Each time I tweet, I get an instantaneous response from a select few. They are on my timeline without fail and they are always abusive. There is no pretence of building a counter-narrative. They crawl out like termites and I sometimes wonder if they’ve been assigned different targets.
Social media is full of keyboard warriors and most of them are, of course, nameless and faceless. I’ve often wondered what motivates them. How does downright filthy language come so easily to them? Are they paid for their vitriol? Are they just paper tigers that shoot and scoot into their anonymous worlds or do their tweets represent their worldview?
It takes me over a week to fix a meeting with a troll. I am forced to follow those who abuse me so I can send them direct messages but they don’t reply, endorsing my view that they’re faceless bullies. In the end, a contact helps me set up a meeting. The contact was associated with the BJP for the 2014 general election but claims he has fallen out with the party. The troll too appears to be a BJP follower from his tweets. He always addresses Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Subramanian Swamy as Sir. Rahul Gandhi is the son of an ‘Italian bar waitress’, Jawaharlal Nehru was a ‘syphilis patient’ and Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor are ‘colonial slaves’ and ‘asslickers’
Since the troll is cloaked in anonymity and wrapped in a dark world he prefers to shroud himself in, let’s call him Shiv.
A few hours before our meeting, questions swirl through my mind.
What will Shiv be like in person? Will be as bigoted as his tweets? As nasty? As unreasonable? As unrelenting? As unidimensional?
A perusal of his tweets over the last few years made it crystal clear that he saw himself as a staunch Hindu. He believes ‘’Muslims are no one’s friends except jihadis.’’ He is clearly allergic to anything secular, including the founders of the nation. Women are fair meat. He claims to be deeply religious but doesn’t bat an eyelid before offering to feed a Muslim journalist a pork burger. He recently even warned Shehla Rashid, the high-profile student from JNU, against blowing herself off because “there isn’t provision of 72 males.’’
Will Shiv endorse his views or will eye contact make a difference?
I walk purposefully towards the courtyard where he is seated on a hot, sunny day. He gives me the once-over and waits for me to start the conversation.
Shiv has called me anti-national and sees me as a ‘libtard’. He thinks I support Kashmir’s stone-pelters and have made excuses for Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar’s jihad by quoting from his own interrogation report on how he turned his attention to India after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Trolls – including the one on front of me -- are swift with delivering judgements. They are only comfortable when they can slot you, so I deserve to go to Pakistan because I am an ‘ISI agent.’
Shiv is a 32-year-old engineer from Gujarat and is currently without a job. He has close to 17,000 followers on Twitter and of the 1600-odd people that Prime Minister Narendra Modi follows, Shiv is one of them.
I and my troll are face to face at a hotel in Pune.
Why can’t you tweet without being virulent?
Dressed in a shirt and trouser, he looks like the guy next door. He is not shifty. His body language is aggressive and he looks me straight in the eye.
The answer is pat.
“Every action has a reaction. If you speak against my faith, I won’t spare you. If you poke, I will poke. If you say Bharat tere tukde honge, toh tumhare bhi tukde karenge.’’
You abuse online. Will you do the same in person?
“If I’m assaulted physically, I will also respond, physically.”
Why do you have so much anger in you? Why do you hate Muslims so much? Haven’t you had Muslims in your classroom, as neighbours? Isn’t anyone from the community a friend?
“Kashmiri Pandits have been driven out of their homes. Our temples have been razed. Fifty nine kar sewaks were burnt alive. They cut cows. They are not our brothers and they can’t be our friends.”
Isn’t that illogical? At least a 1,000 Muslims were killed in the post-Godhra riots. They were innocents. You come from the land of Mahatma Gandhi.
“Gandhi late mara, pehle marna chaheye tha (Gandhi died late, he should have died earlier). India would not have been broken into two.”
It is difficult not to wince. The Shiv sitting in front of me is a mirror image of his online avatar. I’m reminded of a tweet he’d sent to Shabana Azmi saying, “she might have produced four kids if Javed Akhtar had taken her to honeymoon instead of Aryan-Dravidian goats.”
Who are your political role models?
“Savarkar and Bal Thackeray.”
Thackeray was held guilty for his role in the Mumbai riots by a judicial commission.
“Every action has a reaction.”
Are you a ‘Modi bhakt’?
“Only Gods have bhakts.”
Do you associate yourself with the BJP’s political ideology?
“I will pick Shiv Sena over BJP. I prefer Yogi Adityanath to Narendra Modi. Why does your blood pressure shoot up when you see saffron?”
It is time to remind him that Adityanath has made incendiary speeches and has been booked for attempt to murder and an attack at a place of worship.
His reply is no different from those expressed online. His body language continues to remain aggressive.
“He has barely taken oath and you are judging him. Let him work before you brand him.”
Do you ever relax? Listen to music or watch movies?
“I meditate and listen to Kishore Kumar songs. I can sing too.”
Who is your favourite actor?
“Only Akshay Kumar is pro-India. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan don’t feel safe in India. They live in India, earn in India but don’t feel safe in India. I’ll troll Aamir Khan till I’m alive.” He did recently, asking him why he wasn’t speaking up against illegal slaughter houses. “Mouth full of swine poo or camel piss,’’ he had asked
“He insulted Shivji in the movie PK.”
It was cleared by the censor board. Why do you want to be the judge and jury on everything?
“The censor board is run by humans. They make mistakes.”
Since I know Shiv is single, I ask him if he has a girl friend.
“I did but we parted ways mutually because I’m not earning enough.” He has just got a license to export spices to the Middle East but still has to start work.
Have you ever felt that you hurt people you troll by being abusive? You are trolling people who don’t even know you. For you Aamir and Shah Rukh are not actors but Muslims. Why?
““If you hurt me, I’ll hurt you.”
He is proud of being blocked and reveals some names: Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Rana Ayyub.
Why does Modi follow you? Are you associated with the BJP?
“May be he likes my ideology.”
The troll’s ‘ideology’ is reinforced when he says, “The last train to Pakistan is still to leave.”
Harinder Baweja is Editor, Special Projects at Hindustan Times.
This piece is part of HT’s new campaign, Let’s Talk About Trolls, which focuses sharp attention on online abuse and bullying.
Join HT’s campaign to mark April 26 as #AntiTrollingDay. Share your views with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or @htTweets with #LetsTalkAboutTrolls and we will feature your response.