The puzzle why Hindutva trolls are venomous, furious, and intimidating seems to have been solved following the outbreak of controversy at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. These trolls seek to disrupt or subvert conversations because they are in their virtual existence what they are in real life – abusive, inclined to violence, and reluctant to engage in debates.
In the last few days, we have seen three lawyers proudly declare that they were the ones who assaulted Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU student union president. We have seen a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Delhi Legislative Assembly thrash a political activist.
And we have heard publicly raised slogans demanding hanging of those accused of being anti-nationals. In all these cases, the violent and unseemly behaviour has been sought to be rationalised as an outburst of legitimate anger.
These actions are the real-life manifestations of the menacing threats so many have encountered on the internet. In fact, anyone who has written a piece against the Sangh Parivar or opposed the cultural and dietary impositions by the BJP or criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have surely encountered the internet equivalent of the attack on Kanhaiya Kumar.
The cyberspace goons do not necessarily belong to the group roaming the courts of Delhi, or lurking outside the gates of JNU, but what both share are certain personality traits, a certain mindset, so to speak.
This is what was found by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba, Canada, and two of her colleagues after an extensive study of 1200 internet users in late 2014. In their research paper, Trolls Just Want To Have Fun, they reported that trolls have what is called the Dark Tetrad of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. In psychology, these four traits are linked to different forms of behaviour.
Machiavellianism refers to an effort to manipulate and deceive others. Recall how the video footage of Kanhaiya’s speech was shown to have been doctored by allegedly inserting incendiary slogans. The goal of this endeavour, including that of journalists and others who helped disseminate the video, was to tar JNU as the breeding ground of anti-nationalists.
Psychopathy is characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse. This too is palpable in the JNU controversy. The lawyer, Vikram Chauhan, who assaulted Kanhaiya was not only unrepentant, but also boastful. This is equally true of the BJP MLA who thrashed a CPI activist. Again, unmindful of Kanhaiya being a young man from an impoverished background, there is no empathy among Hindutva supporters for his travails. Nor are they willing to entertain the possibility that the alleged seditious slogans could be ascribed to the impetuosity typical of the young.
Narcissism is a term popularly invoked to describe a person who is self-obsessed, but underlying the narcissistic’s behaviour is the person’s sense of superiority and entitlement and their inclination to establish dominance. Through the JNU controversy we have seen the votaries of Hindutva insist that only they and their definition of nationalism are right, not because of the arguments they proffer, but because they are the superior patriots and worshippers of Mother India. They believe their loyalty is beyond question, entitling them to impose their definitions and worldview on others.
Sadism has people derive pleasure from the suffering of others. There is a barely concealed glee among Hindutva followers at the discomfort of Kanhaiya and his friends. They have been extremely welcoming of an Army general’s proposal to place a tank on the JNU campus to imbibe nationalism among its students. They seem thrilled at the prospect of the use of state power to alter the character of JNU, and at the worries of those who don’t subscribe to the Hindutva ideology.
These four traits indeed define Hindutva trolls. They deliberately misread arguments in the internet posts of those whom they love to hate and manipulate discussions through a hurling of charges. They are abusive of and insulting to writers, particularly women. Not only do they feel they are entitled to make scurrilous observations, but derive immense pleasure from those who complain against their ambush tactics.
About the trait of sadism in internet trolls, the Canadian researchers observed: “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun… and the Internet is their playground!”
Their playground becomes a minefield for others, who are hurt through acidic words.
This isn’t to say that all Hindutva netizens are trolls, just as it would be wrong to conclude that every BJP activist is a Vikram Chauhan or OP Sharma in the waiting. The Canadian researchers found only 6% of their sample trolled. It is hard to tell the percentage Hindutva trolls constitute of all internet users, but it should be a minority of them, substantial enough though to harass others.
The Dark Tetrad personality
As to why trolls having the Dark Tetrad personality traits tend to gravitate towards Hindutva remains a conundrum, largely because of the paucity of research on internet behaviour of Indians. Yet, it is possible they are attracted to the Hindutva ideology because of its certain dark aspects.
Hindutva believes in the superiority of what it calls Hindu culture, which ought to be called Brahminical. It lays claims to superiority through unverifiable assertions about the past, such as our ancient sages having discovered the technology of cloning, aerodynamics, and plastic surgery centuries before the world did. These assertions arise from the narcissism inherent to Hindutva, a trait common to all those who turn their faiths into political ideologies. The Islamic State is an apt example.
But the sense of superiority underlying narcissism has to contend with the memory of the past that the proponents of Hindutva have constructed. Hindutva cannot forget that the land called India was conquered by the hordes (Muslims) from Central Asia and then the British (Christians).
It, therefore, must manipulate history to portray that India was subordinated because of the cruelty and deceptions of invaders who exploited the innocence of Hindus, their other-worldly obsessions, and their effeminate nature. Manhood and the sense of inferiority can now be overcome by humiliating today’s Christians and Muslims and their Hindu supporters, whether Leftists, Communists, liberals, religious Hindus, or whoever.
The only way the Hindutva project to affirm its superiority can succeed is either through indoctrination or violence. This is what explains the Hindutva thirst to dominate universities and root out its intellectual rivals. This is why many of its recent projects bear the signature of violence or the threat of it.
Nor does Hindutva empathise with the victims of its violence, for they are deemed to deserve it. Its proponents consequently can’t be remorseful of their actions – Nathuram Godse is an example of it, as are Gujarat rioters, as was Dara Singh, who burnt to death the Staines in Orissa.
Now that the BJP is in power at the Centre, it is the day of glory of Hindutva. Manipulative (Machiavellianism), lacking in empathy (psychopathy), and having inherent belief in their superiority (narcissism), Hindutva footsoldiers have taken to executing one project after another, each targeting a particular social or ideological group, deriving immense pleasure from their discomfort (sadism).
These four factors have prompted trolls to turn to Hindutva, or its votaries to become trolls (it is like asking which came first – chicken or egg?). It is not that no other ideologies have a dark appeal about them. But because Hindutva is ascendant, the trolls have gravitated towards it. Trolls spew venom and hatred because they believe they are in the majority, because they hate to lose.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.