Indianama

The rise of Hindu radicalisation, mass manipulation and the remaking of India

The elections in Karnataka may set the tone not just for political discourse but the future of secularism in India.

“This election is very important. It is not about roads, drinking water or gutters. This election is about Hindus and Muslims. Those who want to build the Babri Masjid, those who want to celebrate Tipu Jayanti, let them vote for the Congress. Those among you who want Shivaji Maharaj, those who want Sambhaji Maharaj, those who want to pray at a Lakshmi temple, you must vote for the BJP.”

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It is quite clear that Sanjay Patil, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator standing for elections from North Karnataka, went directly against the dogma of development that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently propounded ahead of polls in the state on May 12. “Our agenda is only vikas, vikas, vikas [development],” Modi told party workers this week. “Our plan for Karnataka is three pronged: development, fast development and overall development.”

Patel is not the only one who does not appear to have received Modi’s memo.

Earlier this month, senior BJP leader KS Eashwarappa declared that the party’s main election issue would be protection of the holy cow. The Twitter handles of BJP MPs and MLAs routinely use tags that slyly demonise Muslims, such as #jihadiCongress, and interpose the word “jihadi” with “Muslim”. The BJP’s national president, Amit Shah, has frequently called Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah “anti-Hindu”.

Shah also acknowledged that Karnataka is the BJP’s “gateway to the south”. Indeed, the forthcoming vote is important to a party that, despite running or being a part of the government in 21 states, faces an erosion of support in many of India’s populous states. But there is much more at stake. If there were ever a state election that could determine not just the future of political discourse and destinies in India but the fate of secularism, it is the battle for Karnataka.

In a state that is 84% Hindu and 13% Muslim, the BJP has determinedly attempted to make the election about a supposed assault on Hindus by a Congress government whose politicians are mostly Hindu. Of the 497 candidates contesting the elections, no more than 4.6% or 23 are Muslim (15 from the Congress).

This is a now familiar and fake argument: the majority religion under threat, capable of being saved only by the BJP and its myriad – often more virulent and violent – siblings, a religion whose salvation lies only in building a temple in Ayodhya, saving the cow, keeping Muslims subjugated and voting for Modi.

Social media campaign

As the political marginalisation of minorities in Karnataka – a state with substantially more Muslims in politics and government than in northern India – indicates, it is hard to see any logic in these arguments. But reason is not a strong point among the radicalised, whose numbers among Hindus grow nationwide, their dormant resentments weaponised by social media – particularly through WhatsApp and its 200 million users in India.

Hindus are not the only ones radicalised, but given their sheer numbers, they are more vocal about their new, manipulated or resurgent beliefs. Radicalisation has infected the government, the police and the judiciary. This year, one particularly significant manifestation was made apparent in Bihar when police officers – unashamed of being filmed – led a Hindu procession screaming “Jai Shri Ram”.

Family and friends WhatsApp groups have splintered along ideological lines, the disintegration and anger growing whenever a violent incident involves religion or politics or a combustible combination of both, such as Hindu support to the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir. The demonisation of minorities and the search for enemies is apparent.

“Dear friends, last few months and till next general elections we are going to see a lot of false messages in [sic] social media,” reads a WhatsApp forward sent by a cousin whom I believed to be rational and mild. “Every day I receive at least 20 to 30 messages especially from Christian and Muslim friends against Modi… their attitude is even if our country goes to dogs let us target Modi… now they are trying to project BJP guys as rapists but they r not understanding the wrong message that’s being sent out to rest of world in name of targeting Modi. And as a first-hand information from IB [Intelligence Bureau], all this is being done by Islamic terrorist and xtian missionaries who are very active on social media…”

Many of these paranoid rants are not random. India’s social media – as in many other countries – have become prime means of mass manipulation. The mass media have either been managed or wilted in the face of a concerted online barrage, primarily from the BJP and its organised packs of social-media hounds who sniff out and go after viewpoints inimical to their ideology.

Trolls, fake news

The abilities of this lot were revealed in the past week when the investigative journalist Rana Ayyub – who wrote a book that laid bare the complicity of various politicians and bureaucrats in the 2002 Gujarat riots – was made the target of a particularly vicious attack. Ayyub is routinely abused by the Hindu Right, but this time they went a step further, creating and circulating fake porn videos, images and quotes, in which she appeared to be defending child rapists in the name of Islam, and expressing a hatred for India and Indians. These manipulated messages were so convincing that even her friends asked her why she had said these things. The tsunami of manufactured hate, of course, washed in many threats to gangrape and kill her.

Earlier this week, Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, referred to hate speech “shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay”. Some of these fake-news outfits themselves masquerade as fact-checking institutions with murky links to power and are readily endorsed by politicians from the BJP.

In April, 13 Union ministers tweeted links to a website known to manipulate news; it emerged that the website was run by a company listed as the “technology and knowledge partner” for the prime minister’s book for students, Exam Warriors, that was released in February. Last week, it was revealed that a Hindu Right-winger, who proudly announced that he had cancelled an app-based taxi because the driver was Muslim, was followed by some Union ministers. In 2015, among the 150 “social-media influencers” whom Modi met were trolls noted for their abuse of women and the media. In Karnataka, actor Prakash Raj, a flagbearer for secularism who opposes Modi, is under constant attack from trolls and once escaped physical attack from BJP supporters.

The Congress has belatedly realised the power of social media in influencing the electorate and has caught up in that department. Although it is also guilty of manipulating images and news, it is nowhere as efficient or ruthless in inflaming religious passions. Mass manipulation is now an industry where tweets and views can be bought or sold by the thousands, using bots, fake handles and fake tweets.

One website in Bangalore that I gained access to said it could provide 1,000 tweets for Rs 2,000, or Rs 2 per tweet. “We can provide votes in bulk to significantly alter the results,” the company’s sales pitch said. “We can help alter the results of any polls.” It provided as an example a television poll, run by a Modi-leaning channel, it had altered: with the BJP and Congress in a dead heat in Karnataka, who between Rahul Gandhi or Modi could swing the vote? According to the poll, 76% chose Modi. The logic appeared dubious: in a previous poll, 72% of voters had apparently chosen the BJP, so where did the question of a dead heat come from? But logic, as we know, plays little part in an age of manipulation and radicalisation.

If the BJP wins Karnataka – either through an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) or by itself – the false and dangerous Hindu-under-siege theme may grow in volume and self-assurance in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If it loses Karnataka, that refrain may lose cachet and confidence – or the BJP may attempt to make its message more extreme. Either way, India is unlikely to be the same again.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.