Every morning Nilanjana Roy, the Indian novelist, goes through the same routine in her New Delhi apartment: a few minutes of yoga and meditation, before turning on some Hindustani classical music to drown out the sounds of the traffic, flipping open her laptop, and refreshing Twitter. Roy has 100,000 followers; today there are 300 replies. The first one sets the tone: “You hole who should be raped by a bamboo lathi.”
Roy, who shares strong, widely read opinions on politics and gender, is used to the barrage. In the past, the web was a safe space for women—or at least safer than the unpoliced, unpredictable wildness of India’s streets. These days, though, nowhere is protected: some Indian men are determined to use the web to target women whose opinions they hate or fear. And, just like street hoodlums, they employ a mob mentality, work in packs, and deploy sexual language to terrorize and humiliate women.
It’s clear from their online behavior that these men are largely privileged Hindus, many of whom live outside India and enjoy well-paying jobs. Prominent political journalist Sagarika Ghose, who has 361,000 followers on Twitter, calls them “communal techies.” She also coined the now-ubiquitous term “Internet Hindu” in a reference to their infatuation with the Hindu right wing nationalist ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won an overwhelming majority in the general elections that were held in April. The Hindu far right is famously patriarchal, and blind to the humanity and individuality of women.
In addition to harassing women simply because they are women with opinions that differ to their own, some of these men have also imported India’s fault lines of caste and communalism onto social media. They attack women who belong to marginalized communities, tarnishing the modern world with their hateful old prejudices.
Prominent women on Twitter whose names or work reveal their caste inspire the sort of venom that confirms what is widely known as a result of well-documented cases—that some upper caste men consider lower caste women fair game for everything, including rape.
Take poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy. She writes about sexuality with a rare frankness, has over 25,000 followers on Twitter, and is a regular target of abuse. Speaking to me from Chennai, she said that the particular vulgarity of the tweets she is subjected to is influenced by the fact that she belongs to a low caste.
“They want to frighten me off Twitter,” she told me. “They want me in a subjugated role.”
The fact that a low caste woman could be seen as successful, not just by the standards of her community, but by the intellectual mainstream, is galling to caste-obsessed right-wing Hindu men.
Their obsession has also led them to target women who belong to minority religions. Sabbah Haji runs a public school in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, and has over 18,000 followers on Twitter. Like Kandasamy, she expresses her politically liberal views without a filter. She is a Muslim, and can’t count the number of times she has been called a jihadi, she told me on the phone from Doda district. She is asked whether her Muslim “terrorist” “brothers” are enjoying their virgins in heaven.
Like those who hound Roy and Kandasamy, Haji’s attackers seem to feel empowered because they know that women on Twitter—just like women on the streets of India—are unlikely to fight back. Through experience, they’ve learned that responding brings pleasure to the attackers who, above all, crave attention and affirmation. They are also unconvinced that their complaints, like a woman’s calls for help on the street, will draw support. They suspect that it’s just as likely that they will induce judgment, mockery, or even further harassment.
Indian Twitter wasn’t always such an inhospitable place for women. Roy recalls that when she joined it was a space that was conducive to a range of opinions, generally expressed in a civil manner.
It was still a masculine domain, where opinionated women would often hear phrases like “who asked you?“ “shut up!” and “tum nahi samjhogi” (“you won’t understand”). Women who had grown up being shushed and shooed away from participating in critical decisions at home and work; who had been made to feel, even by those closest to them, that their opinions did not matter, immediately recognized—and flinched from—the entrenched patriarchy behind such tweets. But they didn’t fear for their safety, as many do now.
Things changed in the run-up to this year’s general elections. The online cell of the BJP galvanized thousands of volunteers in India and abroad to flood Twitter and Facebook with right-wing rhetoric. These volunteers sought out tweets, hashtags, and even the handles of prominent liberal intellectuals and responded to expressions of mistrust in the BJP, or disagreement with the views of its leader Narendra Modi—and not in ones or twos, but in the hundreds. Their responses— “Bitch,” “Bimbo,” “Hate monger”—were uniformly crude.
If the handle belonged to a person who was clearly a religious minority, the tweets were also bigoted. If the handle was a woman’s, the tweets were loaded with threats that conjured images of women being sexually assaulted during India’s infamous and not infrequent riots.
Every time writer Natasha Badhwar, who has 20,000 followers and publishes a fortnightly newspaper column on the seemingly “safe” subject of family and relationships, mentioned her Muslim husband, she was deluged with abuse. “The tweets,” she told me over email, were terrifyingly graphic. “They threatened to rape, kill and dump the bodies of my daughters,” she said. All three of them are under the age of ten.
The threat of rape as part of the spoils of political victory is familiar to Sagarika Ghose, despite the fact that she has a TV show and a newspaper column where she can publicly call out abusers if she chooses to. “I regularly receive rape threats,” she told me. “I’m regularly called a whore and a slut who sleeps with “Congi” (Congress) politicians and every day my timeline is filled with abuses like ‘ass licker,’ ‘slave,’ and ‘Congress sepoy’ [foot soldier].”
Ghose shrugs off the abuse. “They’re playing out some perverse patriarchal fantasies of dominating strong women.”
Though right-wing Hindu men seem to be the majority of abusers on Twitter, just as they are the majority of people on the ground in India, their tweets suggest a profound sense of victimization. They portray themselves as a sort of endangered species whose survival depends on extinguishing, if only verbally, the people who are different from them.
Their vicious othering of women, and minorities, threatens to reduce Indian Twitter to mud-wrestling, where the winner is simply the person with the most time and the least self-respect.
Not all women have suffered the onslaught. Right-wing women are protected from the abuse, earning relative freedom by prodding liberal women—even those who don’t follow them or even know who they are—in growling packs, attacking them like some children strike animals with sticks and stones. Supporters of other political parties or ideologies are hardly without fault—but they have neither the numbers nor, it seems, the pathological compulsion to mob those who disagree with them.
“Do they ever experience joy,” Roy asked me. “Can you experience joy when your entire life is ideology?”
And since Mr Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in May, things have not got any better.
The new array of startlingly similar tweets are a mirror to the simmering culture wars that have reignited since it became clear that the BJP, which has a tradition of stifling critical thought, was likely to come to power. Words like secular, tolerant, liberal, and intellectual—which most modern, forward-thinking societies consider badges of praise—have been reduced to mere slurs in the already slur-filled lexicon of India’s online Hindu right.
And again, women are bearing the brunt.
“A hatred and envy of achievement has manifested itself in a move to strip successful liberals of their presumed privileges,” Roy explained to me over Skype. “It’s all-virtual,” she said, “But you can’t help feeling that the violence will tip over into real life.”
It’s not an exaggerated fear. Recent events in India have shown that women who are perceived as modern, or successful—at both ends of the social spectrum—inspire anger in men who have failed to keep up.
Take the example of a young woman who was gang raped by thirteen men on the orders of a village headman in West Bengal earlier this year. After the attack, it was revealed that she had been the subject of much bitterness for having migrated in search of a job, and then for returning with envy-inducing items such as a small TV and a tinny music system.
“For the (all-male) elders,” said one villager, “These were a source of anguish.”
The gang rape, said another, was a “punishment” for her “way of life.”