How BJP’s IT Cell Turned into Frankenstein’s Monster
In 2015, a year after Modi was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate for the BJP, Prodyut Bora, the original founder of the party’s controversial ‘IT Cell’ quit the party and launched his own organization in his home state of Assam.
In a recent interview Bora compared his creation to ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, saying it had mutated beyond recognition and blamed PM Modi’s team for starting the rot.
Bora’s worst fears have been realized. When Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj recently transferred a passport officer for his bigoted behavior, hordes of deranged Hindu extremists attacked her on twitter with the most heinous abuse. Some mocked her kidney ailment, saying her time had come, others threatened to maim and dismember her for ‘appeasing muslims’, and one gent, a professed ‘Modi lover’, tweeted to her husband, asking him to beat her up to teach her a lesson.
These toxic trolls, many of them on the BJP’s payroll, have one major grouse: how dare one of their own behave like the ‘sickulars’ they despise so much. They share the characteristics of the ‘Golem’, a term originating from Jewish folklore, used today as a metaphor for a brainless lunk or entity who serves his master under controlled conditions but is hostile to him under others.
Online rape and death threats are par for the course in India and social media companies and law enforcement authorities are slow to act, that is if they act at all. Twitter, Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp must be held responsible for aiding and abetting the rapid dissemination of hate speech and fake news that invariably leads to actual hate crimes directed at vulnerable minorities, particularly Muslims and Dalits.
These social media psychopaths have a roaring love affair with PM Modi, showering him with praise even as they go about their sordid business. He reciprocates by inviting them to his official residence and following them on twitter. Not only does he abstain from condemning his unhinged base, he encourages them to keep up the good work. A few days after online lynch mobs set upon Swaraj, the man with the 56 inch chest had this to say:
“Greetings on #SocialMediaDay!” he tweeted. “The world of social media has played a key role in democratising our discourse and giving a platform to millions of people around the world to express their views and showcase their creativity.” He then directly addressed the burning issue of the day: “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.”
It is becoming clearer than ever that cultivating armies of profoundly misogynistic and Islamophobic trolls is central to the Sangh Parivar’s ruling strategy. It is how they intend to govern – by creating an atmosphere of fear and engendering a culture of sycophancy with media flunkies at their beck and call.
Journalists who refuse to toe the line, like Gauri Lankesh, are murdered in cold blood by terrorist organizations like the Sanathan Sanstha, who claim to be ‘protecting Hinduism’ and consider such acts part of their ‘Dharma’. Pramod Muthalik, the head of Ram Sene, another Hindu militant organization, compared the murder of Lankesh to the death of dog, remarking that it was not worth the PM’s time to worry about it. His sentiments were echoed by scores of bigots including a prominent television anchor, Jagrati Shukla, who was recently rewarded for her actions with a plum job at Lok Sabha TV, a state owned channel. And when eight year old Bakerwal girl Asifa from Jammu was gang raped by a police officer and a Hindu priest in the temple premises, the world got to witness the unholy spectacle of BJP ministers and mobs of lawyers join a procession organized by the ‘Hindu Ekta Manch’ in support of the rapists.
In the age of social media, where twitter trends are conflated with national sentiment, the BJP is more invested than ever in ensuring it’s thuggish lackeys breed and multiply with unstinting moral and material support from the center. Just recently the party stated its intention to hire up to 2 lakh ‘cyber-yoddhas’ in the run-up to the general elections in 2019 to influence the discourse by ‘boosting India’s national image’ and presumably to keep an eye on critics of the government.
It goes without saying that in Modi’s India, being critical of the government is equated with being ‘anti-Hindu’ or ‘anti-national’.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting recently floated a tender for a company that would help it “monitor Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and even email in order to analyse sentiment, identify “fake news,” disseminate information on behalf of the government and inject news and social media posts with a “positive slant for India.”
Nikita Sud, an associate professor of International development at Oxford University calls the initiative a “mass surveillance tool” adding “Nationalism seems to be equated with agreement with the government of the day, or even with the party in power. There are grave implications here for India’s democracy, and for the fundamental rights to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Indian constitution.”
If you thought things were ugly, they are about to get a lot uglier. There is perhaps no democratic government as strongly associated in the public eye with internet trolls as the BJP. The number of articles in the Indian and international media discussing the phenomenon of online Hindu fanatics is legion. For all their talk of Vikas, Make in India and Swachh Bharat, the Modi Sarkar will be remembered largely as a government of the trolls, by the trolls and for the trolls.
Not only are party officials unapologetic about their unhinged base, they are in the process of consolidating it as a brand identity. The authors of the tender would like potential applicants to weigh in on how “could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralized, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India.” If one of their most respected ministers could be marked as an ‘adversary’ of India and set upon by troglodytes who consider her a traitor for ‘appeasing muslims’ then what hope is there for others?
What we do know about Modi is that he would like to be remembered as a man of substance, as a leader who ‘gets things done’. His most cherished desire is to go down in history as the politician who ushered in a new era and transformed India after decades of corruption and nepotism. This wish is likely to go unfulfilled if he does not distance himself from the army of rabid beasts he has groomed and recruited to help him carry out his mission. Sadly, it may already be too late for that.
("Vikram Zutshi is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. He divides his time between the United States, Asia and Latin America.')