Internet trolls rear their ugly heads in India

They post death and rape threats online, but there is little govt can do

A growing legion of Internet trolls, particularly right-wing Hindu nationalists, is becoming an online nuisance in India.

Some have posted death threats and threatened to rape women, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently expressed frustration that there was little the government could do about it in a country with an estimated 22 million Indian Twitter users and over 100 million on Facebook.

Delhi-based human rights activist John Dayal has filed three police complaints, including one this year, against anonymous online users who threatened him and even his daughter. "At least five time a day I am targeted. They basically want to kill me and rape my daughter. One person writes it and then 20 persons will retweet it and it continues," said Mr Dayal, secretary-general of the All India Christian Council. Police have told him they have been unable to trace the trolls.

 

"This is because of my sustained opposition to right-wing politics," said Mr Dayal, who has opposed the Maharashtra government's beef ban.

Though there are trolls of all ideologies online, right-wing nationalists who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government are often in the news. Author Salman Rushdie last year called them "Modi Toadies".

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, Hindu nationalist groups have become increasingly emboldened. Last year, dozens of authors and poets returned the country's top literary award in protest against what they said was rising religious intolerance, including attacks on writers.

The BJP has said it has nothing to do with online trolls.

Mr Modi has asked online supporters to spread a positive message, while Mr Jaitley said they had nothing to do with the party.

"This is individuals who do it. I don't think most of these individuals are bound by party discipline," he told New Delhi's NDTV recently.

"I think we have to learn to live with it. We have to ignore them," he said.

CONTINUAL HARASSMENT

At least five time a day I am targeted. They basically want to kill me and rape my daughter. One person writes it and then 20 persons will retweet it and it continues.

DELHI-BASED HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST JOHN DAYAL, who is also secretary-general of the All India Christian Council, on anonymous online users who threatened him and his daughter.

But not everyone agrees nothing can be done.

"Political leaders could also make a tremendous contribution by distancing themselves from abuse that is supposedly perpetuated in the defence of ideologies that they, too, believe in..." said Dr Anja Kovacs, who directs The Internet Democracy Project. "Though Hindu nationalists are by no means the only people in India... they do constitute a substantive and highly visible chunk.

"More efforts should be made to integrate modules on online civility in education, to do general awareness-raising campaigns... in addition to improving implementation of the law."

Women, too, are particularly vulnerable to trolls.

Last year, journalist Swati Chaturvedi approached the police for action against an anonymous Twitter handle called Lutyens Insider that accused her of stalking Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

The police filed a case of stalking, sexual harassment and criminal slander but have yet to identify who was behind the handle, which has gone offline.

"It was a systematic organised campaign of calumny to bully and harass me. I refuse to be anybody's victim,'' said Ms Chaturvedi. "I was called a paedophile..."

Mrs Priti Gandhi, a national executive member of the BJP mahila morha or women's wing, said she gets called a "troll".

"Every party gets trolled. You can't label it as left or right," she said. "I also get a lot of threats and my children get threatened. I just ignore it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Internet trolls rear their ugly heads in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe