Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Photo: The Hindu
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Photo: The Hindu

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj found herself at the receiving end of abusive tweets and threats on social media when an interfaith couple were granted passports after the wife’s tweet to the minister about the problems they had faced.

The abuse started after the erring Foreign Ministry passport official was transferred out. None of the minister’s cabinet colleagues protested or condemned the attacks since they began on Sunday.

Tweets attacked Swaraj and her office for supposedly “appeasing Muslims and being secular” by speedily issuing passports to a Muslim husband and his Hindu wife. The couple had claimed to have faced harassment by an official named Vikas Mishra at the regional passport office in Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh.

The wife, Tanvi Seth, claimed that the official “moral policed” her as she had married a Muslim and did not change her name after marriage.

“… Married a Muslim and not changed my name ever. He spoke to me very rudely and was loud enough for others to hear while discussing my case. I have never felt so harassed ever before. The other workers at the office acknowledged his rude demeanor,” she tweeted to Swaraj.

Swaraj, in her tweet, said she had not been aware of the passport incident but was “honored’ by some tweets.

These tweets included people threatening her, asking her to resign from her post, accusing her of favoritism toward Muslims and of not sticking to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist approach, and calling her “Visa Mata,” meaning “Visa Mother” in a derogatory manner.

Some people went so far as to attack her based on her kidney operation.

In December 2016, Swaraj had to go through a kidney transplant operation, where the donor was unrelated to her. However, before her operation, a couple of Muslim men, among others, had offered to donate their kidneys. In her reply to them, Swaraj said kidneys had no religious labels.

Another Twitter user took a potshot at her by saying, “She is almost dead woman as she runs on only one kidney (borrowed from someone else) and any time that can stop working.”

No BJP leader has condemned the trolling of Swaraj yet.

Different narratives

Tanvi Seth told the media that Mishra had not only harassed them but also told her husband to convert to Hinduism to acquire the passport. Both of their passports were put on hold by him.

A day after Tanvi’s narrative attracted media attention, the regional passport office in Lucknow held a press conference along with the couple and handed them their passports. The controversial passport officer was also given a show-cause notice and was later transferred to the neighboring district of Gorakhpur.

However, Mishra denied the allegations against him. “I asked Tanvi Seth to get the name ‘Shadia Anas’ endorsed as it was mentioned on her Nikahnama [Muslim marriage contract], but she refused. We have to do thorough checks to ensure no person is changing their name to obtain a [false or duplicate] passport,” he told Asian News International (ANI).

Mishra’s statement and his transfer created outrage among Hindutva trolls who lent him their support and started attacking Swaraj for not standing by him.

“Thing is, now she can misuse this passport to masquerade with an identity that does not exist on other official records. For instance if there is a police complaint on Shadia Anas, she still can travel unhindered as Tanvi Seth,” one Twitter user said.

The confusion and controversy rose as Mishra mentioned Tanvi having a different name in her Nikahnama while using her maiden name to apply for her passport. However, the couple did not respond to numerous calls and messages from Asia Times. Nor have they cleared the air about the difference in her name after marriage.

Tanvi, who not only tagged Swaraj in her accusatory tweets but also gave out her number on social media for the minister to call her, has made all her tweets private and deleted some since then.

A sudden kidnapping

Giving the story a new turn, a witness named Kuldeep Singh has emerged in the case. This lone witness claimed that Mishra did not misbehave with the couple.

“The government has taken action against him without proper investigation. It is very unfair,” Kuldeep Singh told India Today. He also told the magazine that he had been kidnapped at gunpoint but managed to escape. He said he had lodged a formal complaint with police. But he was unsure if the kidnapping had anything to do with the passport case.

The trolling of Sushma Swaraj in this case reflects the culture of online abuse that women face on daily basis. From rape threats to hurling abuse – nothing escapes the online trolls, either men or women.

Be it Gurmehar Kaur, who spoke out against campus violence at Delhi University led by the BJP’s student wing, or Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, who acted in a TV show where the terrorists were Hindu extremists (for a change), they all faced a horrid trolling episode on social-media sites.

Actor Swara Bhaskar, who was recently trolled and abused for her sexually bold role in a Bollywood film, has condemned the trolling of Swaraj along with several journalists and well-known members of the Indian intelligentsia.

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