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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Virtual jihadis threaten www

By Swapan Dasgupta

On Sunday evening, i am scheduled to participate in a net debate on an issue that has disturbed me for some time: the marginalization of the Right from the liberal space.

The subject is undeniably abstruse and of interest to either those who perceive themselves on the Right of the political spectrum or those who have nothing better to do on a Sunday evening. Yet, it is not the topic alone that whets my appetite: it’s the novelty of a structured engagement with a bunch of disparate but motivated individuals who have — like the disrupters in the Rajya Sabha — made more noise in cyberspace than their numbers warrant.

It’s not a complaint based on personal experience alone. Conversations with other media professionals, particularly those who have a presence of social networking sites such as Twitter, suggest a growing exasperation with net activists hell bent on swamping the medium with venomous outpourings. It wouldn’t have really mattered if the ‘hweets’ (the name given to hate tweets) had stuck to obsessive political themes — for the past few weeks M F Husain has been the clear favourite and American academic Wendy Doniger a poor second. Unfortunately, it tends to descend into the realms of the personal, particularly if the target is a woman. A woman writer with liberal inclinations and a Muslim name was recently called “slut” for questioning some holy cows of certitude.

It is not that anyone really objects to the Internet Hindus or Internet Islamists having their say, decorously. Tolerating the obsessive is the price of an open society. The US, after all, is dotted with bores who accost the apparent non-believer with a Jesus-loves-you sermon. And, if the white Hare Krishna-types stuck to running vegetarian restaurants rather than prancing through Oxford Street each evening, the authentic Hindus would feel much more relieved. The problem arises when storm-troopers of different faiths vitiate the medium to such an astonishing extent that the normal guy, with no rigid views and no insider information, runs away from political engagement. They are either intimidated or disgusted by the preponderance of weirdos.

When it first arrived on the scene, the www was seen by many as the great liberator and democratic facilitator. It enlarged the reach of the media exponentially and at a nominal cost; it transcended national boundaries; it threatened media monopolies; it bypassed censorship; and it transformed passive readership into interactive engagement. The social networking sites built on this advantage and created alternative communities of the like-minded, ranging from stamp collectors and dog lovers to hypercondriacs. Repressive and totalitarian regimes feared that the net has made it almost impossible to suppress ideas and information.

China is fighting a battle against Google and Iran is hassled by the way Twitter and Facebook are used to bypass the thought police. But these are losing battles of dictatorships. Technology is also becoming a political liberator — a reason why China has also unleashed a parallel campaign to shout down its opponents using the same technology and leveraging its awesome numbers. Likewise, causes that perceive the mainstream media to be needlessly condescending, dismissive or even hostile have alternative channels of reaching out. At one time, every minuscule political group had its own print publications which harried members struggled to sustain. The net has provided them more viable alternatives, and at a fraction of the cost.

The www has triggered a revolution in communications and political discourse. The unevenness of development has meant that many of these opportunities haven’t been fully exploited in India. Those unfamiliar with the English language and those who emotionally identify with a village-centric Bharat (against a globalized India) continue to view the www with wariness, often as an alien intrusion. Among the 55-plus generation in public life too, the internet is at best a clippings library and an alternative dak  system. With the possible exception of Narendra Modi and, of late, L K  Advani, they have failed to grasp its tremendous outreach potential.

The www as a parallel political stage is still evolving in India. It has to be carefully nurtured and made appealing to those who have traditionally shied from either expressing their views or passively voting once every five years — and that too, if it doesn’t clash with a long weekend. If the same strong-arm tactics and the murky shrillness of the outside world are replicated on the net, it will reinforce the conviction that politics is by definition fractious, ugly — and best left to determined activists.

The danger of a democratic instrument being hijacked by virtual jihadis and bajrangis is real. Maybe the libertarianism of the present will soon have to be replaced by an enlightened code of conduct, and technology will enable the users of poison keyboards to be outed and shamed.


Sunday Times of India, March 14, 2010


Arun Nayar said...

In fact, more and more Swapan, you come across as a fifth columnist amongst the BJP and the Hindu right. The media and yes, your slutty friends who constantly pour scorn on Hindus are getting a taste of their own venom and you of course object. As always, its the Mir Jaffers within who are the bane of Hindus. Seeing the way the wind is blowing, you clearly want to ditch the BJP and Hindu causes and jump on the UPA bandwagon, and hence your new found reasonable ness and edits in the WSJ etc. Typical, as they say when the ship sinks - then you know who the rats are because they promptly abandon ship.

Yours in disgust,
An "internet Hindu"

Anonymous said...

I have often wondered why the net is filled with extreme-right wing views bordering on fanaticism! This article puts things in proper perspective. Thanks a lot Swapan da.

Gajendra said...

it's just a manifestation of all the bad blood spilt by the media sir. the elite pseudo media cannot dictate to us will notice this in days to come

Kanchan Gupta said...

Swapan is among the brightest minds and finest writers we have today. He has expressed a point of view with which he does not demand universal agreement.
I have known Swapan for close to 25 years and I can forcefully assert without fear of contradiction that he believes in free speech and accords that freedom to others, even when it is directed against him or what he believes in or has written. In all fairness, we should respect his right to express his views.
Times change, opinions change. Swapan may have changed his opinion on certain issues, but he is at full liberty to do so. Readers can contest that opinion, and I am sure Swapan would welcome it. Let's not take recourse to vilification.

Kenny Chauhan said...

Dear Swapan,
Again, true words spoken. The very first comment proves what you're trying to say! Do not care for these comments, they are not even 1% of India. We need the transformation.

Anonymous said...

@ Arun, thanks for illustrating the crux of Swapan's post.

Let me congratulate you on the well chosen ideas that so clearly demonstrate your debating skills and stunning intelligence:

1. Fifth columnist

2. "Slutty" (it's sluttish actually, but full marks for trying)

3. Mir Jaffers

4. Ditch the BJP and Hindu causes

5. Jump on the UPA bandwagon

6. New found reasonableness (a compliment for most sensible Indians, but not for you, obviously)

7. Edits in WSJ (again, an achievement for any intelligent, successful Indians, but not for you)

8. Rats abandoning ship (from a 'Lion' who doesn't have a name. Or would you prefer 'Tiger'?)

I have a problem, though. By calling yourself an internet 'Hindu', you and the likes that infest Rediff and trashblogs like Shadow Warrior are insulting my faith, my traditions and my culture. What you are is an 'Internet Hindutvavadi' or an 'Internet Bajrangi'. There is a big difference between that and an 'internet Hindu'.


Jawahar Kiran Rao (a Hindu)

shaan said...

Your fears are unfounded. The internet is a powerful medium that helps to expose the false news and half truths propagated by the main stream media. True, it is also succeptible to rumours, but the main stream media also indulges in rumour mongering to benefit itself.

Internet based new media increasingly attracts people because the mainstream media increasingly shows itself as biased. The most shameful thing to happen to the Indian media is the phenomenon of 'Paid News'. Unlike the mainstream media, New media activists write due to their ideological leanings than for monetary considerations. You cannot call an article as inciting hatred unless it explicitly calls upon people to indulge in violence as some Jihadi websites do. Being argumentative and pointing out the drawbacks in the argument of the other side itself cannot be termed as being violent. There are enough laws to control the spread of hatred even through the internet. But it is not easy to control criticism. We are a democracy.

Dinesh PC said...

Well, now Mr Dasgupta wants to censor the internet!

The waywardness continues ...

Vinay said...

Hindus are like that only. Bloody chameleons change color easily anywhere anytime for selfish personal goals. No wonder we cannot have one voice even for good causes like peaceful humanity.

ChachaJi said...

Also the problem is the amount of pride the people take in calling themselves a fanatic/radical.

Secularism has been replaced with "Pseudo Secularism". Liberal with "Pseudo Liberal". These words were coined by few prominent politicians of a prominent right wing political party of India with the motto of getting into power. Just see how much the short sightedness of a few politicians have cost India. It has resulted in the radicalization of a large number of people.

Seculars and Liberals are the "GAALIS" here.