On Indian Twitter, a harmless comment can soon invite vitriolic abuse – even religious attacks. On July 1, Mumbai-based comic Kenny Sebastian took to the social media website to flag the loss content creators have faced after the Modi government banned the Chinese app, TikTok. He was soon attacked by a prominent Hindutva handle Madhur Singh.

As Singh countered Sebasatian on the TikTok ban, he also abused the comedian in Hindi, referring to a common Hindu nationalist trope: that Indian Christians are “rice bag converts” – a slur that accuses people of following Christianity not because of their convictions but due to the purported material benefits they receive from following the religion.

As Sebastian was attacked repeatedly on religious grounds, fellow comic Agrima Joshua stepped in, adding a tweet in his support. That in turn set off a coordinated attack on her, with trolls digging up a 16-month-old video in which she had mocked misinformation around the proposed Shivaji statue off the Mumbai coast. Joshua’s critics incorrectly claimed that the video was insulting to the Maratha king.

As unusual as things were now, it didn’t stop here. Hindu nationalist supporters on social media took to attacking stand-up comedians en masse. Old videos were dug out. Tweets nearly a decade-old were resurfaced. And comedians were doxxed – their personal details such as their phone numbers were made public, opening them up to direct abuse and even personal harm.

The result is that as many as six comics have put out unequivocal apologies for hurting people’s religious sentiments over the past week.

Through the Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu nationalism rules India. So why then were supporters of this powerful ideology so angry with a small group of Mumbai-based stand up comedians?

‘Flooded with filth’

Agrima Joshua said that the all-out attack on her on social media “was so organised, it was like a swarm of locusts”.

Joshua was threatened with rape. There were calls to harm members of her family. There was also abuse centered around her religious identity. The venue where she had performed her act 16 months ago was vandalised. Recounted Joshua, “My Instagram was flooded with filth.”

The attack on Joshua was an egregious example of social media bullying. Joshua’s stand-up sketch mocking the fake news around the Shivaji statue was being incorrectly portrayed as an attack on Shivaji – when in fact she had said nothing about the Maratha king at all. In fact, the video had been online for 16 months, garnering millions of views without anyone feeling offended. It took organised trolling to manufacture outrage.

In spite of this, Joshua received little support from the authorities. In fact, a Shiv Sena MLA demanded that Joshua be arrested. To add to that, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh instructed the police to take legal action against the comedian. “If these people are being encouraged by powerful people, that’s scary,” Joshua said.

All of this meant Joshua had to issue an apology “for having hurt the sentiments of the many followers of the great leader Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj”. Yet, Joshua said, that did little to stop the threats of violence. “I don’t understand it, but the threats are still coming,” she said. “In fact, they have increased”

MNS supporters vandalising the venue of Joshua's act. The attack was streamed live on Facebook by the attackers.

A spate of apologies

More comedians began to apologise. On July 14, Sahil Shah released a video apology on social media. “I should never have joked about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj,” he said. “From now on, I will do comedy responsibly.”

Less than an hour later, Aadar Malik also did the same, apologising for an eight-year old stand-up act on enthusiastic celebration during Mumbai’s Ganesh Chaturthi festival. “I am getting threats to my family,” he said. “Please don’t do that. It becomes a very scary atmosphere.”

On the same day, comedian Rohan Joshi put out an apology on Instagram for having “hurt someone’s religious sentiments”. In the apology he describes both his number and address being leaked out, leading to a “circus of abuse, threats, 2 am phone calls and anxious spirals”. He ended the statement, pleading with trolls to “please leave my family alone”.

On July 15, Azeem Banatwalla apologised for tweets made “many years ago”. Like Joshua, Banatwalla was targeted for his religion, with the comic flagging in his apology how “many people have been pouring in the vilest of Islamophobic abuse to me”. Another comic, Sapan Verma then apologised for a “wrong, immature and distasteful” five-year old joke, targeting the ban on meat in Mumbai during the Jain festival of Paryushan.

Prominent Hindutva handles calling for Rohan Joshi's phone number.

What drove the anger?

The principal complaint that the attackers had against the comedians was that they were joking about religion. One popular right wing handle with more than 2.5 lakh followers called them “anti-Hindu and anti-India”.

In many cases, this complaint extended to the figure of Shivaji – a powerful symbol of both Marathi as well as Hindu identity. Some trolls also picked on the fact that these comics performed in English.

“The next time any of these ‘Angrezi comedians’ make risqué jokes or anti-Hindu content, FIR against them will be in order,” tweeted out Jinit Jain, a writer with the BJP-leaning website OpIndia.

The scale of the attack led to apologies – but also pushbacks from other Indian comics. In a video statement, Abijit Ganguly rejected the charge that comics were somehow “anti-Hindu” – pointing out that in the same act that Joshua had spoken about fake news on the internet, she had also spoken about “Christianity and churches”.

Ganguly also attacked the notion that trolls would decide what was permissible and what was not: “How can some people decide that they are the thekedars [gatekeepers] of Hinduism?”

In a satirical sketch, comedian Vir Das pointed out the absurdity of there being collective outrage around comedy – given all the various problems facing the country at the moment. In another sarcastic video titled “Women finally apologise for everything”, 11 woman comics lay out how they are hemmed in by violent threats. “I am sorry you feel like raping me because you don’t like me and my thoughts,” said one comic, Dolly Singh, speaking to the camera.

Political currents

Most people connect this sudden spurt in anger against India’s nascent comedy industry to the rise of virulent nationalism in India. “Earlier Bollywood was under attack, now it’s the comedy scene,” said Kunal Kamra, a rare Indian comic who concentrates on political comedy. “Fascism has always had problems with the arts.”

The timing of the attack as well as the location of India’s comedy industry – in opposition-ruled Maharashtra’s capital, Mumbai – also allow for a political play in which comics are the pawns in the battle between the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

While the Shiv Sena and the BJP were long-time allies in the Maharashtra government, they had a bitter falling out after the 2019 Assembly election when the former decided to ally with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. BJP is now out of power in the state.

“They [the trolls] want to make trouble the Shiv Sena government,” suggested Kamra. “In fact, these videos were shot when there was a BJP government in the state. But the outrage has only happened now, after the BJP lost power.”

Another comedian who did not want to be identified – but was targeted during this online barrage – said they saw a clear political pattern in the way the attacks were orchestrated. “By raising issues like Shivaji, they want to put the Shiv Sena in a spot and take away its credibility,” this person said. “This is especially given the Sena is trying to remake itself in a liberal avatar.”

Organised abuse

Ravina Rawal, editor of DeadAnt, an online publication that tracks the Indian comedy scene, explains that this is not a new phenomenon. “Comics have a young, captive audience running into the tens of millions, they have the power to influence new voters and set a narrative,” explained Rawal. “To add to that is the impression that all comics are liberals or lefties.”

Ravina describes an environment where Indian comics are extremely wary of stepping on people’s toes. “Trolling and abuse on Twitter is organised and has gotten much worse of late,” explained Rawal. “This is why many comics are moving to Instagram – which, unlike Twitter, isn’t searchable, and thus not as susceptible to organised abuse.”

Not only did this current round of attacks on comedians start on Twitter, many of the apologies were delivered for tweets that were years old. While they had caused no offence at the time they were published, as organised political trolls took to targeting comedians, old tweets were dug out in order to attack them.

“This sort of environment is one reason why Indian comedy isn’t very political,” said Rawal. “Comedians are soft targets.”