Have you been trolled? Challenging the defence of India’s 'bhakts'

While their attacks on people, who do not agree with them, have grown unprecedentedly brazen, 'bhakts' also enjoy a new-found attention of newspaper columnists, online commentators and prominent intellectuals.
Hindustan Times | By Abhishek Saha
UPDATED ON JUL 18, 2015 01:37 AM IST

Social media trolls with right wing Hindu leanings – characterised by their vehement attacks on anyone opposing the Narendra Modi-led government – have undoubtedly hogged the limelight this week.

While their attacks on people, who do not agree with them, have grown unprecedentedly brazen, 'bhakts' also enjoy a new-found attention of newspaper columnists, online commentators and prominent intellectuals.

But, of course, those who have read Ramachandra Guha's Patriots and Partisans will know that Hindu online activism has been there for a long time now. Guha wrote, "They (his articles on Hindutva) have brought me into contact with a certain kind of Indian who gets up before dawn, has a glass of cow's milk, prays to the sun god, and begins scanning cyberspace for that day's secular heresies." And then, there is Amitava Kumar's Husband of a Fanatic in which he writes about how the online Hindu brigade hounded him for marrying a Pakistani Muslim.

Earlier this week, 'bhakts' were criticised by bestselling author Chetan Bhagat, and then, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who questioned the authenticity of their voice which he said is mired by "loud denunciations and repeating concocted statistics".

In his opinion piece on 'bhakts', Bhagat had written that their knowledge of English was weak, they did not have many women friends and that they were ashamed of "being Hindu, Hindi speaking and/or Indian". As expected, Bhagat faced the wrath of these 'bhakts', some of who even dug out years-old misogynist tweets by him.

Sen, writing in The Indian Express to answer questions raised regarding his role as the Nalanda University chairperson, noted that considering the voice of "social media hounds" as the public opinion would be "an unearned victory" for them.

However, film director Vivek Agnihotri came to their rescue and argued they are actually 'smart' people who 'call a spade a spade'. The contrarian viewpoint to all the growing 'bhakt' criticism came from Agnihotri who wrote that 'trolls' are actually "educated and empowered youth, with access to modern technology and global awareness".

The director, known for his erotic thriller Hate Story, said, "Most of them have humour, sarcasm, style and passion for finding the truth. They are the real watchdogs." He advised social media users saying, "And they ('smart trolls') are here to stay. Learn to deal with them or quit Twitter."

The impact of Agnihotri's piece on Twitter was such that for a brief period of time on Thursday 'Smart Troll' became a top Twitter trend, with scores of users praising the director's article.

Unanswered questions

Agnihotri falls short of making a compelling argument because of certain omissions in his analysis. He tries to portray trolls as underdogs who have finally risen to avenge years of discrimination at the hands of the country's "elite".

Agnihotri wrote, "You call them Internet Hindus, they call you Adarsh Liberals. You call them Bhakts, they call you Libtards. You call them Sanghis, they call you AAPtards. This new, emerging, virtual India is not taking it lying down like their ancestors did."

What the director misses is that while calling opponents Adarsh Liberals or AAPtards (quite derogatory in itself, taking off from 'retard'), the trolls also heap slanderous abuses on them.

The social media abuse – in the vilest and the most sexist language possible – that activist Kavita Krishnan and actress Shruti Seth faced for opposing Modi's #selfiewithdaughter campaign, is a case in point.

Is sexist abuse the answer to political criticism? Can Agnihotri defend Twitter users who called Sethi "do kaudi ki nautanki" (two-cent drama queen) or wrote graphic descriptions of how Krishnan should be raped?

A screenshot of abusive tweets that Kavita Krishnan received. (DailyO)

Bhagat's advice to 'bhakts' with such misogynist mindsets is, "Make some female friends and ask their advice on how to talk to a girl. When confident, try to ask someone out and date her like a gentleman. Who knows, you may get lucky soon."

But then, misogyny does not go away when one gets into a relationship, does it? Married men do rape and beat their wives.

Seth in her open letter to the Prime Minister, regarding the social media abuse, wrote, "Men who were busy hash-tagging their selfies with their daughters one minute, called me slanderous names the next."

Another point which Agnihotri misses is anyone who has been in conversation with 'bhakts', will know that most of their conversation reeks of an irrational and illogical tone, often depending too much on abuses to make a point.

Amartya Sen

Unable to stomach Amartya Sen's recent criticism of the NDA government, 'bhakts' had started an all-out offensive against him, with some wanting him killed, and others demanding he be investigated for alleged mismanagement of Nalanda University funds.

Can Agnihotri defend trolls when they post things like, "As an Indian citizen, I feel like killing Amartya Sen by tearing him to pieces?" without considering the facts about Nalanda's management? Can he defend people who are piling on derogatory posts on activist Teesta Setalvad without knowing anything about the truth in her case?

Agnihotri argues that trolls check the falsehood that mainstream media praises saying, "They won't let you spin, distort and misquote." To prove his point he cites the recent misquoting of BJP president Amit Shah by a leading English daily and how 'smart trolls' popularised the original audio recording on social media.

But Agnihotri seems to have missed the mark. Posting the audio clip and saying that Shah was misquoted is not a troll's work at all. It is in fact, a highly rational thing to do. But, at the same time, if you are pushing the clip by using abusive language then you are nothing but an uncouth troll.

Having a counter-argument and writing about it is perfectly fine. But when that opposition comes in a language which is abusive, sexist, derogatory and slanderous, then it is a completely unacceptable. And I do not think Agnihotri, for all his love towards 'bhakts', will have an answer to it.

(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @saha_abhi1990)

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