By Ila Ananya
Nymphomaniac. Nymphomaniac begging for more. Sickular presstitute. Stalker. Whore, randi, prostitute. AK 47 bullet. Rape, Nirbhaya-style rape, balatkar ki paidaish. Anal sex. Rate per night.
These are some of the names and threats that appear in the first 15 pages of investigative journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s new book, I am a Troll. Each of these (and versions of them), are particularly directed at women activists and journalists, every time they are critical of the Central Government. They come as a torrent of sexual abuse from organised trolls, whom Chaturvedi described in an interview with The Ladies Finger as a “pack of hyenas descending”.
Chaturvedi, who has previously worked as Deputy Editor at The Hindustan Times and as an independent journalist, began to write I am a Troll two years ago. The book, launched on December 27 this year, has been in the news ever since: it is the first time that anybody has established that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), does have an organised social media team of trolls waiting to attack anyone critical of the government — something many had suspected when the campaign for the 2014 elections began.
Back then, I remember how a friend’s Facebook post, vaguely critical of the BJP had been attacked by men he didn’t know, declaring him a “chutiya corrupt Congress wala” (he was 15), telling him to wait and see what happens.
Chaturvedi’s biggest source in the book is Sadhavi Khosla, who worked in the BJP’s social media campaign before the 2014 elections until she felt guilty at the things she was being forced to tweet to actors and journalists. Soon after the book came out, Arvind Gupta, president of the BJP IT cell whom Chaturvedi has accused of participating in organising the trolls, has defensively tweeted that Khosla was never part of the cell and that she actually worked for the Congress. In her interviews with Khosla, Chaturvedi establishes for us that Khosla did come from a family that has supported the Congress for three generations (her grandfather Surendar Nath Khosla was a Congress MLA from Samana in Punjab). However, perhaps anticipating a backlash from the BJP, she also includes photos of Khosla at various BJP social media meets, and screenshots of conversations that Khosla had with the aforementioned Arvind Gupta.
Curiously, though Chaturvedi writes that she met over 30 young men and women who worked in the BJP social media cell, she has only written about her interviews with three of them. Her description of the trolls descending as a pack of hyenas isn’t only about the huge number of men behind anonymous Twitter handles (with display pictures of the Twitter egg, Hindu gods, or bikini-wearing women, she writes in her book), but it is also about the BJP’s systematically constructed “digital army”. Members of this army, she says, are described by BJP ministers as yodhas, or warriors tweeting photos and statements designed to stir up trouble. These people obey Gupta’s instructions and are themselves followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, something their Twitter bios show they are very proud of. Their tweets appear along with coordinated hashtags that countless other anonymous handles retweet constantly, until they become trending news.
Among tweets that Chaturvedi shows us, there are those that endorse the “cold-blooded murder of terrorists,” and wish that all those in Kashmir who attended Burhan Wani’s funeral were bombed to give them “permanent azadi”— making clear divisions along communal lines. She also tells us how BJP trolls forced Snapdeal to drop Aamir Khan from its ads (they started circulating a petition demanding this) by downgrading the Snapdeal app on Google Play and the iOS App Store. But the other threats of rape and abuse, which become obvious in the first few pages of I am a Troll, are always reserved for women.
As Chaturvedi shows us in her book, we’ve seen this happening in the case of Barkha Dutt, who has been, among other things, called a “superior prostitute” who has “slept with each n every powerful of India” (sic). Gul Panag, when she joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was greeted with “congratulations”, and a PhotoShopped picture of her lying provocatively across a bed in lingerie and high heels, the AAP cap on her derriere. “Men will face allegations of corruption, and women, along with similar allegations of corruption, also face [sexually charged] abuse,” said Chaturvedi to The Ladies Finger. She herself was trolled by someone with the Twitter handle @lutyensinsider, who called her a nymphomaniac, discussed her “rate”, and tweeted incessantly about how she stalked Congress politician Rahul Gandhi, until she (Chaturvedi) filed an FIR against @lutyensinsider in June 2015. Nothing can be done, she was told later, because @lutyensinsider is a powerful man.
Do these trolls really believe in what they are saying? While some of these men are paid for their trolling (Chaturvedi writes in her book that they are mostly young men from small engineering colleges who do this work as a 9-5 job), others say they believe in the BJP’s ideology. One of the trolls, whom Chaturvedi interviews, says, “Hum log asli bhakt hain, ideology ke liye karte hain (We are true bhakts and do the work for our ideology).” Sometimes these sexual threats are used to stop women from proceeding with things they have been working on, and in others, they work as simple, throwaway comments. Chaturvedi goes on to point out that these gendered, sexually abusive comments are often an extension of what many women see and experience every day. They are disturbing in themselves, but they evidently show what these men think about what women should do and how they must be treated.
What does it mean when a government in power runs this kind of a targeted social media attack on women? The men in our Central Government – who make sweeping statements about the all too familiar ‘women’s empowerment’, coming up with feel-good campaigns like Selfie with a Daughter, and discussing the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojna with great self-satisfaction – are the same gents part of a party that organises such attacks. “These men don’t see women as beyond any of the standard roles of mother and sister,” says Chaturvedi firmly. As she argues in her book, it is why former army chief V.K. Singh used the term “sickular presstitute” to describe journalists, and BJP Vice-President Dayashankar Singh called Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati “worse than a prostitute”.
This organised attack against women is also based on the way in which we seem to look at sexual abuse in India — women who are vocal and critical are automatically seen as threats. These trolls believe that women can only be subdued by invoking their sexual lives or by calling them prostitutes, because a sexually active woman is automatically a questionable character. By extension, the rape threats they issue are also based on this perception, rather than being about a woman’s consent and agency. And they do it because they can, in the belief that there is nothing graver than this to threaten women with.
Earlier this year, when India announced it had retaliated to the attack on the army base at Uri with surgical strikes, male Twitter users in India and Pakistan discussed the women in each of these countries. In a series of disturbing tweets that seemed like automatic responses, men talked about raping women in the other country to conquer them as though they were a matter of free, transferable ownership. Here too, like in the case of the BJP trolls, the men’s tweets were obviously an extension of their own beliefs, and reading I am a Troll reinforced the worry that these tweets are not only by a handful of random men, but by an organised government.
At the end of I am a Troll, you are left with the unsettling sense of not knowing how to gauge all of this: it’s disturbing that there are unpaid trolls who believe in what they are doing, just as it’s disturbing to know that there are paid trolls. And a much larger government that’s backing them.