By Roshni Sengupta
As the recently concluded football World Cup final match between France and Croatia marked the end of a month-long extravaganza celebrating the most beautiful game on the planet, besides the triumph of human spirit and that of sport, one key factor made its presence felt – the unenviable role played by second-generation African and Muslim immigrants in the national squads of not only the victorious French side but also that of Belgium and England. The ‘rise of the “other”’ suddenly became the online slogan, with memes, posts, and comments flooding social media platforms. All at once, the vitriolic campaign led by the ‘Leave’ camp against immigrants during Brexit seemed like a thing of the distant past. Several anti-immigrant policies enacted by the Macron dispensation came into question the moment Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba slotted gravity-defying goals. The demonized ‘other’ was now – at least in the social media universe – a temporary hero. Why temporary might be the question. The othering of communities, groups and individuals the world over has taken several gigantic strides on social media and instant messaging platforms. India – one of the biggest and the fastest growing social media consumers in the world – has not been untouched by online hate mongering, othering and demonizing.
Exemplifying this rapidly growing phenomenon are the fearfully frequent instances of instant messaging platforms like Whatsapp being responsible for the public lynching of unsuspecting individuals. The pretexts vary from storing beef to consuming it, trading and slaughtering cows, the latest among these being alleged kidnapping and trafficking of children. Mohammad Azam, a 32-year-old software engineer was tied to his own car, dragged and lynched to death in the Bidar district in Karnataka, his only crime being distributing chocolates to children in the village. Purported on a local Whatsapp group to be a kidnapper and trafficker, Azam did not stand a chance. Yet another death – the latest in the spate of lynching murders – sweeping the country arising out of rumours floated on Whatsapp. It has only been a few weeks since two musicians were brutally beaten to death in Assam on suspicion of being child traffickers. Television journalist and political dissident Ravish Kumar was blatantly threatened with brutal forms of torture and death – most such videos originating from Whatsapp groups, further circulated and posted on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Kumar’s resigned designation of such virulent groups as ‘Whatsapp University’ hits the nail on the head. Not only are religious minorities and marginalized caste groups being othered in this manner – even though the high percentage of Muslim and Dalit lynching victims has been documented – dissenting voices and all forms of political opposition are being throttled, threatened – or lynched.
The recent manhandling and beating of renowned social worker Swami Agnivesh remains a case in point. On the day Agnivesh alleged that he was threatened and later nearly lynched by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha members in Jharkhand for making a statement in favour of beef eating, the Supreme Court of India sent a stern warning to state governments to curb the spiraling cases of mob vigilantism and violence. The apex court appears to have taken images of Union Minister Jayant Sinha garlanding and embracing right-wing extremists accused of lynching a Muslim cattle trader to death into serious consideration while making the observation. According to reports, some of the accused in the Dadri lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq have been rewarded with government jobs and positions. While the Akhlaq murder resulted seemingly from a call from the local temple, a large majority of subsequent lynching deaths have occurred due to Whatsapp vigilantism.
It would however be fallacious to limit the phenomenon of othering just to murderous and bloody outcomes. The most popular instant messaging platform in India, Whatsapp has emerged as not just a means of quick communication but a social engagement whereby hate, fear, paranoia and propaganda are being produced and circulated in an unbridled and unmitigated manner. The ease of access and the immense acceptance of the platform ensures the creation and propagation of an unprecedented number of groups that have flooded the instant messaging space. Needless to say, a large percentage of these groups are administered and managed by right-wing extremists, sympathisers and even office bearers. The circulation of hate on social media leads irrevocably to a cycle of rumour-mongering and resultant violence against Muslims and marginalized groups – this is the manufacture of violence, a grotesque turn towards medieval forms of mob rule and justice leading to slaughter and blood-letting of the most vicious kind. In the not-so-recent past an old and grainy video of a Mexican woman being stripped and molested was mounted on the premise of the men (obviously) being Muslim and the hapless victim being Hindu. To exacerbate tensions during the communal violence in West Bengal, a still from a Bhojpuri film was sent around. Historical facts are routinely distorted to present an entirely false picture of Hindu suffering – these snippets are then rampantly disseminated on Whatsapp groups facilitating further dispersal of falsehood and hate propaganda. Of utmost interest to right-wing trolls and Whatsapp administrators are the personal lives of former and present opposition leaders and their families.
Aiding and abetting the hate-mongering Whatsapp groups are the choreographed television debates where scripted conversations dominated by screaming anchors are beamed into homes on a daily, incessant basis. The complete degeneration of public discourse and the incredible denigration of public decency – one look at the language employed in troll and Whatsapp messages is enough to fathom the situation – can, in large part, be attributed to the onslaught on social media and private messaging platforms. I have – quite routinely – woken up to abuse and slander on Facebook! The role of chief instigators – as theorized by Paul Brass – has begun to be played, in the most virulent fashion by Facebook and Whatsapp as a result of which a strident and unmitigated form of public violence has taken roots. This violence can erupt anywhere and against anyone – Swami Agnivesh being a case in point – at any time without remorse or regret immersing the society in a spiral of relentless cruelty and viciousness.
Roshni Sengupta, PhD, is a political scientist and commentator. She is currently research fellow with the International Institute for Asian Studies, The Netherlands. You may look up her blog, Another World is Possible. She tweets at @RoshniSengupta7.
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