Shakespeare's version of hate was that it was born in fear. But in an age of hyper-communication when 140 characters and a Twitter account is all it takes for us to be writers - hate suddenly has many parents and incarnations. One would have imagined that increased communication opportunities would have led to a greater civility in public discourse. After all, the internet and social media have
democratised debate and eliminated the arrogance of a hierarchical talking-down style. Yet, lurking online - usually behind anonymity or names that suggest an evangelical religiosity - are many propagators of hate and violence.
The abhorrent assault on Prashant Bhushan - lawyer and key member of Anna Hazare's team - made me wonder: have Indians become much more intolerant than before? If we have, does the new media make it easier for misdirected aggression and venom to travel even faster than it used to?
Don't get me wrong. As a regular, on-the-go user of social media, I enjoy the immediacy and informality of Twitter and similar forums. I find it fascinating to get a volley of comments - good, bad and ugly - the moment I post a thought online. The instant exposure to a multitude of ideas and the quick access to global information, no matter where one is in the world, is a delightful experience. There is also an intellectual freshness to the many cerebral minds one meets online - different from the run-of-the-mill, over-exposed commentators of the TV world. And I have been encouraging all my technology-phobic, Luddite friends to embrace the brave new world of social networking.
Yet the Bhushan incident makes me wonder if we take the curious phenomenon of internet 'trolls' too lightly. Most of us - at one point or another - have been stalked by abusive, anonymous online folks who seem to have a fixated need to talk to you, even while they declare they hate you. Disguised as ideologues or crusaders for a cause - these are people who rant, spew venom, call you names, speculate on your personal life and on more than one occasion threaten you with physical violence. In the offline world, these are boors and hooligans whom one would report to the police. In the virtual world, our instinct is at first to laugh it off, then eventually to reach for the block button and consider them beneath contempt. But perhaps one needs to examine the anatomy of their hatred more closely to understand what's happening in our changing society.
It's a dialogue that other countries have already begun internally. The recent attacks in Norway, for example, have made the Scandinavian authorities re-examine the far right dogma that is flourishing online in chatrooms and blogs. Interestingly, a prescient warning came from celebrated crime writer Stieg Larsson who wrote many years ago that "governments have a tendency to dismiss extreme-right terrorists as crazed loners."
What lessons can we learn from our own experience? Is it that as our country travels through a phase of restless flux - the sense of being betrayed by the political leadership - all kinds of subterranean faultlines are being exposed? My instinct is that disillusionments notwithstanding, the majority of Indians are uncomfortable with extremes of any kind - opinion, ideology, politics or religion. Yet, our public discourse has been slotted into black and white boxes in a manner that can only be called anti-intellectual. Sadly, nuance appears to have died along with the fountain pen and hand-written letters. The instant coffee aspect of TV consumption and the compression of complex thoughts into pithy, clever Twitter sentences may have killed our capacity for accommodating seemingly contradictory formulations. We are asked - like never before - to take sides in some George Bush reminiscent for-or-against manner. And if we can see shades of truth on either side of an ideological divide, the internet storm-troopers will brand us cowardly fence-sitters, or worse still traitors and anti-nationals.
Take the recent, game-changing example of the Anna Hazare movement. Its support was powered - at least partially - by the online engine. Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, text messages - all added up to create an overwhelming endorsement for the anti-corruption crusade. Anna's Team clearly struck a chord and tapped into a deep public anger. So, it was not surprising at all when its members were heralded as new-age heroes. Yet, the moment, any member of the team deviated from a certain kind of online consensus, they were heaped with abuses and vitriol. Whether it was Kiran Bedi's criticism of the arbitrary arrest of IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt or Prashant Bhushan's comments on Kashmir and Maoist violence - suddenly the same individuals who had been feted were now being roundly condemned. When I argued on Twitter that serious disagreement with his comments could not in any way justify the sickening assault on Prashant Bhushan, I was immediately targeted by some of these 'trolls' for supporting 'traitors'.
These sort of sweeping generalisations and exercises in character assassination are often conducted by people who are completely unmindful of their own contradictions and fickleness. Later, Kiran Bedi used Twitter to clarify that Team Anna's uniting cause was the Jan Lokpal Bill. All other issues, she added, were "personal" to the individual raising them.
But, as a liberal, progressive, pluralistic country, there's a deep question that hangs over our heads. Are we going to be the sort of people who handle disagreement and differing viewpoints with venom and violence? If the majority among us is tolerant and moderate - as I know we are - are we going to let a handful of brutish loudmouths hijack our public forums? It's time to stop - what Amartya Sen described as the Argumentative Indian - from becoming the Intolerant Indian and reclaim our country for what we know it to be.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.