Arfa Khanum Sherwani can deal with criticism, even abuse. But even she – a senior editor at The Wire and hardened veteran of the trenches – is disturbed by the “thousands and thousands and thousands” who flock these days to her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, threatening her with rape and death.
“It terrifies me, it unsettles me,” Sherwani tells me, as she described the loathing she must withstand as a female journalist with an opinion and the additional hatred reserved for her Muslim identity. The bulk of these abusive messages come from handles that adore Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said this week: “Women in the country must be given the respect people give to goddess Durga.”
Sherwani has stopped checking Facebook, and her family is concerned for her safety. It is particularly troubling that her traditional reservoir of support is evaporating. Many of her “own community”, journalists, now troll her, since that is an easy way of buttressing their so-called nationalist credentials and ensuring career advancement in media houses aligned with the government. Little she says about anything goes without an inimical reaction, but more adverse responses than ever come from “blue ticks”, verified Twitter accounts of her peers and other seemingly respectable people.
Coarsening public interactions
On October 15, when Sherwani tweeted her acceptance speech after winning a prestigious Indian journalism prize, the Chameli Devi Jain Award, this was the response of former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju: “On YouTube @khanunarfa (Sherwani’s Twitter handle) and @RanaAyyub (journalist Rana Ayyub, a winner of many international awards) regularly denounce Hindu fundamentalism, but never condemn burqa, sharia, madarsas [sic] & maulanas.”
A notable characteristic of the age of social media, Hindutva and Narendra Modi – who follows a number of abusive Twitter users and has felicitated some – has been a coarsening of public interaction. Journalists may no longer be the main arbiters of this dialogue, but they remain important enablers. The smartphone has allowed about a billion active mobile subscribers to participate in India’s daily conversations.
But instead of expressing diverse opinions, these voices coalesce around a handful of ideological pivots, none currently more influential than those operated by the ruling establishment. As the Opposition has withered away, particularly during the pandemic, journalists are increasingly classified and targeted as agitators not just by trolls but by the Bharatiya Janata Party itself, as Sherwani was by party spokesman Amit Malviya.
Some of India’s most influential and respected journalistic voices are now female, and that is hard for a patriarchal society to digest, particularly when its innate prejudices are reinforced by the ruling establishment. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat once expounded a “theory of social contract” which, according to him, says: “You [the woman] look after the household chores and satisfy me, I [the man] will take care of your needs and protect you.”
To those who believe in the RSS worldview, women as opinion leaders are difficult to accept. If those women are Muslim, acceptance is doubly hard and usually spills into outright hatred.
Atmosphere of unceasing menace
The most egregious example of a woman and Muslim journalist being systematically attacked is Ayyub, a Washington Post columnist who lives with threats of extreme violence and is, sometimes, in therapy to deal with them. Many journalists I know now seek professional help to cope with the stress of living in an atmosphere of unceasing menace, which is more likely than ever to spill into real life: it only requires encouragement from those at the helm, either through complicit silence or support or stated explicitly.
On September 11, for instance, Tripura chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb said of journalists criticising his administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic: “History shall not forgive them. And I shall not forgive them. I am a man of my word.” A day later, two journalists were attacked.
When the State and supporters of the ruling party are involved in menacing journalists, there is little remedy. The police usually do not file cases, and if they do, they usually do not launch investigations or arrest the abusers, which means there is little to deter the trolls. That sense of impunity has now emboldened the State itself to directly file cases against or attack journalists in real life.
The worst manifestation of State gone rogue is in Kashmir, where terrorism charges were filed against photojournalist Masrat Zahra – winner of a global award for courageous and ethical journalism – for merely sharing her work on Facebook; or the assault and intimidation of Auqib Javeed – after being invited “for a cup of tea” – because he reported how police were intimidating Twitter users criticising government policies (disclosure: Javeed wrote the story for Article 14, the website I edit); or the unofficial detention at gunpoint by police of editor Fahad Shah.
To be sure, these threats are not limited to the Hindutva ecosystem around the BJP. Ruling parties in some states have exhibited similar tendencies, but none of these parallel the organised scale of the online persecution of journalists by the Hindutva world.
Former NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan, now a Harvard professor, says women are special targets because ruling-party trolls are inherently misogynistic. “They can’t stand the success of women who are assertive, successful, have an opinion,” said Razdan, who as a Kashmiri Pandit is attacked online any time she expresses sympathy for Muslims. “I feel sorry for the loveless, sad lives they lead.” What they believe as their freedom of speech, she argues, echoing an argument recently made by the Supreme Court, is not the right to slander, to abuse, to spread hate speech.
There is little free speech involved when trolls confronting Neha Dixit, another award-winning journalist, discuss how she should be raped, with a steel rod or otherwise. One troll – she gets about 300 hostile notifications and emails every day – who asked people to throw stones at her house was followed by the prime minister. Her complaints to police have never resulted in arrests.
Indeed, a study found that of 21 journalists murdered while at work over four years to 2019, there was only one conviction. Dixit’s passage through the fire is made particularly difficult because her family has been opposed to her choice of career; the attacks only reinforced their fears. When her mother joined Twitter with much excitement two years ago, the first thing she saw were the threats, says Dixit, who admits to “lots of weird, disturbing dreams and nightmares”.
In the absence of institutional, official or legal support, women like her must build their own support networks. “If they are not there,” said Dixit, “You are pretty much on your own.”
Samar Halarnkar is the founder and editor of www.article-14.com, a website focused on research and reportage related to the rule of law
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