By Abdul Bari Masoud
South Asia Scholar Activist Collective’ (SASAC), a group of scholar activists, wrote a field manual with an aim to identify and respond to organized Hindutva harassment that seeks to manufacture outrage in educational institutions and other spheres of life. The foot soldiers of Hindutva term opponents as “anti-Hindu”, “Hinduphobic”, and “anti-India”. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has a dedicated and sophisticated “IT Cell” which is at the heart of a circulatory system of disinformation and trolling individuals. Hinduphobia accusation is used to silence criticism of casteism or Brahminical patriarchy.
The field manual was written through a collaborative effort of South Asia scholar activists based in North America. According to it, the Hindustan groups have a well-structured harassment manual.
The Structure of Organized Hindutva Harassment
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is considered the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has a dedicated and sophisticated “IT Cell” that is set up to respond to anything on social media that they find objectionable.
At first glance, this concept does not seem different from any other political parties or organizations having a presence on social media. However, it is on a level that can overwhelm someone unaware of the intricacies of Indian and Indian diaspora politics and the role of new media and technology in these political worlds.
The IT Cell is at the heart of a circulatory system of disinformation with enormous consequences for public safety in India, in which “upper and middle caste” Hindu social media groups, who are invested in Hindu supremacy, knowingly produce and share disinformation. The IT Cell’s activities regularly spill over from the internet to create terror and vigilante violence in India.
“Moreover, the Indian state itself under the current BJP administration increasingly coordinates its activities and policies in line with the online production of disinformation and the suppression of inconvenient information, both at home and abroad. Diasporic Hindutva organizations are not only increasingly active in North America, but the US Hindutva diaspora in particular has emerged as a major center for online activism along the lines of the IT Cell”.
Online Hindutva harassment
It operates by coordinating tweets, Facebook posts, petitions, and email complaints against any individual they think is criticizing their leaders or imperiling the Hindutva agenda.
These activities are coordinated on messaging apps like Whatsapp or Telegram and then carried out on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. These platforms are only recently beginning to respond to such activities: in December 2020, for the first time Twitter flagged a tweet by Amit Malviya, the national president of the IT cell of the BJP, as “manipulated media.” Even these nascent efforts at content moderation by the platforms may be curtailed by the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, introduced by the Indian government in 2021, which have been deemed by UN experts as in violation of a wide range of human rights. In this context, individual academic users of social media platforms—in any nation—cannot rely on corporate platforms to protect them against such coordinated attacks.
Hindutva Attacks on Academics
While some academics may choose to respond by making their social media accounts private, others who use such platforms to share their research and views are vulnerable to a typical form of swarming behavior online, and the subsequent harassment that may follow off-line. When an online, coordinated swarm goes after an academic, it can create the appearance of widespread discontent against that academic even if no such discontent actually exists among the students or colleagues of the academic in question. Bear in mind that many of these accounts are likely fake and are not associated with a real person. They are created solely to amplify Hindutva messaging and create the impression of mass outrage. Such bots can and should be reported to the platform in question, but increasingly sophisticated methods, including the use of cyborgs, can make it difficult to identify and remove bots from platforms. To learn more about bots, trolls and botnets, consult the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab’s useful overview. Moreover, the weaponized use of trending hashtags, particularly those that name the target, should be treated with due caution instead of being uncritically accepted as an index of the “real” discontent caused by the academic in question.
It is sometimes possible to stop the swarm by blocking prominent Hindutva accounts that either respond to or share one’s content. Nonetheless, these coordinated attacks may well continue beyond the control of an individual user.
Addressing Manufactured Complaints
Coordinated attacks can range from simply posting a disagreeable tweet on a big group asking people to criticize the academic, to actively sending mass emails to university leadership accusing them of “Hinduphobia”.
Given the scope and scale of the activities of the BJP IT cell and those modeled on it in the diaspora, it is easy to create the impression that an academic at your university is “Hinduphobic”, a term invented to mirror other legitimate terms used in social discourse in North America to address the experiences of minoritized communities who have been subject to systematic discrimination by both the state and society. “Hinduphobia” as a systemic, entrenched bias does not exist in modern North American society, unlike, say, homophobia or Islamophobia.
It is a bad-faith term increasingly propagated online by the BJP IT Cell and its sympathizers to curtail dissent or critique, whether in India or abroad. In particular, accusations of Hinduphobia are used to silence criticism of casteism or Brahminical patriarchy. Online glossaries produced in efforts to promote the term Hinduphobia by Hindutva organizations, for example, cite “Brahminism,” an accepted term within social scientific academic research and anti-caste Dalit intellectual traditions, as a colonial term that “reveals” the Hinduphobia of the speaker.
Attacks on academics
The kinds of attacks academics face may also cause serious distress, as Hindutva activists regularly use casteist, Islamophohic, anti-Christian, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, anti-Black, and ableist language against their targets. Given the psychological toll of such attacks, offer the target mental health resources to help cope with the stress of the situation. Consider addressing publicly the harm caused by such language to the wider university community and disavowing such hate speech explicitly.
Attempt to influence foreign educational institutions
Be aware too that Hindutva organizations and the Indian state are increasingly attempting to influence and censor what is taught about India, Hinduism, and Hindutva in educational settings abroad. The university has an obligation to defend the academic freedom of its faculty to teach and disseminate sound research without influence or fear of reprisal from such outside organizations. Given the outsize presence and coordinated influence of Hindutva online, there is an added burden to keep faculty members safe in the context of remote teaching and online scholarship.
In today’s highly connected world, it is possible to create the illusion of any accusation being legitimate with online swarms. The purpose for the BJP IT Cell and its allies is almost always to silence criticism or put a high price on expressing opinions. Thus, if you receive any such complaints, the scholar activists have a advise to give due diligence about whether it is a legitimate complaint from within the university or just a coordinated online swarm attack meant to overwhelm and intimidate.