The Big Story: Digital mobs

What does it say about the Bharatiya Janata Party and its government that not one of its ministers or top leaders has come to the defence of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as she has been subjected to a torrent of online hate over the last week? If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah do not voice concern about sexist, violent language being used against the senior-most woman in government, how can one take their claims seriously that they are attempting to make public spaces – digital or real – safe for women?

Ever since it emerged that the Ministry of External Affairs had expeditiously granted a passport to a Hindu-Muslim couple and transferred an official for allegedly harassing them, trolls have been attacking the minister. Sexist, violent language is par for the course for most prominent women online. Here, the trolls – many of whom claimed to be supporters of the BJP or Hindutva causes – turned on the saffron party’s senior-most woman leader. And so Swaraj decided to highlight this.

On Twitter, she “liked” a few tweets, including one with a picture that has the Pakistan flag displayed in her heart, another asking if her transplanted kidney was an “Islamic kidney”, a third calling her “Sushma Begum” and more. The full barrage was even more vitriolic than this lot. Swaraj then ran a poll, asking social media users whether they approved of such tweets.

Even as all this was happening, the attack on Swaraj was condemned by others online, including political leaders like National Conference head Omar Abdullah and even the Congress party’s official handle. Swaraj’s own husband had to respond to a tweet suggesting he should beat her up and tell her not to facilitate “minority appeasment”, prompting him to say such words had given him and their family “unbearable pain.” Yet, Swaraj’s colleagues in the Cabinet and the party were silent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did tweet about social media on the same day, but he did so to congratulate his “young friends” for using the medium innovatively.

Ultimately, Swaraj’s Twitter poll showed that 57% of the respondents did not approve of the abusive tweets. But as 43% of people said they supported these actions. More significantly, the fact that the minister had to essentially appeal to the crowd to condemn the abuse, since she received no support from her own colleagues, revealed much about how the BJP and its government thinks.

On Sunday evening, Swaraj tweeted her first official comment on the matter.

Yet her party colleagues and those in government are still mum. Supporters of the BJP and government who believe in decency in public discourse should be horrified. This only goes to show that a party that relies on dog-whistling and threats of violence, both on the ground and online, has no inclination to keep mobs – digital or otherwise – in check.


  1. “The BJP has been appropriating religious symbols related to popular sects like the Nathpanth, Ravidasis and Kabirpanth,” writes Badri Narayan in the Indian Express. “It is part of the party’s strategy to attract Dalits, the marginalised and backward communities. These sects have a following among the Dalits, MBCs and OBCs. The party is also trying to co-relate Hindu symbols with those of Buddhism in order to mobilise the followers of that religion, who belong mostly to the Dalit and OBC communities.”
  2. The Bhima-Koregaon arrests provide us with yet another opportunity to rethink a legal regime that has obliterated the distinction between the normal and the abnormal,” writes Gautam Bhatia in the Hindu. “The power to keep citizens incarcerated for long periods of time, on vague charges, and without affording them an opportunity to answer their accusers in a swift and fair trial, is an anathema to democracy and the rule of law.”
  3. P Sainath, writing in the Tribune, says nothing can be done about Punjab’s agrarian crisis without first breaking the grip of the arhtiyas, commission agents.
  4. India spends a lot on defence, says the Economist, but it does not get value for money.
  5. “What it would take to reduce Euroscepticism in the south of Europe would increase it in the north – and vice versa,” writes Hans Kundnani in the Guardian. “Similarly, what it would take to reduce Euroscepticism in the east of Europe would increase it in the west – and vice versa. The question is whether there is a way out of this zero-sum game.


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