Right-wing trolls target senior Indian minister

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been subjected to abusive criticism from Hindu right-wingers.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been subjected to abusive criticism from Hindu right-wingers.

Controversy over interfaith couple makes her target of abuse

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is usually praised on Twitter for her quick response to Indian nationals seeking help from any part of the world.

But a controversy surrounding an interfaith couple in India has made her the target of right-wing trolls, who support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of which Ms Swaraj is a senior leader.

The controversy erupted after Ms Tanvi Seth, a Hindu woman married to a Muslim, sent a tweet to Ms Swaraj alleging abuse at a passport office in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. She alleged that an official had abused her for marrying a Muslim and asked her husband to convert to Hinduism. They were eventually issued a passport.

The official was transferred out in a move that angered right-wing nationalists whose key agenda is to oppose interfaith marriages, particularly between Hindus and Muslims .

The External Affairs Minister has faced abusive criticism from right-wingers - from comments on her mental state and unkind references to her kidney transplant - and even death threats.

"In a democracy, difference of opinion is but natural. Pls (sic) do criticise but not in foul language. Criticism in decent language is always more effective," Ms Swaraj, 66, tweeted on Sunday.

The day before, she even asked Twitter users to take a poll on whether they approve of such abusive tweets. The poll showed that 57 per cent of the 124,305 voters did not approve, but 43 per cent approved of the tweets.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to comment on the online abuse. Home Minister Rajnath Singh yesterday came out in support of Ms Swaraj, saying he considered this to be "absolutely wrong", according to news agency ANI.

In the past, amid criticism over the right-wing trolls, BJP senior leader and minister Arun Jaitley had denied the party had any links to them.

Since Mr Modi came to power in 2014, Hindu nationalist groups have been emboldened by the BJP's rise to power and this has been reflected on social media where the nationalists are active. India has an estimated 25 million Twitter users .

Though Mr Modi has in the past asked online supporters to spread a positive message, critics said they are part of the BJP's social media campaign and aim to further its Hindu nationalist agenda.

It has not helped that Mr Modi has been following some Twitter users who have posted abusive posts about Ms Swaraj.

The BJP has said in the past that Mr Modi's following of some Twitter accounts does not indicate support and that the Prime Minister believes in freedom of speech.

Still, a Hindustan Times report noted that 41 BJP MPs, including ministers, follow at least one of the accounts that trolled Ms Swaraj and that Mr Modi follows eight of those accounts.

Ms Swaraj's husband took on one Twitter user who had asked him to beat up his wife. "Your words have given us unbearable pain," tweeted Mr Swaraj Kaushal, according to Indian media. "Please do not use such words for her."

Others who have shown support include the opposition Congress party.

The trolling has also highlighted the abuse women in India face.

"It's an extremely sexist and patriarchal society. Online is seen as a medium where women could express themselves safely. But... women are sexually harassed and given rape threats," said journalist Swati Chaturvedi.

Lawyer and women's rights activist Karuna Nundy said leading women need to unite to check such abuse, noting that Ms Swaraj had not defended other women who had been similarly trolled.

"I do think women from across the political spectrum should ally on gender issues where possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2018, with the headline 'Right-wing trolls target senior Indian minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe