FIVE SHADES OF SAF­FRON

Cy­berspace is awash with a new breed of cit­i­zens: In­ter­net Hin­dus. Many of them are vo­cal, ar­tic­u­late and com­bat­ive, in dif­fer­ent mea­sure. Here are the five faces of the In­ter­net Hindu.

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some­times abu­sive, of­ten ra­bidly an­timi­nor­ity and al­ways anti-gov­ern­ment—is dis­parag­ingly re­ferred to as In­ter­net Hin­dus, a term it has now em­braced. “I love it when some­one calls me Sanghi or right-wing or In­ter­net Hindu,” says Gandhi. “I’m like, ‘oh wow, thank you for say­ing that’.” Their lan­guage, as Gandhi’s Amer­i­can-teenager mis­use of ‘like’ re­veals, is young and col­lo­quial. But their agenda is a mix of post-mod­ern and tra­di­tional. They op­pose dy­nasty pol­i­tics, par­tic­u­larly the Nehru-Gandhi clan, but of­fer no opin­ion on the fa­ther-and-son pol­i­tics within BJP and its al­lies such as Shiv Sena. They call mi­nor­ity ap­pease­ment ‘pseudo-sec­u­lar­ism’ with such fer­vour that their sen­ti­ment could eas­ily be in­ter­preted as Hindu su­prem­a­cist or an­tiMus­lim. They are against lower-caste reser­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly be­cause it is poorly im­ple­mented. They are con­cerned about in­ter­nal se­cu­rity. But above all, they are against cor­rup­tion.

GRAV­I­TAT­ING TO­WARDS MODI

While the com­bat­ive na­ture of their tweets doesn’t al­ways show it, a num­ber of them be­came ac­tive on so­cial me­dia only a cou­ple of years ago, not to sup­port

BJP or its poli­cies. Pandey opened his Twit­ter ac­count the day he heard that Sachin Ten­dulkar had signed up. “There was a his­tory of RSS sup­port in my fam­ily but it was @sach­in_rt that drew me out,” he says. “Once I was here, one thing led to another.”

Shilpi Tewari, 35, an ar­chi­tect by ed­u­ca­tion, now runs a con­sul­tancy firm with her hus­band. She says she has been in­volved with the Gov­ern­ment in projects in the past, and it was the voice of Anna Hazare and his Jan Lok­pal Bill move­ment that first at­tracted her. “I was at Ramlila Maidan with thou­sands of oth­ers, de­mand­ing an end to cor­rup­tion,” she says. It was only later, when the anti-Congress and anti-Gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment be­came over­pow­er­ing, that she grav­i­tated to­wards BJP and par­tic­u­larly to­wards Modi. Tewari now be­lieves, as do sev­eral oth­ers like her, that their ef­forts were re­spon­si­ble in help­ing Modi win the prime min­is­te­rial can­di­da­ture within BJP. “We have not just sup­ported his el­e­va­tion, we have made it hap­pen,” she beams.

Ac­cord­ing to Anja Ko­vacs, di­rec­tor of the In­ter­net Democ­racy Project in

IN­TER­NET HIN­DUS COULD BE IN THE NEXT CU­BI­CLE IN YOUR WORK­PLACE OR ON THE NEXT DESK IN YOUR CLASS­ROOM, SCOUR­ING THE WEB ON THEIR SMART­PHONES.

Delhi, the young mid­dle-class BJP sup­porter is in­trin­si­cally tied with the rise of the In­ter­net. “A lot of the lead­er­ship of this In­ter­net move­ment was pro­vided by techies who had moved abroad and were look­ing to con­nect with In­dia. BJP nat­u­rally con­nects with the mid­dle-class, up­wardly mo­bile In­dian who is more likely to be on the In­ter­net than, say, some­one who supports CPI,” she points out.

Ac­cord­ing to an IRIS Knowl­edge Foun­da­tion and In­ter­net and Mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia sur­vey, so­cial me­dia will in­flu­ence 160 seats in the 2014 elec­tions. The Oc­to­ber Google sur­vey says that about 42 per cent of all ur­ban vot­ers who are online are un­de­cided whom to vote for, mak­ing them a large vote bank that can still swing ei­ther way. Not sur­pris­ingly, how­ever, Naren­dra Modi was the po­lit­i­cal leader most googled by ur­ban In­dian vot­ers.

Though th­ese In­ter­net war­riors come in dif­fer­ent shades of saf­fron ( see box), a large sec­tion has grav­i­tated to­wards Modi with such en­thu­si­asm that it be­lieves he can do no wrong. Pandey, Tewari, and Ta­jin­der Pal Singh Bagga, a 27-year-old patkawear­ing Sikh who has had links with

BJP and RSS since his teens, in­sist they are not blind fol­low­ers of Modi; that they sup­port him be­cause of his poli­cies, his de­vel­op­ment mantra, and his clean im­age. But when asked if Modi has done any­thing that they don’t agree with over his en­tire po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, none of them has a com­plaint to of­fer. “So he is al­ways right?” we ask. “No,” they re­ply in sheep­ish uni­son, but have noth­ing to say to counter the ques­tion.

A high level of mo­ti­va­tion cou­pled with a su­per­fi­cial un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics seems to run across the online Hin­du­sphere. In his book, Pa­tri­ots &

Par­ti­sans, his­to­rian Ra­machan­dra Guha de­voted a chap­ter to the ‘Hin­dutva hate mail’ he had re­ceived over his years as an au­thor and con­trib­u­tor. Quot­ing sev­eral emails and let­ters to the ed­i­tor, ei­ther brand­ing him as a Gandhi fam­ily stooge or sug­gest­ing that he visit a shrink, Guha con­tended that he had been brought in con­tact with “a cer­tain kind of In­dian who gets up be­fore dawn, has a glass of cow’s milk, prays to the sun god, and be­gins scan­ning cy­berspace for the day’s sec­u­lar here­sies”.

At the risk of tak­ing Guha too lit­er­ally, his de­pic­tion of the av­er­age mod­ern-day Hin­dutva online cru­sader is only par­tially cor­rect. Large num­bers of this breed wake up in the morn­ing, go out for a jog, drink a cup of black cof­fee, and like mil­lions of other of­fice­go­ers, head off in their EMI- sup­ported

SUV’S. They are doc­tors, engi­neers, IT pro­fes­sion­als, bu­reau­crats, call-cen­tre work­ers, jour­nal­ists and busi­ness own­ers. They are good at their jobs but of­ten their vis­ceral knowl­edge of pol­i­tics makes them ide­o­log­i­cally mal­leable and ea­ger to hit back against per­se­cu­tion even where none ex­ists. In their world, there is only black and white, and no room for shades of gray.

“We are not anti-Mus­lim but if you push us against the wall, we are bound to re­act,” says Priti Gandhi, bring­ing up

AIMIM leader Ak­barud­din Owaisi’s hate speech in Adi­l­abad last De­cem­ber, “oth­er­wise, some of my best friends are Mus­lims.” Iron­i­cally, the ‘ur­ban dic­tionary’, an online phrase guide, lists ‘some of my best friends are’ as “some­thing prej­u­diced peo­ple say when they’re called out on their prej­u­dice”.

TO­GETHER THEY STAND

Mem­bers of this online com­mu­nity now know each other off­line as well. They have each other’s email IDs, phone num­bers, postal ad­dresses, and try to catch up for a meal ev­ery once in a while. They go to each other’s homes when vis­it­ing their cities, and com­pare notes about ev­ery­day things, such as how their chil­dren are do­ing at school. This off­line bon­homie of­ten springs from the as­sur­ance that they have each other’s backs when trolled online by “pseudo-sick­u­lar” forces.

In some ways, this loose online col­lec­tive serves as a kind of sup­port group. A month ago, one of their own, 35-year-old Rudra Sekhar, iden­ti­fied by his twit­ter han­dle @Ru­draHindu, was in hos­pi­tal suf­fer­ing from a kid­ney dis­or­der. The group pooled in their re­sources and, through SOSes sent on Twit­ter, man­aged to raise about Rs 2 lakh for Sekhar’s treat­ment. He passed away on Oc­to­ber 7 with a last wish to be cre­mated in a BJP flag. “We had never met him but he was our friend,” says Bagga. Not only was his last wish ful­filled, Sekhar’s fa­ther got a con­do­lence call from Modi him­self.

But the prin­ci­pal com­plaint against mem­bers of this group is how they troll Congress sup­port­ers, Congress lead­ers, and jour­nal­ists who they be­lieve are all part of some amor­phous pro­Gov­ern­ment ‘paid me­dia’ guild. They speak in a code lan­guage that bor­ders

A COM­PLAINT-AGAINST MEM­BERS OF THIS GROUP IS THAT THEY HUNT IN PACKS, RETWEET­ING EACH OTHER IN A LAN­GUAGE THAT BOR­DERS ON THE OF­FEN­SIVE.

on the of­fen­sive (see box) and of­ten re­sort to abuse when pushed into a cor­ner. It’s not that Congress sup­port­ers don’t get abu­sive or abra­sive in this gen­eral low­er­ing of stan­dards of po­lit­i­cal dis­course on so­cial me­dia. A Congress mem­ber, Amaresh Misra, had gone to the ex­tent of threat­en­ing Shilpi Tewari in March with dire con­se­quences in the worst pos­si­ble lan­guage. By and large, how­ever, the Congress’s rad­i­cal voices get sub­merged by the sheer am­pli­tude and vol­ume of the BJP- sup­port­ing trolls.

Sagarika Ghose, deputy ed­i­tor of CNN-IBN, is trolled reg­u­larly for her TV shows and ar­ti­cles. She says that while many of the tweets are harm­less jibes, some are out­right dan­ger­ous. “Once some­one said they knew my daugh­ter’s school timings. That scared me. Such voices give a bad name to Twit­ter, which is oth­er­wise a won­der­fully demo­cratic plat­form,” she says.

Things reached a point where Arvind Gupta, head of BJP’S IT cell, had to up­load so­cial me­dia guide­lines this May for of­fice-bear­ers, party mem­bers, and sup­port­ers, telling them that their so­cial me­dia con­duct re­flects on the party’s im­age. “A healthy de­bate on var­i­ous is­sues is en­cour­aged as it pro­motes un­der­stand­ing of var­i­ous nu­ances and com­plex­i­ties of is­sues. How­ever, de­bate should ide­ally not be­come a ruse to un­nec­es­sar­ily tag peo­ple and/or re­sult in be­hav­iour which can be con­strued as cy­ber bul­ly­ing,” the doc­u­ment, a first-of-it­skind at­tempt at crowd sourc­ing, said.

Even if BJP or a sec­tion of their in­de­pen­dent online brigade doesn’t ap­prove of abu­sive or com­bat­ive lan­guage, it is un­able to dis­own the peo­ple who in­dulge in it. Han­dles such as the anony­mous @Hin­duIDF and @bar­barindian are men­tioned as re­peat of­fend­ers but not attacked by the sup­port­ers. The logic is that ‘they may be rad­i­cals, but they are our rad­i­cals’.

“The In­ter­net is a re­flec­tion of so­ci­ety, like cin­ema or mu­sic,” ex­plains Gupta. “Abuse is of­ten a re­sult of peo­ple not know­ing English well enough. When you are hav­ing an ar­gu­ment in col­lege, and you are not be­ing able to ar­tic­u­late your point, you re­sort to foul lan­guage. But such peo­ple are 5 per cent. The ma­jor­ity of our sup­port­ers are ed­u­cated and mod­ern,” he adds.

While the means, the words, and even the be­liefs of this online com­mu­nity need to be de­bated, most of them have come for­ward with the right in­ten­tion—out of na­tion­al­ism, to fight against what they per­ceive as in­jus­tice, and to ef­fect change. A lit­tle less sophistry, a lit­tle less rhetoric, a lit­tle less neg­a­tiv­ity, and greater nu­ance about the pros and cons of their he­roes would go a long way in mak­ing them a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal en­tity.

“That’s the way pro­pa­ganda works. It is sus­tained, repet­i­tive, and loud,” says Congress spokesman San­jay Jha, when asked about the

BJP’S online supremacy. “They preyed on vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple by car­pet­bomb­ing them with words and ideas. With the Congress pres­ence on so­cial me­dia al­most neg­li­gi­ble un­til last year, they man­aged to get their way. The process of neu­tral­i­sa­tion has now be­gun. So­cial me­dia is a plat­form where the first-mover ad­van­tage can be coun­tered quickly.”

But the other Congress con­tention that BJP’S In­ter­net fan base is or­ches­trated does not hold wa­ter judg­ing by the sheer num­bers in­volved. So­cial me­dia has spo­ken clearly and em­phat­i­cally about what it wants in the 2014 Gen­eral Elec­tions. Other par­ties can take heart from the fact that online fer­vour alone will not de­cide who comes to power. Nor can you tweet your vote, at least not yet.

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