Sushma Swaraj, India’s minister of external affairs, is being subjected to the most vile and distasteful attacks by Hindutva right-wing trolls since she pulled up an employee in her ministry for harassing an inter-faith couple. The minister stands condemned for ‘appeasing’ Muslims in unprintable terms.
The hounding has clearly disturbed Swaraj and her family. Swaraj Kaushal, her husband, told one of the trolls: “Your words have given us unbearable pain.” On June 30, the minister put up a Twitter poll asking her followers if they “approve of such tweets”.
Strikingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several of Swaraj’s ministerial colleagues, including Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani, have all been silent – cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari being the only two exceptions.
One can only conclude from BJP’s silence at this time, and on previous occasions when public figures have been attacked, that it finds the trolling and hate speech on social media politically useful. It is therefore worth exploring the deeper causes behind the silence of Modi and the BJP in the wake of this growing hate-speech agenda.
The foremost reason the BJP cannot denounce right-wing trolls is that by doing so, it will open itself up to charges of hypocrisy. After all, if senior BJP leaders actively fan anti-Muslim sentiment, then how can trolls be questioned? A BJP MLA in Gujarat said that Muslims should not be allowed to buy properties owned by Hindus. A BJP MLA from Alwar said that Hindus should not allow Muslims into their homes. Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde once said terrorism cannot be removed until Islam is uprooted. The Haryana government, as if to act on these, has denied Muslims permission to worship in open, public spaces.
Such rhetoric emboldens right-wing activists who know that the authorities will not prosecute them. Rhodenne Chand, an Indian-origin man, was jailed in the UK recently for stirring up hatred against Muslims online, but in India, such action is rare. Modi evidently sees no incentive in censuring trolls – and, in fact, famously follows many egregious ones on Twitter. A prime minister who himself vilifies past rulers as proxies for contemporary Muslims can scarcely object when his supporters resort to the same. Modi congratulated the Congress for its “Aurangzeb raj” during the Gujarat campaign and his party obliquely objected to Tipu Sultan Jayanti being celebrated ahead of the polls in Karnataka.
Evidently, abusive trolling and distasteful speech on social media – either as organised activity or as a social initiative – is useful for the BJP for short-term headline management and for its long-term ideological goal of remaking India. For a regime struggling to turn around the economy, abusing critics, Muslims and other marginal groups has a diversionary function and furthers the agenda of polarising society. To elaborate, much of India’s political chatter is controlled by the middle class; the rest are either too busy earning a living or at best access news and opinion via WhatsApp and television.
In such a scenario, social media and TV chatter have an exaggerated impact on opinion – and consequently, trolling becomes crucial for the creation of a charged mood. This over time suffuses the social media space with conservative, authoritarian perspectives and shifts the polity’s discourse to the Right over time.
This ideological effect as an objective is important because the BJP is trying to forge a unified Hindu vote out of a diverse country differentiated by region, religion, caste, tribe and language – and one that has been socialised into a secular, inclusive worldview over the decades. Creating a Hindu vote involves not only a relentless politics of polarisation and vilification of others, it also needs a new narrative of nation and a symbol system.
To frame it another way, the BJP needs to unsettle established historical narratives and assumptions about India that people have cultivated over time. In the traditional telling of history, India is a large, multiethnic society that was welded together by a constitution which crafted rules for everyone to get along. The nation was led by influential leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who sought to fashion institutions that were in line with India’s cultural diversity. Because religious violence was a threat to political order after the Partition, the Indian state invested a lot of effort in socialising messages of communal amity, inter-faith harmony, unity and diversity. The Congress party and much of the political ideological spectrum, barring the Hindu Right, have emphasised and sustained notions of shared living and eclectic religious practice.
The BJP, which lives with the anxiety of not directly shaping an independent nation unlike other conservatives like the Republicans in the US or the Tories in the UK, feels very shortchanged by this representation and wants to overturn this strand of nationalist narrative. It seeks to disrupt cooperative habits that are familiar to most citizens in its effort to forge an ethnocracy. The mile sur mera tumhara sentiment must go; being Indian must now be accompanied by the nagging synapse of being Hindu, consciously setting oneself apart from others. Both state power and social vigilantism serve to construct this majoritarian identity and reconfigure the public understanding of what India is.
Hence, constant attacks on Muslim rulers in the past and projecting them as oppressors of Hindus, the targeting of Nehru and his liberal worldview, the insistence of standing for the national anthem in theatres, the forced chanting of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’, the reworking of textbooks to undermine Congress leaders and valorise Veer Savarkar, the vilification of JNU and liberal intellectuals, the regular lynching of Muslims and the routinised hate speech directed at others, are shock and awe tactics designed to disrupt long persisting modes of social co-existence in India.
Ordinarily, political parties take their time with consent-building and effecting mass psychological change. Usually, it works after a new generation of school children are socialised to new reading material and revisionist imaginations. But the BJP has little time; polarisation is an everyday necessity in the buildup to the 2019 election – aggression needs to be constantly deployed for attention when the economy is not booming. The BJP also lacks intellectual (or artistic) firepower; it does not have an array of alternative thinkers, with the requisite academic credentials, to attract citizens to its new exclusionary majoritarianism. Hence, the desperation to enforce a different climate, a new framework of thought through violence, fear and state intrusion. Online trolling is one element in the panoply of hate – it is central to the creation of a febrile mood and the capture of attention, and serves as a bonding ritual for the party faithful.
Sushma Swaraj has thus found herself in the maelstrom of an industry her party has created and the republic of bile that it is fashioning. The normalisation of hate as seen in attacks on Swaraj shows what happens when political leaders fail to protect the civility and substance of political rhetoric.
The BJP has not disguised how it feels about Muslims, other minorities, political adversaries and critics, including journalists. This generates both organised trolling and spurs individuals to act out their aggression in unanticipated ways. A highly personalised populist regime that fans and indulges the bigotry of its supporters is setting off dangerous dynamics in society which cannot be summoned back at will. Suspending the rule of law for setting the mood music for elections is a cynical game that will cost India dearly.
Sushil Aaron is a journalist. He tweets @SushilAaron.