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

The latest female public figure to be a victim of online abuse is Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. Despite being a fierce lawmaker and actively involved in rescuing several Indians in trouble abroad, Swaraj finds herself at the receiving end of vicious trolling at home.

Tweets attacked Swaraj and her office for “appeasing Muslims and acting secular” because they speedily issued passports to a Muslim husband and his Hindu wife. The wife, Tanvi Seth, alleged that passport officer Vikas Misra had harassed her for marrying a Muslim and not changing her name, while he asked her husband to convert to Hinduism. Later it emerged that Seth’s marriage certificate bore a different name – Sadia Anas – and the matter has now gone under investigation.

Meanwhile, Misra, who was transferred for his actions, denied all allegations. The Twitter kangaroo court has already decided that Misra, a Hindu, was not guilty, and because the passport office speedily resolved an issue of an interfaith couple, it was “Muslim appeasement.”

That was too much for a communal crowd that used the word “secular” on Swaraj as if it’s an abusive slang word. However, the constitution of India, if of any relevance to these children of Hindu nationalism, holds the nation as secular, and its lawmakers are supposed to abide by these founding principles.

Silent treatment from BJP

Swaraj’s ordeal has been steadily ignored for more than a week by her colleagues and fellow political leaders – especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah. The liberal voices questioned the “big two” for not condemning Swaraj’s abuse and right-wing communal trolls criticized them for not taking action against the minister.

While the opposition parties came out openly in Swaraj’s support, no statement was released by the party of her fellow ministers. Only Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and Home Minister Rajnath Singh, when asked by media to comment on the issue, said it was wrong to troll Swaraj.

Swaraj, a prominent politician, has long been with the BJP. The silence can mean that the BJP doesn’t approve of Swaraj’s “secularism” either as they have to retain their voter base. Many of the trolls and hate-speech propagators on Twitter have claimed to be BJP supporters while attacking Swaraj and were disappointed that someone from the right-wing Hindu-nationalist party would aid Muslims.

The connections are not very vague. A Hindustan Times report said that as many as 41 BJP lawmakers “follow at least one of the accounts that tweeted out a message which Swaraj had liked to showcase trolling.” The report further added that Modi followed eight such accounts.

Women vs online abuse

However, Swaraj’s continuous rebuttal to the trolls has contributed to an effort to unmask the face of online abuse against women. She has retweeted and archived the hate tweets, which reflect an extension of India’s tensed reality – violence against women, communal hatred, Islamophobia and so on.

Swaraj herself took the initiative of conducting a Twitter poll on the abusive trolling and asked if people approved of such behavior. As many as 43% voted “yes.”

Any woman who has been vocal and prominent on social media, especially Twitter, would know the wrath of online trolls subjecting her to threats, harassment and stalking on a daily basis. This online trend of trolling and abuse is nonetheless a reflection of the real world outside the Internet. The Internet just makes it easier for a certain kind of person to unleash hatred with less accountability.

According to a recent survey, 57% of the respondents, consisting of women and marginalized genders, said they has faced online harassment and trolling. About a third of the respondents said they had intentionally reduced their online presence after facing abuse. Many feminists see this as yet another ploy to exclude women from public discourse.

Thirty percent of the survey respondents said they were unaware of laws against online harassment and only a third of respondents had reported harassment to law enforcement, of whom 38% said the response was “not at all helpful.”

The topics that attract the most trolling and abuse are feminism, government and politics, and religion, according to the survey.

Not surprisingly, many Indian journalists and public figures are subjected to online abuse that extends to offline threats. The scenario is quite scary, and we have had some prominent examples in recent times. In 2013, journalist Sagarika Ghose received rape threats on Twitter and the abusive users discovered and published information on her daughter’s identity and school. The survey report said Ghose claimed the tweets came from right-wing nationalists. Since then, she had refrained from sharing her personal views on social media.

This not only affects the direct victims but also other female users online. The survey says that people lose trust in popular platforms because of harassment against them or someone they know, such as known public figures.

Sushma Swaraj’s husband had to criticize a Twitter user who had asked him to “beat up Swaraj in order to teach her not to appease Muslims.” Addressing the troll he said: “Your words have given us unbearable pain.” Abusive tweets toward the minister included people threatening her, asking her to resign from her post, accusing her of “appeasing” Muslims and “betraying” the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist approach, and questioning if she was a Hindu. Some went as far as trolling her based on her kidney surgery and even calling her kidneys “Islamic.”

It didn’t matter to trolls and vehement critics that Swaraj said she was outside India during the Tanvi Seth incident and had no role in it.

A columnist even condemned Swaraj highlighting her experience of abuse. She advocated the abuse to be shrugged off and not talked about, especially because left-wing liberals were feeding off it (or supporting Swaraj).

This urge to Swaraj to keep mum on online abuse and shift the focus to the passport case seems like an old tactic of silencing women. The columnist asked Swaraj not to be emotionally affected as demonstrated by Narendra Modi and other ministers. Because a woman must be like a “man” who is systematically taught not to be sensitive and emotional, because those are “weak” strains. No wonder the greatest wars were waged by this species without sensitivity.

However, ignoring abuse is never going to put an end to it. Talking about it could.

Aritry Das is a multimedia editor with Asia Times.

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