Gurmehar Kaur’s case is a pointer. The huge saffron troll army can unleash unprecedented psychological violence even on a mere 20-year-old undergraduate to hound her out of multiple domains she might yet be just learning to navigate. Daughter of a soldier who laid down his life for India in Kargil, Gurmehar has been stripped of her right to freely speak her mind, her claim to the patriotic legacy of her father, her social media space and even her city. Marshalling everyone from celebrities like Virendra Sehwag, Randeep Hooda and the pehelwan Phogat sisters to automated bots, a swarm of sharpshooting trolls targeted a brave and conscientious youngster just embarking on the adventure of becoming a full citizen of a democratic republic.
Catch them young is the motto of the Sangh Parivar as they initiate 12-year-olds into shakhas to brainwash them into their narrow exclusivist worldview. A worldview that sits uncomfortably in the institutional frame of an inclusive and plural democracy and in conflict with the spirit of freedom that informs it. If you want to snuff out the spirit of freedom and democracy, then silence and subdue them young too. It is but an extension of catch them young.
I recall with a shiver an incident of 2006, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. It is an incident with which perchance I am directly acquainted with. A politically inactive young Muslim professional from Delhi and the son of parents with no explicit political views suddenly disappeared. Abducted by the Gujarat Police, as it turned out a few days later. His sister, a familiar face and name in Delhi academia, shared his and his family’s ordeal in a close circle of friends and acquaintances. The family didn’t want to politicise the issue and wanted to secure the boy’s release by quieter means. After the quiet efforts of friends and activists, the young man was finally released after several harrowing days. But why was he picked up by the Gujarat Police at all?
It was a cyber sting operation of the Gujarat police and the home department. A mass mail had one day landed in the young man’s inbox. It was about the upcoming kite festival in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad and to partake in the fun, tourists were generally invited. The general invite came in the name of his godhood and self-proclaimed champion of Gujarati pride himself. The minority subconscious all over India still carried fresh the wounds of a community scarred by the Gujarat riots. So the young man reflexively typed a common swearword and replied to the mass email. That landed the young man in a Gujarat police lock-up.
The state apparatus and the saffron troll vigilantes will be in an institutional collusion now. One feeding the other. Add the physical aggression and vigilantism of the Sangh Parivar outfits like the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and sundry cow protectors, and you have a deadly cocktail pitted against our democratic republic.
The days of prolific social media and saffron troll lynch mobs had still not arrived in India. But Gujarat Police had made its debut in unethical and illegal cyber surveillance and cyber sting, wounding and silencing a young man as much then as Gurmehar Kaur has been now. The ruling Gujarat BJP dispensation and the police arm of the government were obviously acting in illegal and undemocratic cyber collusion then. It would be scarier for the young man then because he could have been incarcerated for long.
It’s in the context of the above two and in the light of two other recent developments that we should worry for India’s democracy. The first is a recent hiring of three persons involved in the BJP’s social media operations (read tracking and trolling) as consultants by the Home Ministry, even though the ministry has a separate social media cell for outreach and public relations purposes. These three persons are SB Navrang, Ravi Ranjan and Shishir Tripathi. So the BJP’s track and troll specialists become part of the institutional policing and surveillance set up that the Home Ministry oversees. The state apparatus and the saffron troll vigilantes will be in an institutional collusion now. One feeding the other. Add the physical aggression and vigilantism of the Sangh Parivar outfits like the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and sundry cow protectors, and you have a deadly cocktail pitted against our democratic republic.
The FIR under Aadhaar Act against Sameer Kochhar, who pointed out loopholes in the cyber safety of Aadhaar biometric data, betrays how the Modi regime wants to control and deploy digital space and data against citizens. In this connection, the question reportedly asked by Kochhar is a moot one: does a deep state want to steal citizens’ digital data. Add to it deployment of this data as a weapon against democratic citizenship. And in collusion with a vigilantism of a narrow and exclusivist world view. Trying to create not a brave, but a scared new India.