It’s official now. Representatives of the Government of India – and therefore by extension, the Government of India – endorse trolls and the economic boycott of Indian citizens whose views they don’t like or agree with.

On July 31, 2016, Manohar Parrikar, Union Minister for Defence went public with what can only be described as the Modi government’s disdain for Freedom of Expression (FoE) and dissent. Speaking at a book launch, he said, “People have shown their power, an actor made this mistake, said his wife wants to go and stay in a foreign country. That was an arrogant statement”.

He also said, “anyone speaking against the country must be taught a lesson” and then added for good measure that, “some of our people are very smart, I know. There was a team which was working on this. They were telling people you order and return. The company should learn a lesson, they had to pull his advertisement”. That the statements were obviously aimed at Aamir Khan’s comments on intolerance and Snapdeal terminating Khan’s contract, was clear. Although, Parrikar did not name Khan or Snapdeal.

b’A file photo of Manohar Parrikar | Source: PTI’

In November 2015, Khan had spoken about a growing “sense of insecurity” resulting from increased intolerance in the country and mentioned his wife Kiran Rao’s apprehension about bringing up their child in India.

Parrikar came in for instant flak from the Opposition owing to his endorsement of trolling. Congress spokesperson, Randeep Surjewala asked, “Is your job to protect India from external aggressors like Pakistan or threaten fellow countrymen like actor Aamir Khan?”

Parrikar has in the last 24 hours backtracked and said that he did not target or name any specific person but is against overall “unrest”. He also said he was not opposed to the “freedom of expression, but feels that country is supreme”.

Parrikar is not alone is displaying this aversion to criticism of the government. The Modi government seems to be gripped by a classic persecution complex while it seeks to persecute others. They seem to be confused about conflating criticism of the government, with that of India.

b’A file photo of Aamir Khan | Source: PTI’

Some thoughtful leaders of the BJP, alarmed by this complete identification with right-wing trolls have sought to distance the government from the snake-pit of the trolls. But, Parrikar’s statement proves otherwise.

The trolls tasted blood with a frightened Snapdeal cancelling its contract with Khan. They upped the ante by attacking and calling for a boycott of Shahrukh Khan’s Dilwale. Similar tactics were used against journalists Barkha Dutt and Rana Ayub’s books on Amazon by downgrading them in a planned organised and systematic way – within minutes of the books being released for sale online.

That the BJP has the true measure of social media and leads other parties by miles in this pursuit is evident in the way some senior leaders endorse trolls. Former HRD minister, Smriti Irani who has lost two elections and is a Rajya Sabha member without a constituency to call her own had made trolls her virtual constituency.

Irani, currently Minister for Textiles, was known for her twitter spats with journalists, calling one a “kaayar” (coward) for tweeting without tagging her, and also objected to the Bihar Education Minister addressing her as “Dear”. This went down a treat with the rightwing trolls who complimented her “tight slaps” and “burnol” to “sickular libtard presstitutes”.

b’A file photo of Smriti Irani | Source: PTI’

Recently a verified official handle of the Union Ministry of Commerce, @startupindia retweeted an anonymous troll who “wanted the Army to kill all presstitutes”. When this was first pointed out, BJP National President (Convenor) of IT Cell, Arvind Gupta tried to brazen it out by saying “it was photoshopping”. However, after widespread outrage, the tweets were deleted and an apology proffered. Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Minister of State, Commerce & Industry also said that the employee had been sacked.

Sources reveal that lucrative contracts have been handed out to various agencies which are run by BJP supporters. That the trolls are running amok and seem to have taken over the building was evident in the way Minister for Women & Child Welfare Maneka Gandhi was attacked for trying to act against sexual harassment on social media. This move by her was portrayed by various people on Twitter, almost all of whom are rightwing supporters, as a threat to FoE.

b’BJP chief Amit Shah with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) | Source: PTI’

Members of the BJP’s social media cell even made plaintive appeals to BJP President, Amit Shah saying that they spent 7 to 8 hours trolling at the cost of neglecting their families and health. Anonymous handles tagged Modi and tweeted, “BJP’s online base was being targeted” by Gandhi. Incredibly, Gandhi was trolled herself.

Says a senior journalist who has faced death and rape threats from rabid rightwing handles, “they are in no way fighting for FoE, but for a right to sexually harass and issue rape threats. A right to slander, hunting in hyena packs with anonymous handles complete with Hindu god display pictures. They target journalists almost like a blood sport”.

Many facts have come to the fore owing to this repeated lack of tolerance for dissent or criticism.

First, the BJP which claims to be the world’s biggest political party runs a Social Media cell that encourages its members and supporters to abuse other citizens. Second, this has complete sanction from powerful ministers such as Parrikar who extolled the trolls as “very smart” to ensure the economic boycott of a private company and an actor who refused to follow the BJP’s script. 

b’General VK Singh with Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Source: PTI’

Third, Narendra Modi, unlike any other world leader follows a large number of abusive handles and even had a widely criticised meet-and-greet with people who are known for indulging in abusive behaviour online, at the PM’s official residence. Fourth, many other Cabinet ministers such as Giriraj Singh and VK Singh also follow abusive handles which routinely indulge in sexual harassment. In fact, after Twitter suspended one such handle – @mahaveerm, Giriraj Singh led a public campaign to restore it. The handle is still followed by Narendra Modi.

Parrikar’s spontaneous statement makes it patently obvious that this harassment of citizens has official sanction. It’s truly a frightening prospect that the Government Of India extols and protects such harassment – and is no longer trying to be circumspect by hiding behind anonymous online profiles while endorsing such behaviour.

(Feature image source: PTI)