This is the first time that I am sharing this episode, which involves the Swedish embassy in Delhi and Union Minister Maneka Gandhi. After receiving the “courage prize” from Reporters Without Borders, I felt that the prize and the courage it rewarded would be meaningless if I did not go public.
So here is what happened.
The Modi-led government decided to commit the murder of Freedom of Expression in broad daylight, surrendering to online Right wing trolls (who Prime Minister Narendra Modi follows) and who dictate to his government.
It is clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog. Witness the Right wing troll victory in getting classical singer T.M. Krishna’s concert organised by the Airport Authority of India cancelled last week after they mass attacked him on social media, calling him anti-India. Also, remember the hapless situation of Union Minister Sushma Swaraj, attacked by Modi’s trolls for issuing a passport to an inter-faith couple.
Back to my story. The Swedish embassy contacted me in May last year and asked me to join a panel on “Women’s participation in the online public space” ironically with the hashtag #LetsTalkAboutTrolls.
The other participants included Maneka Gandhi, who was to give a keynote address, Dr Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project, Anju Pandey of UN Women, Osama Manzer and Ida Ostensson. The moderator was Barkha Dutt. The date set was May 8 and the venue was the Swedish ambassador’s residence.
I was invited to lunch and chatted with three senior Swedish diplomats about the event. So far so innocuous.
Then the trolls got hold of an invite and all hell broke loose. They mass attacked. They tagged the Swedish Prime Minister, all senior ministers and the Swedish ambassador. They started a hashtag #SackManeka and tagged Modi asking him to sack her for sharing a platform with Barkha and me.
The trolls reserve a particular love for me because I had written a revelatory book “I Am a Troll” Inside BJP’s Secret digital Army, which exposed exactly what they were up to under their General Modi.
The Swedes were shocked at the mass attack. They got in touch with me and said “the event would be rescheduled”. Left unsaid was that the Indian foreign office had threatened that they considered the discussion an “unfriendly act”. So much diplomatic muscle for a private discussion.
Barkha was furious and rightly so.
She wanted to hold a press conference and expose how the Modi government had murdered the freedom of expression at the behest of the trolls. Barkha also wanted to expose how the Swedes had caved in to the mass trolling.
I requested her not to, saying: “We are journalists. We tell the story. We should not become the story.”
Reluctantly, Barkha agreed.
I found out that Maneka Gandhi had been told by her boss Modi to cancel her scheduled appearance.
Ironically, Modi’s social media in-charge Amit Malviya claimed that Modi follows death, rape and incitement handles because Modi “passionately believes in the freedom of expression”. So Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believe these actionable threats that get you jailed in the US, which has the world’s freest speech laws, is freedom of expression.
Modi’s rather muddled understanding of freedom of expression makes one go back to that contested degree in “entire political science”. Modi also follows fake news generators as recently revealed by an in-depth BBC study. There is an online Right wing troll site funded by BJP supporters, which survives by slandering journalists. It also joined in the fun, triumphantly writing how the site and the trolls got the event cancelled.
So why is this important for me to relate now?
For one, it reveals how under Modi, the power and institutional muscle of Government of India is being “weaponised” against journalists who the government does not like. And, most importantly Modi’s trolls call the shots as all the events I have detailed reveal.
What sort of democracy have we become that the government and the party in power targets citizens for having a different view?
Next time you glory in the world’s largest democracy tag remember how fragile it has been made by Modi’s disrespect of freedom of expression.
I honestly hoped that the Swedish embassy event was an isolated case, but clearly it is not. Modi has absolute contempt for the free press, evident in the fact that he is the first prime minister in India’s history not to hold a press conference. Modi’s hatred for being held to account also signals a wider contempt for democracy – chilling in a democratic leader.
Labels such as “antinational”, which the Modi government routinely hands out, have deadly consequences.
As for me, my story had a happy ending. Stopped from speaking at the Swedish embassy by the Modi government, this week I spoke at the UNESCO in Paris proudly as an Indian and was honoured. And, this was the real UNESCO, not the fake one promoted by the BJP IT cell calling “Modi the greatest world leader” which is sent to the gullible.