Social Media Aggression

Toxic Environs (No, It Is Not About Pollution)

Rishi Sunak, a foreign-born prime minister of another country, has been ‘appropriated’ by Indians because of his family’s undeniable roots. He has their attention though not necessarily affection as, arguably, he has given them a sense of ‘achievement’. That it is Britain with which India has had bitter-sweet relations helps, also thumbing the nose at Winston Churchill who had foreseen a grim future for India and Indians. The problematic part is if Sunak does not ‘favour’ India, he will become Brutus.

However, something Churchill did not say sticks. Sunak is hailed as the “first Hindu”, although some from the diaspora in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean region preceded him. He is welcome as a “Saraswat Brahmin” by those who grudgingly overlook his holding platefuls of beef produced by his electors, in the same hands that worship Hindu deities.

These are but a few contradictions Indians live with. They resent being reminded that they rejected an Italian-born widow to be an Indian prime minister in spite of being the president of a party that had elected British-born presidents before.

The Sunak euphoria seems many times more than that experienced two years ago and has since vanished, about United States vice president Kamala Harris. Any suggestion that this could be because Kamala is also African and a Black is bound to be rebuffed.

Harris prides herself on her connection to her Indian mother, personally and culturally, but not politically. She represents the US, after all, just as Nicki Haley did as a Donald Trump administration officer. Haley did not mince words in telling India what the Americans expected. So, beware, Sunak.

Indians are getting smarter. Their adulation is not absolute. A Preeti Patel or a Suella Bowerman, despite their Indian connections, has not won their approval because they oppose Indian ‘over-stayers’ in Britain.

All this is neither about diaspora nor about differing affections of Indians who appropriate or abhor them. It is about how conflicting sentiments have played, and are playing in public discourse where aggression and intolerance have come to rule. Sunak’s election and the day earlier, the cricket match that India won over Pakistan, are only the latest occasions.

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The two events that added spark to the Diwali celebrations last month generated a parody – yes, a parody — of how they were supposedly viewed by some known critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party.

It would take a genius, even of the argumentative Indian to connect the two events to the usual suspects: writer-activist Arundhati Roy, TV anchors Nidhi Razdan, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Ravish Kumar et al; Congressman Shashi Tharoor, Rahul Gandhi’s advisor Sam Pitroda, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Modi-baiter journalist Rana Ayub. The common thread linking them and many more, with quotations attributed to them, was that these ‘anti-nationals’ had ignored, tweaked, condemned or belittled the two historic ‘achievements’.

Views, even on imaginary things and events are fine. I may be wasting your time and mine on this parody. But many actually believed the alleged statements to be true and aggressively condemned them. I was a target of many ‘friends’, some long-time acquaintances, who insisted that I also condemn them. My plea that they were merely a figment of some professional troll’s fertile imagination made them turn their guns at me.

Not a new trend, this has been around for some years. Many on social media have become aggressive, howsoever docile they may be in their real lives, practising and preaching non-violence.

The war of “Forwards” in the media often takes Mahabharata-like proportions with the Pandava-Kaurava binary. The battle lines (minus Krishna, though) are neatly drawn.

They go well beyond political issues. Even ‘magic’ cures and preventions during the Covid-19 pandemic (although some may be genuine) were bandied about as medical Gospel that you dare not question. A convenient three-word caution, “sent as received” means none takes responsibility. The level of conformity with the unknown, untested and unverified is complete.

Forget the less privileged, it is worrying when even the educated middle-class exercises no discretion and turns blind believers. That they seek to impose their beliefs on others makes it worse. The irony is that those aggressively propagating their viewpoint, even ‘forwards’, want everyone else to stay objective and neutral.

One hears of families being divided on issues that do not necessarily affect them in their daily lives. It jeopardizes harmony and relationships. The time when people disagreed and moved on is over in this era of ‘un-friending’ and ‘blocking’.  

Going beyond being argumentative, we have become my-views-or-none. We have stopped rationalizing. We have stopped being accommodative. And this could come with abuse – damn the civility that supposedly comes with education.

Numerous reports indicate how word spread through social media apps has led to sectarian and political violence. Since it is an individual act of participating in collective information/ misinformation, generated without physical participation, the authority is helpless and is often late in responding.

The Supreme Court recently condemned hate speech. Possibly, it was using an all-inclusive but neutral term to cover all forms of hatred. It could not be unaware of this daily occurrence that heightens during elections – and India is in election mode all the time.

Save a few newspaper editorials, did anyone in the government(s), or in any political party, endorse the court’s observations and warn their employees and cadres? It was mainly the political class. Now even some bureaucrats have also begun to get controversial. Just how many ministers, MPs, MLAs and other elected representatives have been brought to book for hate speech?

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wants photos of Lakshmi to be printed on one side of the currency notes, the other side retaining that of Mahatma Gandhi. He may be wanting to ‘trap’ the Modi Government and outperform the Hindutva political plank. But he must be naïve not to know that many people, particularly young whose peers have themselves gone hateful and wayward, want Gandhi to be removed altogether. Basics are being questioned. That points to the level of hatred.

Is it any surprise that this aggression, individual or collective, fed on social media, but also by mainstream media through TRP-driven television channels and websites, has numbed the public mind into accepting the most unjust when it is staring in their faces?

People who thronged the streets ten years ago to protest the rape of Nirbhaya have not thought it fit to protest the release of 11 persons tried and convicted for raping a woman and then killing her family members. A provision in law has been conveniently invoked by the Gujarat Government and endorsed – and since defended before the Supreme Court by the Union government. They were freed for “good behaviour”, garlanded at the jail gate and were feted in public.

Symbolic of the toxicity prevailing in our body politic, this carries an inherent warning. The release of the 11 came on August 15, the much-celebrated country’s 75th Independence Day. Does one need to say more?

The writer can be reached at

Hum Dekhenge poem has inspired anti-CAA protesters

‘Hum Dekhenge’ – A Lyrical Ode To Resistance By Faiz

Poets and poetry are boundless and eternal. India’s ongoing turmoil has people, particularly the young, from all classes and communities, giving vent to their anger and aspirations through words and verses, reviving some old and long-forgotten, and creating new ones.

Grannies and mothers with babies in arms braving biting cold have come out in this winter of discontent.

Media last week captured a diminutive Sociology student, Gayatri Borkar, sitting amidst the protestors at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, feverishly churning out copies on an old typewriter of poets old and new — Varun Grover, Nagarjun, Dushyant Kumar and Habib Jaleeb. And Rahat Indori who defiantly asks: “Kisi ke Baap Ka Hindustan Thodi Hi Hai? (Is India anyone’s paternal property?)”.

Among them was “Hum Dekhenge”, the iconic poem of Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’. It is doubtful if this Marathi girl would understand Faiz’s Persianized-Urdu, its words and certainly, their import. But to judge her and thousands protesting for their ignorance would be downright unfair.

Restricted to the Urdu-speaking literate classes, Faiz has returned to India, in a manner of speaking, long after he left for Pakistan and died in 1986. And long after impact of the ideology he espoused has steeply declined. But Faiz, like others, is about sentiment, not substance.

This reminds of Subhas Chandra Bose’s “Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja” of the1940s and “We shall Overcome” Indianized as “Hum Honge Kaamyaab” of the 1970s. Those were different eras in the last century.

Faiz inspired. My interview with him during his last India visit was actually a non-interview. In the 25 minutes or so that we set across, he was on telephone for over 22. Barely one question was answered. When the next visitor came, he waved me off, endearingly: “Oh, yaar kuchhbhi likh dena.” It became a cook-up job.

A “protest poem” against an intolerant military order running in the name of religion, “Hum Dekhenge” has remained the most popular poem in Pakistan’s underground society, and for some very good reasons. But do those reasons apply to the present-day India?

Frequently in exile for protesting oppressive regimes, Faiz had written it in 1979 against military dictator Ziaul Haq. It was promptly banned. All copies were destroyed, till on Faiz’s death in 1986, Iqbal Bano, dressed in a black saree that Zia had outlawed, sang it in a small auditorium in Lahore. It brought the house down with excitement. The police seized all recording of this poem save one that was smuggled out of Pakistan and it is now available on Youtube. It is indeed inspiring.

But can it be adopted in India? The language is alien to most Indians today. Then, Faiz is identified with Communism. Although he belonged to both India and Pakistan, Faiz’s nationality and ideology are anathema to India’s current ruling classes and large sections of populace they have successfully seduced.

There is bound to be hostility to Faiz’s invocation of Islamic symbols and imageries. He was an atheist and his deliberate use of them only infuriated the conservatives. And conservatives, aggressive and intolerant, are ruling all across the world today.

These classes are worried about spread of culture they do not approve of. Saare Jahan Se Achha of Muhammad Iqbal is arguably third-most popular Indian song, both as a lyric and a martial tune, after Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Vande Maataram”. Indian conservatives, Hindu and Muslim, have had problems with all three through the long years of the freedom movement and thereafter.

Hum Dekhenge comes in more complex times that are less ideological and more ‘pragmatic’.  They are more difficult judging from the way words “Inquilab’ and “Azadi” that were part and parcel of India’s freedom movement have, ironically, come to mean ‘secession’ and are thus, “anti-India”.    

The extent to which the current ethos has over-whelmed ideas that have been inclusive and pluralist is evident from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, one of the country’s best institution of higher technological learning, forming a committee to judge if “Hum Dekhenge”, sung at a campus rally, has “anti-Indian” content. Elsewhere, the song has been declared “anti-Hindu.”

Writers-poets Gulzar and Javed Akhtar have stressed that a song written against Pakistan’s military junta couldn’t have ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindu’ context.  Javed termed the controversy “absurd and funny”.

The verse that gave offence was: Jab arz-e-khuda ke ka’abe se, sab buut uthwaae jaayenge / Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram, masnad pe bithaaye jaayenge / Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge/ Bas naam rahega Allah ka… (From the abode of God, when the idols of falsehood will be removed/ When we, the faithful, who have been barred from sacred places, will be seated on a high pedestal/ When crowns will be tossed, when thrones will be brought down, only Allah’s name will remain.)

The objection was to the word “buut” (idol) which was taken as a reference to idols of deities that Hindus worship and to Allah and was therefore, a communal insult. India, it would seem, is not offended by Faiz’s “communalism”, but by his pluralist message in 2020.

Pakistani writer Khaled Ahmed laments India’s “decline into religion” when saner Pakistanis are looking up to an India that they have known and admired for its all-in socio-political ethos.

This reminds of Pakistani poetess, late Fehmida Riaz, who chided Indians with her poem “tum bilkul hum jaise nikle, ab tak kahan they bhai?” (You turned out to be like us, brother. Where were you all this while?)  Will this indignation go unrealized, un-responded in India?

This Pakistani ‘sedition’ is not aimed only at India. A video of students chanting Sarfaroshi ki tamanna at the recent Faiz International Festival in Lahore is on the Internet. The lines were written by Ram Prasad Bismil, who fought and died along with Shaheed Bhagat Singh. This is new India. And perhaps, a new Pakistan (not to be confused with Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan promise).

Let this be said, whatever be the outcome of the protests over the present government’s two controversial moves  — adding to the  accumulated angst on many other issues — this combined muse of the old and the new, even if it falls silent for now, shall revive another day. 

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