Agency take over the inquiry. Tiwari’s family has also alleged that they had made repeated requests to the UP government to provide adequate security cover because of the the threats they were receiving.

Swarajya did publish an IANS article two days ago on the slain leader’s widow, Kusum Tiwari, expressing disappointment at the way the probe is being conducted.

In recent times, several right-wing accounts have also taken to raising questions about the selective reporting on display from media websites that have thrown their full weight behind championing the saffron party, no questions asked.

Among them is @RealHistoriPix, who told The Wire: “Even in the recent case in Mumbai, where the girl went missing and her father committed suicide over police apathy – they should have asked the police about why the father was forced to take such a step. OpIndia has not likely taken up the cause because there is ‘no jihadi angle’ – as pointed out by two of its contributors. The Wire gets accused of selective outrage by Swarajya and OpIndia, but they themselves will only publish stories where Hindus are victims and Muslims are the accused.”

“In the recent rape case of a minor in Jharkhand too, even though the rapists and killers were Hindu and a Muslim man helped bring the girl’s body back home, the headline was twisted when it was published. I just try to point out their hypocrisy when I can,” @RealHistoriPix said.

A screenshot of the OpIndia headline on the Jharkhand story which only names a Muslim man among those arrested even though the perpetrators of the crime were Hindu.

“I always asked my questions to OpIndia, Swarajya journalists using polite and civilised language. My understanding is that they block me because they have no answer to my questions and they don’t like how I expose their agenda,” he said.

The fact that @RealHistoriPix and the others have been left out in the cold has not gone unnoticed by other right-wing Twitter accounts:

When The Wire reached out to OpIndia editor Nupur J. Sharma – as this writer had already been blocked by Roushan for reasons unknown – for a comment on the accusation of selective outrage, the alleged FIR filed by Gambhir (Jain is a contributor at OpIndia) and the prevailing silence, she refused to answer the questions and instead said:

“@RealHistoriPix has accused The Wire and such websites of being jihadi propaganda websites. The person running the handle is emotional, but he makes fair points on occasion. Since you’re taking him seriously, we too should. I think he might be right that you guys are jihadi propagandists and this DM could be an attempt to extract personal information and then gets physical attacks launched on us. Hence I’m sorry, respecting @RealHistoriPix’s sentiments, I will not be entertaining any questions from The Wire.”

According to @RealHistoriPix, this is straight-up Sharma “dodging a question on the alleged harassment of OpIndia contributor Ankit Jain by a BJP MP”.

“Union minister Prakash Javdekar had given an interview to The Wire. Is the OpIndia editor implying that BJP ministers are hand-in-glove with jihadis?”, he asked.

In his conversation with The Wire, @RealHistoriPix spoke about how he has shared the content of the two websites and given them “full support”.

“But after BJP won in May 2019, two things happened: these guys got arrogant – they started acting like BJP had won because of them,” he said. “OpIndia editor Nupur Sharma has gone as far to use abusive language against even right-wing supporters for the slight disagreement.”

Many in the right-wing social media ecosystem have condemned Nupur Sharma for her “abuse”, including the former founder of OpIndia Rahul Raj (@bhak_sala), who, upon leaving the organisation, called the media site a “blind mouthpiece of BJP”.

He criticised OpIndia again recently after the Haryana election results for “giving a clean chit to Gopal Kanda”:

Another voice which is very highly regarded in the right-wing media ecosystem is TrueIndology. While trying to pacify both sides after a spat involving @RealHistoriPix and Nupur Sharma – which ended with the former’s account being locked – he had rebuked the OpIndia editor and suggesting that she ought to “keep her vulgar tongue in check” and not get people’s accounts frozen.

A screenshot of TrueIndology’s Facebook post. Kali and Durga are how Swati Goel Sharma and Nupur Sharma are referred to online by some of their most ardent fans.

Sharma’s own Twitter bio reads:

A screenshot OpIndia editor Nupur J. Sharma’s Twitter page.

In another example of how he says he “exposes their hypocrisy”, @RealHistoriPix pointed to a tweet from late September published by his handle:

“Among those included in the tweet are beef eaters who then go on to write an article in OpIndia about how beef is bad. So now I tweet openly about how they are simply part of the BJP IT cell and in reality have nothing for Hindus… their only ideology is self-interest,” @RealHistoriPix said. “And it’s not just me, there are many others on Twitter who think they are hypocritical and opportunistic, so they support me indirectly.”

Also read: General Narendra Modi and His Troll Army

“Ankit Jain may be part of their friend circle, but they can’t outrightly support him because Gambhir is a BJP MP and BJP gives them funding,”@RealHistoriPix added. “If I make a point against the BJP – that it had not followed through on a promise made in its manifesto – I get accused of breaking right-wing unity. I’m not a BJP spokesperson or volunteer; I’m a Hindu who feels one must be vocal about things that are anti-Hindu.”

In an interview earlier this year to HMP News, Roushan had answered a question on whether Swarajya and OpIndia essentially follow the same brief:

“We are two independent organisations but share many common beliefs and ideals. There are no pre-planned roles for either of the organisations and we don’t strategise jointly… As individuals of course, different people have different priorities. Say for me, as an individual, I try my best to make sure I contribute to the ideological battle.”

It should be noted that in October 2016, Kovai Media, which runs Swarajya, had acquired OpIndia, as Sharma said herself in an interview where she talks of combatting fake news. The latter then became an independent entity two years later. Sharma took over as chief editor in October 2017.

OpIndia itself was founded by Rahul Raj (@bhak_sala) and Kumar Kunal Kamal in 2014. According to this report, the “highest-profile investor in Kovai Media is former Infosys director Mohandas Pai”.

“They (Swarajya and OpIndia) try to portray themselves as the flagbearers of Hindus in India. But they are just a BJP mouthpiece, who keep their silence or indulge in cover ups when the party needs it,” said @RealHistoriPix.

This article was updated on November 1 to include @Being_Humour’s tweet claiming Swarajya‘s Swati Goel Sharma never wrote for The Fauxy.