The recent ferocious attack on a judge of the Supreme Court of India by the IT cell of a prominent national political party has given the impression that there are a significant number of people opposed to the scathing judicial criticism of the former national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Nupur Sharma, for her remarks on the Prophet. Rather, it may well be that an overwhelming part of all religious communities would feel a sense of pride that a person of his standing would stand up to the tyranny of groups engaging in hate speech.
The criticism delivered from the Bench for the first time showed that some judges indeed have a spine and are capable of speaking the truth to power. Particularly at this time when Government interference with the judiciary is at its height (with transfers and supersessions of independent-minded judges), the pungent and fully justified remarks of the judge were like a fresh wind blowing through the country and the judiciary, and boosted the confidence of judges to stand up to executive excesses.
Equally important, the events of the past few days and the uncouth trolling of the judge raise very important questions relating to the ever-growing tendency by the Government to intimidate the judiciary. The questions that arise are: Who are these groups that attack democratic-minded individuals who speak out against injustice? Does the Government have an underground network which operates as an arm of the Government? And, are they financially supported and ideologically encouraged to engage in hate speech? Finally, what should the judiciary do to stamp out organised hate speech of this kind, whether it be against journalists, political opponents of the Government or the judiciary?
Growth, political support
In her book, I am a Troll, Swati Chaturvedi describes Internet trolls as persons who sow discord through inflammatory comments on the Internet. She traces the growth of this network from the early 2000s and attributes its steep upward curve to the support it received from a senior political leader in Government. ‘Rightwing propaganda websites constantly peddle hate tweets and slander journalists. They are backed up by coordinated hashtag campaigns where anonymous Twitter handles retweet the same tweet continuously until trending begins’.
She gives instances of tweets of ‘gory cow slaughter and imaginary instances of love jihad’. Some of them ‘mock women who face sexual abuse and harassment.’ They did not spare their own party leader, Maneka Gandhi, when she set up a helpline called ‘#IAmTrolledHelp’.
A Twitter handle from this group engaged in sustained abuse of a well-known female broadcast journalist. Another hosted a photoshopped picture of a female actor when she joined the Aam Aadmi Party. One of this network asked for ‘execution of undertrials without due process saying that the State should not bother to arrest suspects but kill in cold blood’. An extreme episode was when a Congress spokesperson ‘was threatened with Nirbhaya-style rape by trolls’. In the context of pellet blinding in Kashmir, there were trolls who called for ‘mass murder of Kashmiris, and the dropping of a bomb on a funeral procession’.
When journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed in Bengaluru in 2017, a Twitter handle followed by leaders of the party in power tweeted a message that had much profanity. Other journalists were also threatened that they were ‘going the Gauri Lankesh way’.
The Wire reported that a network of 757 Twitter accounts was used to mount attacks against Mohammed Zubair (co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News) and the website, and that the recovery email id for the anonymous Twitter handle was that of a youth leader of the party in power. These accounts revealed sub accounts ‘which exhibited multiple characteristics associated with bot-like and inauthentic behaviour posting more than 500 times a day at all hours of the day’. The purpose was to manipulate public perception about the arrest of Mr. Zubair.
Similar targeting processes were managed by ‘Tek Fog’ ( a ‘sophisticated app used by online operatives to hijack major social media and encrypted messaging platforms’); over eight lakh hostile replies were sent out to tweets by women journalists, of which over five lakh were classified as ‘offensive’. The Wire commented that the handlers of ‘Tek Fog’ are politically aligned and that is why ‘India’s political elite are silent’. One of the hashtags amplified by these operatives ‘reached an audience of around eight crore users’. Newslaundry has reported that this ‘well-oiled propaganda machine churned out fake videos and mass tweet links to gear up for Twitter storms’.
An ‘attack factory’ at work
Online abuse has often led to actual violence as in the case of the attack on a prominent lawyer by persons who barged into his office. This is not surprising because, as reported by Ms. Chaturvedi, ‘office bearers of the party in power have publicly supported these trolls’.
The IT cell of the Government has seen its activity expand with the induction of many volunteers and paid workers. Ms. Chaturvedi has reported that the party in power has ‘created a bank of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts’ to be used for ‘synchronized tweeting’ and ‘storms’. The party also has ‘bots created by the central IT Cell which tweets out identical messages simultaneously’ so that they ‘look like a real user’. These volunteers and employees ‘were given a hit list of mainstream journalists who needed to be constantly attacked’. One of the India’s most prominent and respected female journalists was attacked in ‘filthy terms’ and given ‘rape threats’. These volunteers and employees use virtual private networks (VPNs) to ‘hide the actual location of the user’.
Going back to the incident of Nupur Sharma in the Supreme Court, it is imperative that the Court understands that the country stands with the judiciary. The hate speech tweets are manufactured by a factory of a political party that produces millions of hate speeches. A criminal investigation by an independent special investigation team of the police is called for. Prosecution must follow. This hate speech manufacturing network must be crushed. This is vital for democracy to survive and for the judiciary not to be intimidated.
Colin Gonsalves is a senior advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal