In Barkha Dutt, Hindu Right saw easy target for its dislike towards NDTV, Kashmir and women, while Facebook and Twitter obliged
In the post-liberalisation era, it is the sphere of television, however, that has arguably witnessed the most dramatic changes. From two black-and-white state-run channels, with limited programming on a narrow band of themes, such as national integration, agriculture, yoga, national sport and wholesome family-friendly fare, Indian television has experienced an explosion of channels in every major language and programming in every conceivable area, from cricket to kabbadi in the realm of sports, food, lifestyle, travel channels and entertainment. Whether it is lachrymose soap operas that peddle the most conservative social values, reruns of Hollywood classics, a surfeit of Bollywood fare, a profusion of religious channels with sermons and sermonisers aimed at followers of all major religions and assorted denominations, the television industry has expanded manifold since then.
Founded in 1988 by Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, the media network NDTV was a pioneer in the television space, and among its roster of journalists and anchors, it was the journalist Barkha Dutt, more than anyone else, who created the figure of the contemporary English-language television anchor, and perhaps, the non-English language television anchor as well. Dutt’s ambition and drive in covering stories in conflict-ridden Kashmir or the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, talent for scoring important interviews, and the popularity of her discussion show, The Buck Stops Here, were the key factors in influencing an entire generation of young Indians to seek a career in the media. No less significant was Dutt’s mode of delivering the news which, in its middle-class Indian English inflections and intonation, stood in pointed contrast to the faux-BBC accent of the English-language newscasters of Doordarshan and All India Radio. Even today, Dutt’s influence can be seen in the manner in which the typical news anchor or journalist on an English-language media channel speaks and reports. NDTV was also home to several other prominent television journalists and anchors working in Indian television today, though many have since moved to other television channels.
The NDTV 24x7 and NDTV India channels and the network at large have been a lightning rod for criticism from the Hindu Right. The channel and networks have for several years been targeted as guilty of liberal bias. In part, this may possibly have been because a senior journalist and network executive Rajdeep Sardesai had publicly held Modi liable for the anti-Muslim carnage of 2002 in Gujarat. Other media channels and publications had also held Modi responsible – in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, Modi was on the cover of every Indian magazine and featured in stories that had raised questions about his culpability in the anti-Muslim pogrom. However, in the lead up to 2014, perhaps hedging their bets, many publications had begun veering somewhat rightward. NDTV’s relative doggedness in its critique of Hindu nationalism may have been responsible for it being especially singled out for attack by the Hindu Right.
Dutt, in particular, has been on the receiving end of relentless criticism and vicious attacks from the Hindu Right since well before the 2014 elections, with the abuse only amplifying after. She has been accused of compromising troop positions during the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, and, similarly of divulging important tactical information during the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, a charge also levelled against other channels. Dutt has denied both charges strongly and has threatened legal action against bloggers who have accused her of the same. This, in turn, further provoked the ire of the Hindu Right who claimed that Dutt was hypocritical as a journalist in clamping down on free speech and was unable to handle criticism. Her stories on the plight of the Kashmiris, which do not always fit a standard nationalist or jingoistic line, have also provided additional ammunition and fodder for her critics. Rumours even abound online that Dutt is secretly married to a Kashmiri man, which, according to Hindu right-wingers, explains her soft spot for anti-Indian Kashmiri terrorists.
Aside from the question of political affiliation, the abuse directed at Dutt is also a reflection of the fact, seen across the internet, whether in North America, Africa, Asia, or Europe, of the fact that women disproportionately bear the brunt of abuse online. If the anonymity and lack of accountability enabled by the internet are factors in promoting abuse in general, by ridding speech acts from ethical constraints, they also sanction the expression and, indeed, amplification of misogyny. Angela Nagle’s work, which examines the online forum 4Chan, has shown that trolling and misogyny have a deep connection. Trolling is a dominantly male and profoundly gendered practice, and the history of trolling in general, especially on social media, has been interwoven with the history of online attacks on women.
Online violence against women is a global problem, and social media is a space in which women are especially vulnerable. Amnesty International’s report on the abuse faced by women on Twitter titled ‘Toxic Twitter – A Toxic Place for Women’ makes for harrowing reading. The threats and abuse that women discuss in the report will be familiar to anyone who follows Indian Twitter accounts. It is not an unfair generalisation to note that while these threats on India’s social media are not issued exclusively by Hindu right-wingers or supporters of Modi, the majority of abusive tweets against women do emanate from this consituency. The tweets include threats of rape, mutilation, and death. They often address women as prostitutes, and doxx or publicly share women’s addresses and other personal details of their life. And, in extreme cases, they morph women’s images on to naked images taken from pornographic sites and circulate them online.
At an event held in Delhi in 2018, journalist Rana Ayyub, whose work was instrumental in getting Indian investigative agencies to examine the role of Amit Shah in a staged encounter killing, drew attention to the constant abuse and threats she had faced and Twitter’s lackadaisical attitude in responding to them. The question of the responsibility of digital platforms like Twitter is key to the future of social media, not just in India but globally. I address this issue in detail in the next chapter of the book. For now, it is worth noting that platforms like Twitter or Facebook, which otherwise are not particularly responsive to such threats in the Indian context, are quick to comply with many demands and requests of the Indian state. This responsiveness is motivated by a desire to maintain good relations with the Indian government, and to not lose out on access to one of the fastest growing internet markets in the world. Mariya Salim notes that India is among the top twenty markets by internet usage in the world and also boasts of the highest annual growth of users. While this means that more women can express their voices in online discourse, the abuse they face remains a serious deterrent to their participation in public conversations on the internet. Gendered violence online often overlaps and intersects with casteist and communal violence. And prominent women in particular, whether journalists, actors, activists, or academics, whatever their caste or religious background, are often at the receiving end of an extreme barrage of violent abuse.
[From the chapter ‘Hindu Nationalism and New Media in Pax Modica’]
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