On June 30, which was Social Media Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted:
I would particularly like to congratulate my young friends for their innovative usage of social media. Their frank method of conveying opinions is extremely endearing. I urge youngsters to continue expressing and discussing freely. #SocialMediaDay— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 30, 2018
No surprises there, given that he rarely misses an occasion to wish people on such occasions. The next day, July 1, he wished chartered accountants because it was International CA Day.
Modi’s congratulated “youngsters” for their “frank method of conveying opinions” which he found “extremely endearing”. True enough, because some social media users can be very frank, but what was significant was what he did not say. As the nation’s elected leader, he could have, for instance, added, “But make sure you do not resort to obscenities and keep it civil.” Or even, “It is against Bharatiya sabhyata to threaten women.”
Hardcore trolls and serial abusers would not have reformed overnight if Modi had said this, but it would have sent out a strong message. The prime minister of a country does set the tone and his remarks are not to be taken lightly. Such a message would also have been very significant given the incessant trolling that his senior colleague Sushma Swaraj has been subjected to for her humanitarian gesture of helping an interfaith couple get their passports.
Swaraj has used Twitter to open her doors to Indians – even Pakistanis – who run into bureaucratic and other problems and has helped them solve their issues. This is good use of social media and it has earned her tremendous goodwill, even as she is mocked for having effectively ceded her role as external affairs minister to her globetrotting boss. Keeping her head down and not saying anything remotely controversial, Swaraj has managed to build her image on another front, using her ministry to provide help to the common citizen.
But her good deed to the Lucknow couple who were faced with an obstinate official – who made untoward remarks, according to them – has angered the hardcore Hindutva elements who infest Twitter in large numbers. That the official was transferred seems to have further infuriated these sanctimonious trolls.
The minister has been pilloried and called the worst kind of names, and if she complained to the police, some of her trollers could even be arrested. Though the trolling appears to be the work of freelance bigots, who delight at the prospect of spewing venom at a powerful person while remaining anonymous, it is also more than possible that Swaraj is facing an organised attack.
Coordinated trolling is, after all, quite common and has been mainly directed at ‘enemies’ such as liberals, secular-minded individuals, journalists and all those who dare criticise or question this establishment. The ‘establishment’ in this case does not mean the government, but the larger ideological entity that includes the Sangh parivar and the prime minister, the BJP chief and a few chosen others. The trolls owe their loyalty to the cause and the individuals that exemplify that cause.
But the sheer force with which Swaraj has been targeted is unprecedented. The main grouse of her critics was that by helping a Muslim man and his Hindu wife, she had dared to be ‘secular’, which is perhaps the worst insult any Hindutva type can hurl.
Giving Muslims any quarter, even for humanitarian purposes, is strictly verboten and for a BJP leader to do so puts her beyond the pale. Swaraj’s Twitter ratings have crashed – she is no longer a respected person for these people. Some of her trolls tried to voice their disapproval by stating that she had been unfair to the passport official, but that was a fig leaf to cover their own prejudices.
Not one of Swaraj’s colleagues has come out publicly in support, other than home minister Rajnath Singh, who has himself faced the wrath of ultra-Hindutva trolls for criticising someone on Twitter who advocated the extermination of Kashmiris. For the rest, forget standing up for a fellow party member and a senior minister at that, even a perfunctory comment about why women should not be attacked in this manner has not been forthcoming. President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted about her “exemplary leadership” and how there were higher expectations of Indians who lived abroad, but it was not immediately clear whether it any way referred to the trolling.
There are higher expectations from us as a country from our citizens living outside. I compliment EAM @SushmaSwaraj for her exemplary leadership. She has given a new confidence to our people abroad in the ability of our Govt to reach out to them when in need #PresidentKovind— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) June 30, 2018
On her part, Swaraj has responded gently rather than forcefully. At first, she said that she had been away and did not know what happened in her absence. “However, I am honoured with some tweets. I am sharing them with you. So I have liked them.”
I was out of India from 17th to 23rd June 2018. I do not know what happened in my absence. However, I am honoured with some tweets. I am sharing them with you. So I have liked them.— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) June 24, 2018
A few days later, she held a Twitter poll. “Friends : I have liked some tweets. This is happening for the last few days. Do you approve of such tweets ? Please RT”
Twitter polls are hardly scientific or representative, but even so, a full 43% of respondents approved of “such tweets”.
Early on Monday morning, she tweeted again, in Hindi and English, that while a difference of opinion was normal, people should use decent (sabhya) and not foul language. She continued to maintain her dignity and refused to engage with her tormentors. It is not known how many she blocked, though she is known to have blocked users in the past.
A weak punch
Fine words these, but her overall response is a cop out. While her grace under pressure is praiseworthy, it is also somewhat problematic. For one thing, it is going to make not one whit of a difference to her trolls or trolls in general. Civilised behaviour is the one thing they sorely lack and they may even pride themselves for not being weighed down by ‘liberal’ standards. Nor are they going to let go their deep anti-Muslim bias; At one level it is difficult to sympathise with her, and Swaraj – being part of the BJP and its ideology – should know she cannot remain untouched by the trolls nurtured by her own party, though admittedly she has not let it come in the way of her ministerial actions. She would have become a heroine to them had she refused to come down on the side of the hapless couple. But she didn’t. The dogs of war were then let loose.
After the attacks began, Sushma Swaraj would have no doubt seen for herself what women face online on a daily basis. While some women – activists and journalists for example – attract more obscenities and threats than others, misogyny is rampant on social media. Twitter has not been able to contain this menace and the Indian law moves slowly to take any punitive action. Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi recently revealed that she received threats against her young daughter and the Mumbai police is looking into the matter, but rarely are culprits brought to book.
This was a good opportunity for Swaraj to come out and express her solidarity with other women victims. She could have, for instance, said, “I now know what others go through and I think it is time that such hurtful messages are tackled.” She could have even explained why she took the decision to give the couple their passports. She could have hit back and suggested ways for other women to assertively respond to such trolling. She could also have criticised Twitter for not being alert enough and coming down heavily on threats.
But then any aggressiveness on her part would perhaps be seen as directed against those who are supporters of the present establishment, since it is well known that a vast majority of the troll army is ideologically on the side of the Hindutva team. In their eyes, she has committed a grave sin; presumably, her colleagues and peers think the same.
By responding politely she has chosen to swallow the insults. And then she moved on to other MEA matters. She won praise for her restraint, but she has missed a chance to stand up for herself and for others.
Her husband, governor Swaraj Kaushal, has responded on Twitter, by saying that the events of recent days have hurt the family. He published a tweet he received that asked him to “beat her up.” He has sentimentally written about the kind of person Sushma Swaraj is, though it is doubtful whether his anecdote would have moved her detractors. But even he has taken care not to comment on the ecosystem that has created and encouraged such vile and vicious people. He knows how far he can go.
The attacks on Sushma Swaraj have crossed a line. Not because ministers or well known people have not been attacked on Twitter before, but because the Hindutva trolls have shown that they will not hesitate to go after someone who for all practical purposes is one of their own. Their beliefs are inviolate and they draw sustenance from the fact that their heroes not just share those beliefs but approve their behaviour.
Swaraj is a mere pawn to be sacrificed in the larger game. She, no doubt, is aware of this – but having remained silent while the wolf pack was being raised and unleashed on others, she is now finding it difficult to fight back when they have turned on her.
Published in arrangement with The Wire