After the death of the Tamil Nadu chief minister on December 5, the state surprisingly did not erupt in violence, contrary to fears. But there is no need to thank the people, the police or the administration for that. “The real reason,” at least according to a WhatsApp forward, “is the magic of demonetisation.” Because: “No filthy cash to fund rioting!!”
This message popped up on one of Mumbai resident Munni Trivedi’s family WhatsApp groups, a forum dedicated to exchanging birthday wishes, accounts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s greatness and paeans to the nation. “Oh this was posted very seriously,” said Trivedi, a business person who was raised in the UK and moved to India recently. “You assume they have a sense of humour. But these people are dead serious.”
In a surprise move, the Modi government invalidated Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 9, wiping out 86% of the currency in circulation. Since then, ripples of the demonetisation exercise have been seen on the economy, on the lives of common people and on that other staple of the smartphone-hooked Indian’s life – family WhatsApp groups.
”Saying something [on the group] would be just too incendiary,” said Trivedi, who believes she has a more nuanced view of Modi’s tenure than those in her family. “But if I left the group, I would lose touch with them. Sometimes some of the stuff just makes me angry but rarely do I get a response if I post. So, I just stick to the happy birthdays.”
Trivedi is on two WhatsApp groups – one for each side of the family – and she said both are equally pro-Modi and exasperating. Idolatry and jingoistic posts are standard fare, she said, with “the odd bit of Rahul [Gandhi]-baiting thrown in”. So, discussions on world politics and other global events rarely feature, much to Trivedi’s dismay.
For instance, when she posted about the impact of Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, on her family group, her comments were met with silence. “I wanted to almost leave in disgust,” said Trivedi, who was part of the 48% that had voted to remain in the EU during the July 23 referendum. “But whatever it is, you can’t pick your family.”
But when a cousin posted a dubious link announcing that the United Nations had declared Modi to be the “best prime minister” in the world, a rumour that had been doing the rounds of the internet in July, Trivedi felt it was time to step in and clean up what she could of the post-truth world order. “I was like, no he wasn’t, this has been twisted,” she said, and found support from a few others who thanked her for the correction.
In many such groups, a stream of pro-government forwards mixed with messages on the miracle powers of demonetisation and a side-serving of patriotism is the broad diet. One way to deal with this is by simply hitting the mute button, as Tanmay Bhat of the comedy group All India Bakchod does for the most part. “My family group is propaganda max,” he said. “The silence from the young folk on the group makes it apparent that there is disagreement.”
Moreover, the sheer volume of forwards is such that it’s both tedious as well as impossible to respond to everything. “Every now and then I get agitated,” he said. “I’m like, please stop buying into everything! Why do we have newspapers?” For the most part, he said, these skirmishes do not spill over into real life. “It’s instant gratification and you let it go immediately so it’s easy to do that.”
Any point trying?
In 26-year-old Reetika Subramanian’s family group, it’s her against four supporters of demonetisation and Modi. When the move was first announced, she said, one uncle triumphantly posted, “Modi becomes a hero,” and “Reetika, Congress is finished”. She attempted a critique of the policy, pointing out how crippling will be for a cash-dependent economy that has not yet developed the necessary infrastructure to universalise digital payments, her unfazed uncle shot back with a jubilant stanza ending “now ask yourself why you asked him why”.
Since 2014, the year the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, such soaring rhetoric, chest-thumping forwards and energetic debates have been polarising family members and disrupting filial relations, especially on the instant-messaging app. “Earlier the conversations were not so immediate, but now with demonetisation, everyone is affected,” said Subramanian. “We argue, but we know these arguments are necessary.” And so each digs in, refusing to yield an inch in the debate, she said.
The vigorous duelling is animated with links and counter-links to articles shared on the group. “It affects personal relations, but not beyond a point,” she said. “At the end of the day we have to live together.”
Lawyer Aarti Kapoor said she silently watches the back-and-forth in her family group, between the older relatives who are largely pro-Modi and the younger ones (who are less so). “On the first night when the policy was announced, things were pretty heated,” said Kapoor, adding that she prefers to restrict arguments to her professional life. “Some of the cousins get too argumentative and want to keep arguing.” Sometimes, these spill over when family members meet, though relations in her case have not deteriorated on account of the group debates.
In Mamata Iyer’s case, the thrust and parry with brother-in-law grew so intense that they decided to have a one-on-one discussion over chat. Iyer’s father-in-law dismissed her pro-demonetisation fusillade saying she was simply getting provoked. “He said, ‘he’s just instigating you, don’t get provoked,’ she said. Iyer, a psychologist, claims she won the argument when it ended on a note of “well let’s see what happens”.
In some groups, the fighting has been less, but relentless bombarding of links and information from both sides has been constant. “There is a degree of one-upmanship in competitive story-telling and experience sharing,” said a banker who lives in the US. “Who stood in line longer, who loaned how much to their maids, who knows banks which provide priority treatment for elders.”
Demonetisation was not the the first topic to draw battle lines across blood lines.
In one group, around the time of the September 18 attack on an Army base in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri, in which at least 19 soldiers were killed, one pro-Modi family member shared an article on how journalists like Barkha Dutt and Shekhar Gupta could be held responsible for a lot of our problems.
“And I replied to that on the group quite strongly and then had a fight with my dad because he was like you must let people think what they think,” said a person who works in the development sector and identifies herself as a liberal. “And I was like I’m sorry shit has hit the ceiling and I can no longer deal with this. We must speak out.”
Things first started heating up in this group in February, when Jawaharlal Nehru University Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition in connection with an on-campus event on Kashmir where anti-India slogans were allegedly raised. National rhetoric was at its peak after the JNU saga, which had sparked debates over nationalism and free-speech, and a member shared an audio clip about the army being disrespected in JNU. “And he said something like “oh just opening up a debate” or some shit,” she said. “So I shared Kanhaiya’s speech and then my sister responded saying “and I guess that ends the debate”.”
This one-two punch of one member going into attack and then receiving back-up from another like-minded one has become something of a go-to guerilla tactic in this group. “That’s a strategy that I use on family groups: if one of us feels very strongly about something someone has shared then we’ll mobilise one two other people to respond in support of us and then just go at,” she said. “I’m all for new forms of political mobilisations including within the family.”
In some families, battle fatigue has led to an uneasy truce where family members have laid down arms and agreed not talk about politics. “In the interest of family harmony, the ground rules for the family chat are we do not discuss Modi, Trump or demonetisation,” said a South Mumbai resident, as these usually lead to “complete chaos, tempers, rigorous debates and surprisingly for me, tremendous intolerance of any point of view other than one’s own!”
If all else fails, there’s always the miffed exit from the group, when WhatsApp sends an ominous notification saying so and so has left. “That’s the ultimate expression of disgust,” he said. “Then [you will] be cajoled back. Only to get another whammy comment from an uncle you can’t stand”.