Ranjona Banerji: Sense and sensitivity? Not on Twitter

Twitter is where the uglier side to humanity reigns, whether in reactions to the Belgium attacks or in debates about nationalism

On Tuesday afternoon, the world of Twitter was not surprisingly full of news and views about the latest terrible terror attacks that hit Belgium. As news of casualties and damage was being retweeted and shared, the brutal, ugly face of humanity was on show once again.

And then, there was the other face of those who try to use tragedy of this sort to score their own kind of political victories. If attacks by Islamic State, if indeed Islamic State it was, demonstrate just how vicious, savage and cruel humans can be, Twitter demonstrated how dense and small-minded people can be.

Locals leave candles and flowers in front of the stock exchange building in Brussels in tribute to the victims of the triple bomb attacks that rocked the city yesterday. Pic/AFP
Locals leave candles and flowers in front of the stock exchange building in Brussels in tribute to the victims of the triple bomb attacks that rocked the city yesterday. Pic/AFP

Some in India, of a particular patriotic bent of mind, used the Belgium attacks to abuse the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the defenders of freedom of expression. In case your eyeballs popped out after reading that sentence, they shouldn’t have. For such patriots, the line of logic runs thus: patriot equals Hindu and defender of freedom of speech equals supporters of Muslims. Supporter of Muslims equals supporter of terrorists. Jawaharlal Nehru University, ever since the student Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested for saying things he did not say, has been denounced by Hindu Patriots of the BJP Persuasion as a hotbed of Anti-Nationals of every type.

I will not waste my time by arguing with this point of view or pull out some defence of Islam either. But I will point out that it this narrow-minded view of patriotism that limits it to one religion — the Hindutva version of Hinduism — which is not doing the idea of India any favours. And it is this hatred of the ‘Other’ that leads to further violence, often against innocent people. Islamic State is a horrific abomination. But that has nothing to do with a man eating meat in his home in Dadri.

Similarly, the narrow knowledge of the followers of Hindutva has nothing to do with India’s millions of Hindus who practise their religion in myriad ways, strange and mysterious even, to those who are ignorant of them and their glorious differences.

Regardless of what the defenders of this government at the Centre may say, we in India are at a difficult crossroads. Anyone who does not toe the line faces inquiry and interrogation, sometimes in a police station like students at JNU, sometimes by official action like Hyderabad Central University’s Rohith Vemula and sometimes by abusers on social media, like you and me.

And although we are tiptoeing around the main issue, we all know what it is. We all know that an openly divisive agenda is aggressively trying to gain control, ironically by claiming victimhood. Equating IS terrorists with JNU students is not just ridiculous, it is part of a mindset that wants to target ‘the other’ in any way that it can.

So you have an alleged filmmaker and a champion of Hindutva rights asking one of India’s foremost public academics, on Twitter, whether anyone in his family had been raped or murdered by Hindu fundamentalists.
Because apparently if none of them had been raped or murdered, what business did he have “blabbering around” about the dangers of Hindu fundamentalism? How else can you debase an argument, if not by personal attacks and distasteful equations?

Luckily on Twitter, there is remarkable scope for people of all sorts to expose themselves. Some decided that the Belgium attacks were reason enough for Britain to quit the European Union. You need to think about this for only two seconds to realise that the European Union neither makes you more or less likely to be attacked by Islamic State. But why use common sense when you can score cheap points?

As someone of the Hindutva bent has just informed me on Twitter, dissent is not an essential part of democracy. However, it is unlikely if he would be as willing to believe his own words if some party that was not the BJP was in power at the Centre.

The horrible side to this sort of thinking though is that if there is no dissent then you are a dictatorship. And that is what Islamic State is, a dictatorship of a relentlessly cruel ideology that deals with every argument with death and pain.

Hope it does not take our Twitter patriots too long to figure that out.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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