India’s right-wing trolls find a target close to home
Last week, Sushma Swaraj, India’s Foreign Minister and the most powerful woman in Indian politics, became an unlikely — and ironic — target of the bile and spite of India’s giant army of right-wing social media trolls, when she was viciously abused for personally intervening in a complaint by an interfaith couple about their passport application.
Swaraj is a long-time member of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. One of the most likeable ministers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, she has in her four-year tenure in a difficult ministry set a new example of responsiveness to ordinary citizens by asking them to contact her directly on Twitter if held up by India’s vast and supine bureaucracy. Effectively, she has served not as a sane voice on foreign policy but as a court of last resort — a soothing voice in a world of often impenetrable protocol and red tape — for common people on international and cross-border issues.
So it came as no surprise that Swaraj, although on a trip abroad, ordered an immediate investigation into a complaint made by a couple in Delhi; the wife Hindu, the husband Muslim. They alleged that, when they had gone to a passport office in the city of Lucknow to apply for passports, the investigating official had behaved rudely toward them. The woman, Tanvi Seth, said the official asked her why she had not changed her name formally after marriage, following which he also humiliated her husband in public, asking him to change his religion.
“It is my personal choice to choose a name I want to after marriage. This is our family matter and the last thing I expected to hear at the passport office was it is your duty to change your name after marriage,” Seth wrote in a tweet addressed to Swaraj.
Their story was an all-too-believable episode of bureaucratic excess in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which has been ruled since March last year by the BJP and fronted by the firebrand Hindu nationalist and veteran Muslim-baiter, Yogi Adityanath. But, after Swaraj’s intervention, the offending passport officer was immediately transferred, and the couple were issued new passports the very next day (although the matter is under review again because they are not permanent residents of Lucknow, the city from which they applied).
A warming story with a happy ending, one would have thought. Not so. It became a flashpoint for thousands of outraged protests from trolls sympathetic to Hindutva, the political ideology of the BJP. Many of them leapt in to attack not just the couple but also Swaraj, and presented inventive defenses of the passport officer’s conduct. The most powerful woman in Indian politics was subjected to grotesque personal abuse.
Many prominent female journalists, who have also faced vicious abuse, such as the TV anchor Barkha Dutt, raised a question worthy of serious consideration: If this is what the most prominent Hindu woman in Indian politics is subjected to for her “support” of a member of a minority community, what must be the ordeal of millions of members of minorities in their everyday life?
With great dignity, Swaraj on her return to India actually retweeted some of the most venal tweets, thereby calling out the trolls. But, revealingly, no prominent member of her party said a word in her defense — not even Modi (with whom, some say, she shares an uneasy relationship).
It was left to politicians of the opposing parties to compliment Swaraj for her conduct. Many prominent female journalists, who have also faced vicious abuse, such as the TV anchor Barkha Dutt, raised a question worthy of serious consideration: If this is what the most prominent Hindu woman in Indian politics is subjected to for her “support” of a member of a minority community, what must be the ordeal of millions of members of minorities in their everyday life?
And frankly, even if Swaraj’s conduct in this instance was very mature, the fact remains that she is a prominent member of a party that has an often repugnant political ideology and that, since its victory in 2014, has greatly coarsened and inflamed the tone of public debate in India. Her personal conduct is admirable and her stance brave, but to some extent she is being targeted due to the toxic culture generated by the very political principles she has espoused in a long political career.
Finally, Swaraj was not always so mature. Fourteen years ago, when Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, led the Congress party to victory in the Indian parliamentary elections of 2004, Swaraj launched an astonishingly outlandish protest. Displaying the same disrespect for democratic norms as many current members of her party, the future foreign minister threatened to shave her head and wear white — the marks of a widow in traditional Hindu culture — if a “foreigner” became PM.
Of course politics is a business of emotion and theatrics, and politicians often do things that they later regret. Even so, there was more than a touch of the chickens coming home to roost in the unfortunate and unnecessary episode that consumed so much news space in India last week. Some of the most impassioned defenders of the supremacy of “traditional Hindu culture and values” are finding out that, when put to the test, a section of modern Hindus actually have more in common with barbarous trolls all around the world.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the Mumbai novel “Clouds,” published in January 2018 by Simon & Schuster. Twitter: @Hashestweets