This time, the target was none other than external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who was being viciously trolled in the social media.
Hatred of any community is not automatic. Nor destined. It is manufactured and culturally engineered. To be sustained, it needs constant nourishment, a continuous flow of toxic ideas which seek to “otherise” and demonise a group of people simply for who they are.
The classic and oft-cited example comes out of Nazi Germany’s playbook — how it went about defining the enemy. As Holocaust historians tell us, Nazi propagandists helped shape the regime’s policies and practices by publicly identifying groups for exclusion, then instigating hatred towards them and rationalising their marginalised status to the general populace. In order to “otherise” certain groups, it was also necessary to sell the myth of a homogenous “national community” to Germans looking for affirmation of national pride and greatness. Once propaganda had succeeded in pin-pointing who would be excluded from this envisioned national community, it was easier to ram through measures against these groups — Jews, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, political dissidents, even Germans with physical disabilities.
Nazi propaganda did not start from first principles; it tapped into pre-existing stereotypes, and amplified it massively.
Hopefully, the world will never witness such unspeakable horrors again.
But as a rising tide of hatred against immigrants and minority groups surges through many parts of the world, including India, it is useful to recognise the early alerts of this toxicity, to see how ordinary people can be made part of a hatred-spewing machinery.
What makes the situation more dangerous is technology. Spewing hate has become easier and cheaper. Today, anyone with a phone can tap into existing prejudices and push his/her message of hatred.
Last week, I was once again reminded of the dangers of letting toxicity spread unchecked. This time, the target was none other than external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who was being viciously trolled in the social media by people who seemed to be supporters of her party.
Political commentators have already written reams about how Ms Swaraj’s efforts to help an inter-faith (Hindu-Muslim) couple with a passport complaint, and the consequent transfer of the passport official who allegedly was aggressively confrontational towards the duo, had landed her in the spot. The passport official’s version of the events is different. He maintains that there were variations in the woman’s name in the different documents submitted to the passport office.
Now, it is entirely possible that there were procedural discrepancies and the law should obviously take its course if mistakes were indeed made. Whether or not the passport official was merely doing his job and did not deserve to be transferred can be debated in a civil manner.
But as a health writer, I was aghast at what followed — to find that something as sensitive as the state of one’s health was no longer out of bounds for hate-mongers. Ms Swaraj, who had undergone a kidney transplant some time ago, was being taunted in the most sickening manner possible. “Biased decision #ISupportVikasMishra shame on you mam... is it effect of your islamic kidney??” was just one among the many bile-filled allusions to a Muslim man’s offer to donate his kidney to the minister while she was undergoing treatment.
Body parts have no religious labels. But what this saga tells you is the extent of hatred that many people in this country feel towards Muslims in general, and how it is becoming easy to pulp all Muslims into one homogenous narrative of “appeasement”.
If the issue was only about procedural lapses, then words like “appeasement politics” wouldn’t have been so freely used, nor gratuitous references to 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab.
Shockingly, none of the women ministers or MLAs from the BJP have publicly protested against the flood of abuses heaped on Ms Swaraj. Nor have her male colleagues.
Is the BJP’s hardline Hindutva-supporting base the only one guilty of fanning hate? The answer is no.
But the party that is at the helm of affairs at the Centre and most states must shoulder the larger chunk of responsibility when the hatred-manufacturing machinery, with open support from many of its members and sympathisers, remains unchecked and threatens to rip India apart.
It’s risky to dismiss the online rants of hatred-peddlers as the work of fringe elements and thus not worthy of attention. Journalist and friend Gauri Lankesh was killed as she was anti-Hindutva. The online hate campaigns against her, even after her death, bear testimony to what the combination of technology and hatred can do.
Or take the lynch mobs, those who are killing people in the name of the cow and the nation. The killers get the spotlight but those who instigate the killers, by planting seeds of hatred against specific groups, are equally guilty.
How does the manufacturing of hatred get a boost?
The short answer: in myriad ways. For shortage of space, I cite only a few glaring examples.
First, the hatred-spewing machinery is heavily dependent on “signalling”. Ordinary haters who lie low are inspired when people in positions of power make statements signalling their hatred of communities against whom prejudices already exist. For example, a loaded statement made by Union minister Giriraj Singh not so long ago. In a media interview,
Mr Singh reportedly said: “Social harmony gets fractured wherever the Hindu population drops”. This was widely seen as a veiled attack on the rise in the number of Muslims in the country. Another BJP legislator, Banwari Lal Singhal from Rajasthan, is on record as saying: “Muslims are worried about (sic) how to take over the nation by increasing their population.”
These are not ordinary citizens. These are elected representatives in the world’s most populous democracy.
Hate-peddlers also get a boost when lofty statements are made but hate-peddling is not punished. Two years ago, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public lashing against “fake cow protectors”, the Punjab police registered an FIR against one Satish Kumar, who heads a local Gau Raksha Dal. In March 2016, I drew attention to his website (http://protectyourcow.blogspot.in/2010/08/about-us.html), which explicitly advocates violence against anyone who slaughters a cow. Two years later, Satish Kumar’s website continues to beam the same message of hatred.
This is the mainstreaming of hatred.
Once the poison is allowed to spread, it doesn’t matter who is in command.