Shehla Rashid is one of India’s most recognisable student leaders. The former vice president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union moved into national limelight during the 2016 protests against the arrest of some of her fellow students for sedition.
Of late, there have been rumours of Rashid, who is from Srinagar, entering Kashmir’s politics. On Sunday, though, she made news for a different reason: fed up of abuse on Twitter, she deactivated her account.
She spoke with Scroll.in about how social media is shaping India’s politics, why her identity makes her vulnerable to abuse and her political plans. Exceprts from the conversion follow:
Why did you leave Twitter?
This is not the first time the thought had occurred to me. The entire thing just gets so out of control. Sure, there is abuse and trolling on every platform, but at times it just gets out of control. I am not sure why it is happening right now but it may be because the 2019 election is on its way and the troll armies are being unleashed. That’s what I could figure out.
I don’t have empirical data for this but I think the scale of abuse I get is completely different from what others get. This is not to say others don’t receive abuse but the magnitude of abuse I get is at another level.
I am not associated with any powerful political group and I don’t have the resources to sue people, that is why people know they can say anything they want against me.
It is affecting me at a personal level, the hate. Everyday, I wake up and instead of doing something productive I read these abusive comments. This demotivates me, drains me, affects me psychologically. It changes how you are as a person. Now, for example, if I have to share something pleasant, I will go to Instagram, I won’t share it on Twitter, which is a very negative place. So, it makes you negative. Before I tweet, I have to brace myself for hostile reactions.
So, this is not about social media in general but specifically how negative Twitter is?
Yes, it has enabled a perfect ecosystem for hate. I get messages or tweets that use unambiguously abusive words such as “slut” or “bitch”. Even when you report that, Twitter does not take action. Instead, they will simply send you an email saying, “Oh well, our team did not find it abusive.” So that’s the kind of response they give.
You think Twitter has completely failed in taking action?
Yes. This is a very abusive relationship. It’s like if a woman’s husband beats her every day but he’s very rich so she has to stick with the marriage. And Twitter knows this. They know this is their business model: even though we are abusive, even though we don’t do anything, we are a necessary evil. I have four lakh followers on Twitter, so I know what I am leaving. But someone needs to make the point that this isn’t normal. Twitter is bad not just for me, it’s bad for democracy. It is creating polarisation that wasn’t there. And there are structural reasons for this. For example, Twitter works very closely with the government and has been verifying the handles of right-wing [Hindutva] hate mongers. Twitter India has become embedded in the right-wing and the ruling party ecosystem. That, however, is not the case in the United States. There, Twitter actually suspends the accounts of White supremacists who are abusive. So, in the US, their policy is entirely different. But in India, it is this “chalta hai” [that’s the way it is] attitude. Because of this, no one really flags abuse. So, I have to flag this as abnormal.
Abusers know that even if someone were to file an FIR against them, nothing would happen. That is what has emboldened them. The right-wing government has mauled every institution, including the police. That is one structural reason. The other is that, like I said earlier, Twitter works so closely with the government.
You have been on Twitter for nearly a decade. Have you seen any change when it comes to abuse?
Absolutely. There has been a clear shift since 2012. Before that, it was not possible to defend the Gujarat riots. Since then, it is all about defending the Gujarat riots. 2012 is when Narendra Modi started to project himself as the prime ministerial candidate. Ever since, the moment you write “Modi” or “Gujarat riots” on Twitter, trolls come and attack you.
Have you ever thought about taking legal action?
I can’t. I can’t take legal action 2,000 times a day. If 2,000 times a day I am told, “You anti-national bitch, you should be raped”, how can I take action? I have no resources, I am not with any political party or with any powerful private group. So Twitter has to take action. And they can do it. It is not that they are not aware of the problem. In the US, they have worked to ensure the suspension of White supremacists.
Are you saying abuse on Twitter is very targeted and organised?
Yes, it is targeted, it is organised, it is backed by the ruling party’s ecosystem. Twitter will not take action since they [the abusers] are backed by the ruling party. The police will not take action since they are associated with the ruling party. So it is a full ecosystem of hate. Not that one should give a clean chit to Facebook. Their reporting mechanism does not even work. At least it works on Twitter. But on Facebook, you can effectively block abusive people. But on Twitter, that just does not work. They can still tag you. If someone replies to that, you can see those replies. So blocking does not actually work on Twitter.
Do you think your identity – as a woman, Muslim, Kashmiri – accentuates this?
Yes, absolutely. I check all the wrong boxes. But you know the point that needs to be made here is not that I am running away. My way of fighting back is to say, “I do not deserve to be treated this way.” Many people are saying she ran away, she should not have run away, this is not the way to fight. I don’t know if this is the way to fight, but I can’t normalise abuse and harassment. So, many people will say I am playing the victim card. Victimhood is not a card, victimhood is real. This is happening to me, this is affecting me, my sense of self-worth.
Now, all the time, I am called a madrassa chhaap [the product of an Islamic religious school] on Twitter. But I have gone to the best colleges in this country. I have been a topper throughout my life. I am still being called this simply because of my identity. That is ridiculous.
So, I have not run away. I am not too weak to fight back. No, this is not what I deserve. I don’t deserve this simply because I check all the wrong boxes. I am not a second-class citizen and I will not allow anyone to treat me like one. I will raise my voice against it and that is what I am doing. This is not normal. I have never put up with an abusive environment. Why should I do so now?
As a political activist, do you think losing out on Twitter’s audience is a big loss?
It is a big loss. Especially when we know what our electronic media is doing. I do not go to TV debates. I have consciously decided not to talk to certain channels. Everyone is shouting at another. Everyone is saying hateful things. We all saw the Sambit Patra video clip from a few days ago [in which the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson said he would rename mosques after Hindu gods]. That is not healthy. That is why I do not go to TV debates; they cannot ensure a free debate. There is too much majoritarianism, too much appeasement of the ruling party. In such an environment, having Twitter as a platform to express your views is very valuable. And Twitter is a very relevant platform because whatever you say gets shared in the journalistic circles, in policy circles. So, I know exactly what I am losing out on. But that is exactly my point. Like I said, I should not have to put up with domestic abuse simply because my husband is rich. It is not normal. My husband being rich does not make up for the fact that he is abusive. So, you do not just put up with this abuse because Twitter is a great platform. No one deserves to be treated this way.
Some well-wishers have asked you to stay on because of the voice Twitter gives you. Can we expect to see you back?
A lot of people have been very shocked. But I think I deserve some peace. I do not know what I will do in the future. Right now, I deserve some peace. The amount of abuse I face is just not acceptable.
Will you be entering politics? Contesting the upcoming Lok Sabha election?
Frankly, I don’t know at this moment. I have my PhD synopsis coming up. I have to get it passed this semester. Right now, I am fully focussed on that. So, at the moment, I am not sure if I will take the plunge.