Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister and most senior female politician in government, is most beloved for her compassionate presence on Twitter, using the otherwise noxious platform to help Indians stranded in far-flung corners of the globe.
She has used Twitter with generosity to provide documents to Pakistanis who need emergency treatment in Indian hospitals, even when diplomatic relations between the two nations have been in a nosedive.
While her detractors have sometimes mocked her for being reduced to the post of a Twitter minister, her humor and grace have won her friends across the aisle in a deeply divided country.
But this week, it was her own party’s hard-line base that used Twitter to turn on her in the ugliest, most misogynistic way — all because her ministry intervened to help a Hindu-Muslim couple with a passport complaint.
Vikas Mishra, an official in a passport office in the city of Lucknow, was accused by a woman named Tanvi Seth of insulting her husband because he is Muslim. The complainant tagged Swaraj in her tweets and alleged that the official had demanded to know why she had not taken her husband’s name after marriage. Seth alleged that her husband had been asked by Mishra to convert to Hinduism. The official was transferred the next day, but he argued that the interfaith couple had misrepresented him. According to the official’s version of events, there was a mismatch in the travel documents; he said the woman had one name on her “nikahnama” (a legally recognizable marriage contract under Muslim personal law) and another on her passport. He said he was doing his job in addressing the contradictions. The far-right presented Mishra as a victim of Muslim appeasement pushed by Hindu-hating liberals. These are the pathetic polarizations that have come to frame public debate in India today.
In response, Swaraj was flooded with abuse, including a reference to her “Islamic Kidney,” a horrific swipe at a transplant she had to undergo in 2016. Others commented on the “almost dead woman” who is “running on one kidney.” She was even branded a “publicity hungry . . . Visa Mata” (Passport Mother).
Swaraj’s saga reveals harsh truths: These sympathizers-turned-online-stormtroopers for the Bharatiya Janata Party have started a fire that will eventually burn down the BJP’s own house. And the party’s scorched-earth policy for electoral victory at all costs is fanning the flames of dangerous anti-Muslim hatred that could destroy the very edifice of democratic and cultural decency.
The army of right-wing trolls who targeted Swaraj is normally deployed to strike at enemies across ideological enemy lines. Journalists have been routinely smeared, slandered and, in several cases, threatened with rape and death. As someone who has experienced this myself (and yes, I’ve complained to the police, taken it to court and reported such abuses to Twitter), I can confirm that outspoken women are their favorite targets. And when we speak out against our vilification, resisting the attempts to intimidate and silence us, we are accused of “playing the victim.”
Well this week, it was the minister who decided to make a strong statement about the venom thrown her way. She sarcastically tweeted that she had been “honored” to receive the messages. Later, she deleted the retweets, but the message was clear. She wanted everyone to understand the extent of the vitriol she had received. But Swaraj was criticized even more for publicly taking on the toxic trolls. BJP supporters claimed she was giving ammunition to her opponents.
What is both shocking and shameful is that not a single party leader of consequence, not even the other women in the Modi cabinet, have publicly spoken in Swaraj’s defense. Why would Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has appointed women to key roles in his government usually reserved for men (including foreign affairs and defense), not swiftly and publicly condemn this language of hate and sexism? Whatever the facts of the passport case are eventually proven to be, does Swaraj not deserve the respect of her Cabinet colleagues? Or is it that in the run-up to the big election in 2019, it is the BJP’s cynical calculation that, come what may, it cannot afford to be seen as “soft” on Muslims?
Yes, other ideological camps and political parties are attempting to raise battalions of trolls, too. But none are as organized or as feared as the social-media machinery of India’s political right.
The ugly underbelly of the right-wing’s political Internet culture cannot be divorced from the reality in India today. Women in public life have to constantly battle for basic respect. And for demanding the dignity that should be ours automatically, we expose ourselves to even fiercer attacks. If a high-ranking, influential, powerful minister does not have the protection from verbal violence, what chance do the rest of us have?
The second alarming and inescapable fact is that a coarsened environment — enabled by social-media toxicity — has made casual religious bigotry, especially against Muslims, socially acceptable. Compared to the West, especially European countries, Indian Muslims (roughly 14 percent of the population) are happily culturally integrated in a pluralistic society that is the best thing about us. In 2005, President George W. Bush famously introduced then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to first lady Laura Bush, with Singh saying that he came from a “country that had 150 million Muslims but not one of them joined the ranks of the al-Qaeda.” In 2018, notwithstanding the insurgency in Kashmir, terror groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have still made scant inroads in India compared to other nations.
But we risk everything that sets India apart with an insidious Islamophobia that is only continuing to grow. The lynching of Muslim cattle-traders over rumors that they are trading in beef has become a near-normal part of the news cycle. One day recently, a customer publicly asked her telecom provider to send a non-Muslim representative to fix her broadband connection. Similar prejudices have been reported by cab companies such as Uber and Ola. Those of us who talk about these issues are mocked as Muslim lovers. The right wing routinely distorts my name from Barkha to “Burqa” to make a statement on my secular politics, as if being secular is now a bad thing.
The attack on Swaraj from people within her own party’s political base reminds me of what Hillary Clinton once said about Pakistan: You cannot keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.
The question now: Is there still an antidote available?