I do not wish to wait to write an obituary for John Dayal, my father, an Indian citizen, journalist and minority rights activist. I have seen his activism grow each day, and his savings getting depleted because he is too voluble, too opinionated, and too unafraid to be employed as the full-time journalist that he once was. That was his choice to make. He lives by the choice, and makes a living with the spare writing or speaking assignment that comes his way.

However, what should not be a choice is his right to live fearlessly in his own country. His activism does not give permission, to those who do not agree, to unleash threats and abuse online.

Late on Saturday night, I checked Twitter one final time as I was leaving the office and saw #ShameOnJohnDayal as a top trend. Twitter abuse for him, and sometimes for me as a package deal, is not new. But this level of venom was. It trended for hours, each tweet and retweet a new dose of venom and hate.

A few minutes into it, and it was obvious to see that a conversation about allegations that the principal of a school in Mumbai had been arrested for molesting one of the students had turned into an open attack in reaction to these tweets below. My father pointed out that the owners of the school were known to be associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party.



Disagreements turned into abuse and slander, and of course, incitement for the man to be done away with.


Just threatened online? Why is that a problem for a known journalist-activist? Unfortunately, those who threaten and abuse on social media have now begun to act on them. The brutal murders, most recently of academic, activist MM Kalburgi in Karnataka last month, followed by death threats to Mysore-based rationalist KS Bhagawan, are a testimony to the fact. Or, in the recent past, the murders of Pune-based rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, and how can we forget the murder of activist-rationalist Govind Pansare?

The threats were there online, perhaps too mild for us to hear. Till the gunshots rang out. These men lived to their retirement age, perhaps because there was no social media to bring together their attackers. Remember Sabeen Mahmud, the activist who was shot in Pakistan hours after she tweeted a photo of a Baloch activist speaking at a seminar she hosted in Pakistan? She did not get to live into her 40s. Nor did the murdered Bangladeshi bloggers.

We are not Bangladesh or Pakistan, where bloggers and activists are brutally killed on the streets. We are not ISIS-controlled areas or desert nations where even suspected dissent results in videographed beheadings. Unfortunately, we are coming close.

The Right to Dissent, which has won us our freedom from the British, is now under a grave threat. Perhaps the threat was always there; it is now visible because opinions and the attacks that follow now spread like wildfire online. Does anyone remember how UR Ananthamurthy was trolled, and tickets sent for him to go to Pakistan because of his critical writings?

Social media is a double-edged sword. It has become a potent tool for web-connected tech savvy activists to share their dissent, opinions and start conversations. The sharper edge, however, is controlled by a dangerous group. We call them trolls, but they are not as simple as that. The trends are started with social media expertise. The numbers grow slowly and steadily, gaining followers and reposts with additional venom.


Ask any actor who has dared to express and opinion online. Or for that matter a gender rights activists. Or just go online and see how people who dare say a word against any right-wing organisation, are treated.

Activists, writers and members of the general public are signing this petition started by Kavita Krishnan of All India Progressive Women's Association, herself a target of hate speech and rape and murder threats.

However, my question is simple. Should we, the citizens, be afraid to voice an opinion in our own country, lest the organised army of trolls spots us and launches online campaigns to inspire on-ground attacks? Should we just wait for another murder and then take out a candlelight peace march? Should the Right to Dissent be protected? Or should we toe the line and hope the silence does not kill us?

This article first appeared on Saddahaq.com.