In today’s political climate which oozes with ideological clashes, university spaces with their long history of activism play an indispensable role in debate and discussion. For the last two years, students have dominated the headlines in national media, be it the JNU row of February 2016, the Rohit Vemula suicide, the Gurmehar Kaur statement, or the Ramjas row. The public discourse was shaped around these incidents and in the process raised many plausible questions pertaining to nationalism, dissent, beef politics, student activism, and freedom of expression. Another phenomenon which accelerated following these developments was the advent of trolls, who spewed venom in the profiles, posts, and inboxes of anyone who dared to disagree.
Recently, Simran Keshwani, an LSR graduate and unapologetically outspoken woman – exactly the kind that the trolls despise – became their latest target.
How it started
A few days ago, Simran wrote an article titled “India’s Moment of Slaughter” for newsd.in, which was later picked up by popular youth-based online portal Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA). The piece published on YKA was the same, except the heading was edited to: “In The Name Of Cow: How Many Should Be Killed For Us To Break Our Silence?”
This change in the title is perhaps what arrested the attention of trolls. While talking to DU Beat, Simran propounded that, “Due to the eponymous “cow” in the title, a lot of ire was directed at me by people who I doubt read the piece in its entirety.”
A simple look at the comments section will reveal that her contention makes sense. Her article was a well-researched piece, full of references made from the works of Edward Soja, Charles Mackay, and Michel Foucault. It also included observations of incidents such as the recent Dadri lynching and the age-old the Mahad Satyagraha. In Arundhati Roy’s lexicon, the article joined the dots (of caste system, patriarchy, majoritarianism) and the shape of the beast (violent mentality) emerged.
While one would have appreciated genuine critique or counter arguments, Simran was (as any other opinionated woman) targeted on her sexuality, accused of being promiscuous, and threatened with violence in a bid to deter her from further expressing opinions. The crassness of ad hominem attacks is enough to inhibit and subsequently forced anyone into self-censorship.
However, Simran asserts that, “If you take them (trolls) lying down and give in to their tactics of fear mongering, they win. But stand up and face them, and they give up. I haven’t changed any privacy settings. In fact, I’ve just started using my Twitter to notify the Delhi Commission for Women on the recent development. I am inclined to fight this till the end. Social media mobsters have to stop, and it is high time we showed them their place.”
By the very definition, an Internet troll deliberately posts comments that are directly designed to disrupt the conversation. The comments range from plain abuses to unfounded allegations and whataboutery. “Where were you when Hindus were killed?” – Simran wrote a Facebook post about the West Bengal riots. “Why don’t you talk about Islamic terrorism?” – Simran wrote a mainstream book studying the effects of the Islamic State on the Middle Eastern psyche. Simply put, trolls offend for the sake of it. They don’t care about learning and unlearning.
If you ever come across profiles that start off with some semblance of logic, only to fall in this vicious rut of rhetoric, you should engage. Simran advocates that, “Good discussion opens doors for logic to take precedence, and in most cases, if you can’t convince them immediately, you will still make a heavy dent in the way they think. That stays on, and that is what discourse is for.”
Checking the privilege of protest
History is witness to our most extraordinary and inspiring social changes coming from resistance movements led by Dalits, tribals, and women. However, these people are also the ones who pay a higher price for dissent and are more vulnerable than their Brahmin, urban-educated, male counterparts. For instance, influential outlets like the comedy groups All India Bakchod and East India Comedy have very well taken brutally sarcastic takes on politics and gotten away with it. At the same time, the artists of Kabir Kala Manch, an anti-caste musical troupe, were hounded for the same.
People have been, and continue to be, arrested for something as trivial as liking a Facebook post or sharing a funny meme taking a dig at politicians. Most of these cases, except for gaining a spot in a newspaper, don’t attract attention. The people who are often arrested and subsequently jailed lack both legal and social support. However, in Simran’s case or Gurmeher’s case, and before that Amit Trivedi’s case, there was solidarity from the liberal quarters of society.
In one way or another, by coming from metropolitan cities and having an informed social circle, these people were, and are still, empowered. Despite the dangers, they know they can access legal aid. Their privilege protects them from arbitrary incarcerations and lynching. Which is why it becomes more necessary for people like Simran to use their position, power, and reach to play the role of an ally. Not to be the voice of the voiceless, but to be able to pass the microphone. This is something that she clearly understands – “Why do we need spokespersons for the “voiceless”? The voiceless can very well tell their own stories.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”
Despite the desperate advancing attacks of the troll army, Simran is optimistic. “There’s been a lot of love coming in from various parts of the country. A Catholic priest from Bombay messaged me saying he’s been praying for me, as did many others. If there’s vitriol coming my way, there’s also tons of support. The doors on dissent are closing, fast. But on the brighter side, there are lots of people speaking up at this moment. We are the resistance, and it is this resistance that disturbs despotism and shakes its very core,” she said when asked about what strengthens her.
Looks like the “Starbucks latte sipping feminists” are here to irk up some sentimentalities by writing their articles, claiming spaces, and by simply existing. So, dear trolls – beware and good luck!
Feature Image Credits: Simran Keshwani