news analysis

Troll army: Manohar Parrikar's comments suggest that the government smiles upon internet bullies

The defence minister spoke approvingly of an internet campaign that forced Snapdeal to drop Aamir Khan as a brand ambassador.

By now, it has become quite clear that India's current government does not like dissent. But Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s statements on Saturday indicate that the ruling dispensation goes deeper than that. This government tacitly supports campaigns that punish people who express dissent.

Speaking at book launch in Maharashtra, Parrikar suggested anyone who expressed less than unquestioning devotion to the country had to be “taught a lesson of his life”. A certain actor and an “online trading company” had got their comeuppance last year for violating this line, he added.

Parrikar was referring to Aamir Khan, who had voiced a “sense of insecurity” while speaking at an award function in November. Khan went on to recount how his wife and he had even contemplated “leaving the country” because they were troubled by the seemingly vitiated environment. Apart from raising a lot of dust dust, the comments cost the actor dear. In February, Snapdeal, an online retailer that he endorsed, chose not to renew their contract with him.

On November 25, weeks after Khan made his famous remark, Snapdeal issued a statement that assiduously attempted to establish its nationalist credentials: “Snapdeal is neither connected nor plays a role in comments made by Aamir Khan in his personal capacity. Snapdeal is a proud Indian company built by passionate young Indians focused on building an inclusive digital India.” Note the name-checking of a pet government scheme, Digital India.

Snapdeal was already battling a backlash on social media, not to mention a loss of customers. A couple of months later, it formally snapped ties with Khan.

Now, Parrikar reveals how this happened. “There was a team, which I know, which was working on this,” he said on Saturday. "They were telling people you order and return it… The company should learn a lesson, they had to pull his advertisement."

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It is a chilling admission. The government knew and approved of organised campaigns that bludgeoned Snapdeal into toeing the nationalist line and hounded Khan for expressing his views.

Manufactured outrage?

Aamir Khan’s comments came shortly after the murder of rationalists and the lynching of a Muslim man by a mob in Dadri town in Uttar Pradesh on suspicion that he had beef in his fridge had generated a heated conversation about intolerance. This prompted several eminent writers to return their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest. Suddenly, it seemed to push the intolerance debate into extreme territory.

It was no longer about the government’s intolerance of ideas that opposed its own, but about who or what was “anti-national”. This spectre of “anti-nationals” was used to discredit those who disagreed with the Hindu nationalist ideology favoured by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies.

Chanting “Bharat mata ki jai” became the new litmus test for patriotism, a measure enthusiastically advocated by Baba Ramdev, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the Shiv Sena and other self-confessed desh bhakts, or national servants. They were supported by a social media noise that could have passed off for canned applause.

In the thick of the “award wapsi” furore, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had dismissed it all as a “manufactured revolt” driven by the Congress and the Left, both of whom had lost “legislative relevance” and were trying “politics by other means”. But with Parrikar’s recent observations, one has to wonder which parts of the outrage were manufactured.

The chorus of Hindutva trolls on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, the barrage of abuses so crude they were almost laughable, now seem part of a sinister design. Going by what Parrikar said, these were not always impromptu bursts of anger by stray individuals. Very often, they were part of an orchestrated outrage against "anti-national" voices, about which the government evidently had full knowledge.

Internet bullies

The BJP was one of the first parties in India to harness the powers of social media. Before the elections of 2014, it took the fight online, reached out to voters and ran a campaign on Facebook and Twitter that captivated millions. Once in government, it has used these forums to project its achievements and rally support for its pet schemes. Ministries such as railways and external affairs have often been remarkably responsive on Twitter, acting on grievances tweeted out to them.

All well and good: the more communication a government has with its electorate, the better. But the BJP's fan following on the internet has also engendered an army of trolls who can tweet the loudest and drown out dissenting voices. Parrikar's comments suggest that this form of organised internet bullying proceeds with the knowledge of people at the highest levels of government.

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