A growing debate about the quality of journalism on Indian television and government influence intensified after the country’s second most watched news channel branded some people an “Opposition Troll Army” against the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party as well as “Hindu haters.”
In a segment aired last Friday, news channel Times Now showed photographs, twitter names and selected tweets from six users known to be supporters of the Congress party, and brandished them abusive trolls and “Hindu haters.”
“My sister got a call from her friend saying ‘your brother’s name is Riyaz, right? His photo is on TV and they are saying he’s anti-army and a Hindu-hater,’” Riyaz Ahmed, one of the people named in the segment, told Asia Times. “My mother was in shock and crying,” he added.
The segment also came at a grim time for 41-year-old writer and entrepreneur Sanjukta Basu, the fourth person mentioned by Times Now Editor-in-Chief Rahul Shivshankar.
She had spent the morning with her family, amid rituals to commemorate her mother who passed away in April last year. “My father was already in a delicate state of mind and we come from a humble middle-class family – it’s not like we are very rich, powerful or influential people – so [on seeing the segment] he just instantly went pale and needed to lie down,” Sanjukta said.
Fear and loss of jobs
“I am scared for my life … in my polling booth 97% of votes go to BJP,” Riyaz tweeted soon after the segment aired.
Riyaz and Sanjukta said that amid India’s current political and religious environment, the “Hindu hater” tag had endangered their lives. “Imagine some extremist Hindu somewhere adds my name and photo to a list of ‘anti-Hindus’ and just like that I’ll be on their target list,” said Riyaz. “If I’m going out to meet someone, my family keeps calling or messaging every 10-15 minutes to check 0n my safety,” he added.
Support from neighbors have helped calm Riyaz’s immediate fears, but he still dreaded his face or location being published in the news. “My neighbors will protect me, but I don’t know what thousands of others will do,” he said.
Sanjukta had similar concerns about the segment. “Tomorrow one Shambhu Lal Raigar might just feel like killing me because he heard I’m a Hindu-hater on Times Now,” she said. Shambhu Lal Raigar is a Rajasthan man who uploaded a chilling video of himself hacking and burning a Muslim migrant worker to death in December last year.
“They dehumanized and objectified me. They numbered me and put labels on me … we are tax-paying, law-abiding citizens with the same rights as Shivshankar. They can’t make such allegations without giving us an opportunity to be heard,” she said.
Riyaz was also fired from his job because of the segment. “I was working in public relations, and though I have a good a relationship with my boss, he called me and said he can’t have someone branded a ‘Hindu hater’ handling his communications,” Riyaz said.
“I am not naming my employer because he will be attacked for either firing me or simply being associated with me,” he said, adding that the information will be available for legal scrutiny.
Sanjukta also said she was worried about her value in the market as a freelance journalist after being labelled a “Congress troll.”
Each of their lawyers, now working pro-bono, plan to demand an apology from the channel and the removal of all videos of the segment and related content.
Riyaz’s legal team will also send a notice to Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s IT Cell, for sharing screenshots of the segment and putting his face on display.
If the channel does not respond, the two will sue for defamation. “Sanjukta’s tweets make a million impressions everyday. We will evaluate her social media presence and convert it to real popularity to ascertain the extent of defamation,” said Sanjukta’s lawyer Anas Tanwir. He added they will also file a police report against Times Now for criminal intimidation.
The premise of the segment was that Congress President Rahul Gandhi held a conclave on March 27 “to plan a social media strategy for 2019 general elections.” “Known anti-BJP trolls with odious track records” and “Modi and Shah baiters” were invited to attend the meeting, said the channel’s editor Shivshankar. He claimed his findings were “worse than Cambridge Analytica.”
The segment was named “Rahul Gandhi’s Secret Plan To Avenge Amit Shah,” referring to political jibes made by Shah that day.
“This was hilarious, bizarre and stupid at the same time. They were alleging that Rahul Gandhi met a bunch of people on March 27 to plan revenge for a jibe that was made on April 6 … They have given up on ethics to attack individuals whose opinions run contrary to the ruling regime,” Sanjukta said. “This is trolling by a national television channel,” she added.
Sanjukta said the meeting on March 27 was not a secret and was even reported on. Both her and Riyaz claimed it was a “free-flowing” interaction with Gandhi, who invited ideas for upcoming polls.
She slammed Times Now for claiming they had been recruited by Gandhi. “He meets farmers, traders, students, teachers – do they become his recruits? They are trying to malign my voice by suggesting I get paid for tweeting in favor of Congress,” Sanjukta said, “but I will not get silenced or intimidated.
“I think we were picked out because we are strong voices. I even think some amount of profiling was done. Riyaz is Muslim and I’m Bengali, so it’s easy to brand me a commie,” Sanjukta said.
For Sanjukta, every day since last Friday has been a revelation. “I had no idea I was so important in the political scene,” she said laughing. Riyaz, on the other hand, just wants the controversy to subside. “People say I’ve become a celebrity, but I do not want it. My life has become hell.”
Asia Times sent questions to Shivshankar and Times Now Managing Editor-Politics Navika Kumar, but has not had a response. This story will be updated if they comment.