I am not trending on Twitter anymore. My wife of 41 years is happy, and so, to be truthful, am I.
Those are not the three hours of being No. 1 on the New Delhi checklist of this social platform in cyberspace I particularly relish. Not because most of the Tweets were abusive, or even that many of them asked why no one "had yet taken me out", or wondered "who will be first one to hit". Elsewhere in India, young reporters working on a pittance of a salary for micro newspapers in rural districts routinely suffer abuse, threats, and physical assaults. Once in a while, someone is shot, stabbed or just clobbered to death. Several years ago, a young reporter's wife was raped as punishment to him for having dared to report some grassroot reality. A professional hazard, as it were.
Human rights defenders, social activists, rationalists writers--many of them are university teachers and quite few are young, middle aged and senior journalists--get abused, trolled and beaten by the police during protests. Some have been forced into silence. A few have announced their "creative death". Of late, death, in Maharashtra and Karnataka, has been real, and violent (1, 2, 3).
We are not here talking of not-for-profit groups, whose foreign funding is throttled, or stopped. Or such icons as Teesta Setalvad, whose historic work to get justice for the victims and survivors of the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat, has seen her being hounded and persecuted as if for some medieval crime of lese majeste. We are minor mortals, persisting, albeit without pause, seeking that the state not encroach on citizenship rights of anyone, Tribals and Dalits, the poor and, in my case, specially of those of these who also have an additional identity of being Sikhs, Muslims or Christians.
This is not something that is located in the India now governed by Mr. Narendra Modi.
The United Progressive Alliance government of Dr. Manmohan Singh had its share of transgressions. And many of us had seen some level of persecution, and persecution, when the Bharatiya Janata party stalwart Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee was in power.
"With Twitter, far more anonymous than Facebook and blogs, social and political thuggery has a new weapon of choice."
Now, the smothering power of Mr. Modi's parliamentary majority, and the honest and open assertion by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of its desire to force-fit constitutional, democratic and republic India into its mold of religious nationalism, has been multiplied a thousand-fold by the advances in communication technology, and what is called social media. With Twitter, far more anonymous than Facebook and blogs, social and political thuggery has a new weapon of choice.
Experts tell me that to "trend', a particular person or catch-phrase has to be Tweeted, or written, a particular number of times in a small window of time. It will not do for tens of thousands of people to praise the Prime minister, for instance, or decry Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, over a period of a month. The two names will not trend. But do it over three hours, and they make it to Number one. It requires a cross between a military operation and an ideological cadre base good enough to win a small municipal election.
"The lesson came in the shape of 15,300 tweets and re-tweets with my name on them, and various levels of threats from people who may have never heard of me till then. "
That is what happened with me. A group has always "followed" me ever since I joined Twitter and started my daily routine of 140-character commentary. Every phrase was challenged, sometimes in offensive language and sometime more innocuously. Even during the general elections and state assembly polls. My biography on Wikipedia is altered for a few hours every day to paint me as a Christian bigot out to convert India.
But one seemed to have triggered some unseen threshold, a Lakshman Rekha, in comments on two recent issues. One was the ban first on beef and then on any slaughter of animals for food in several states as a mark of respect to a religious sentiment. I asserted the citizen's right to the food of his or her choice, and perhaps foolishly, boasted of my own eclectic preferences in matters of meat, from beef and pork, to mussels and oysters. The other incident was a news about the arrest of the principal and another staff member of a school in Mumbai with a very Catholic sounding name. A spate of Tweets from persons with very nationalistic and patriotic names, or "handles" as they are called, tweeted to me about my and every other Catholic being a pedophile. One, once again, made the mistake of meekly pointing out that the school was not run by the church, or any denomination, and the management was close to the political party in power.
That was the trigger. One was warned that if I did not apologize for insulting faith, I would be taught a lesson. The lesson came in the shape of 15,300 tweets and re-tweets with my name on them, and various levels of threats from people who may have never heard of me till then. If they were indeed 15,300 separate, distinct persons, it would be a miracle of spontaneous mass action.
Perhaps it was the handiwork of just a few dedicated persons working overtime in an air conditioned call centre somewhere. I do not know. Nor do I know who gave the command. An added dimension was added when personal mobile telephone numbers were put on Twitter with instructions to ring one up. One had to switch off the instrument after the first four calls of heavy breathing and gruff enquires about one's name.
The Delhi police now tell me even they may never get to know. The police say that while Facebook is more amenable to queries from the Indian government and cooperate in identifying cyber-criminals, Twitter, with its main servers in the United States, does not, unless a Tweet meets the criminality criteria of the US with its Freedom of Expression tradition. Letters Rogatory, the diplomatic channel of request for information, are too tedious and time consuming. One is given some reassurance that those who threaten life and limb on twitter seldom carry out their threats.
One supposes that is what will have to sustain morale as one walks along the menacing shadows in this cyber valley.