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Hateful Twitter trolls target India's foreign minister

Social media backlash to passport for interfaith couple shows how deeply entrenched religious intolerance has become

Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar

Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar

Updated: July 05, 2018 10:50 AM GMT
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Hateful Twitter trolls target India's foreign minister

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj speaks during a press conference with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on April 22. (Photo by Madoka Ikegami/AFP)

India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has taken a stand against Hindu nationalist trolls on Twitter who attacked her on the social media site due to a row over issuing passports for an interfaith couple.

Swaraj responded by organizing an online poll asking people whether they approve of the actions being taken by such trolls on controversial issues.

The matter flared up after the minister helped a Hindu woman and her husband obtain passports after they had encountered bureaucratic opposition due to the woman converting and marrying a Muslim man.

The official allegedly asked her Muslim husband to change his name and convert to Hinduism in order to get a passport. The same bureaucrat also reportedly refused to accept the woman's decision to adopt her husband's Muslim surname.

Swaraj took swift action by transferring the official from her ministry to another position after the woman, Tanvi Seth, complained about religious discrimination.

Seth and her husband, Anas Siddiqui, met with local media on June 21 to thank Swaraj and her ministry. They also flashed their new passports as proof that action had been taken regarding their complaint.

Swaraj, a senior minister under the federal government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has already earned a reputation for stepping forward to address the concerns of Indians on a number of issues related to her ministry

In the past, she has taken a direct role in helping to secure the safety of Indians who have been trapped or abducted overseas, without discriminating against them on the basis of their religion.

This was illustrated by the case of Alexis Prem Kumar, a Jesuit who was kidnapped in Afghanistan and released in 2015 after eight months of captivity.

But some of her Hindu support base seems to have turned on her due to the passport debacle, which they see as an example of Swaraj appeasing Muslims at the expense of Hindus. This is based on the argument that she failed to support the official who wanted the Muslim man to convert.

The minister's Twitter account was later congested with a torrent of abuse and fake news, with people branding her a "traitor" and calling for her to step down.

One troll even claimed she had received a kidney transplant from a Muslim after suffering renal failure in 2016 and now had one "Islamic kidney" — highlighting the growing menace posed by fake news.

Another inflammatory Tweet overlaid an image of the flag of neighboring Pakistan — an Islamic nation and India's archrival — on Swaraj's chest, where her heart should be.

Other Tweets described her using titles reserved for Muslim women.

Swaraj responded by highlighting some of the abusive messages she had received and launching the poll on July 1 to seek public feedback on this kind of behavior.

The results, issued one day later, showed that 57 percent of her 11.8 million followers voted "no" on the question of whether such trolling was acceptable, with the remainder giving the opposite answer. 

Such a strong reaction shows how religious and ethnic intolerance remains so pervasive and entrenched in Indian society that even a senior minister is not immune to abuse simply for doing her job well and in a fair-handed manner, according to Anjali Sharma, a rights activist based in Mumbai.

"The message is loud and clear, namely, that social polarization on the basis of religion has taken deep root in this otherwise tolerant country," she told ucanews.com.

Owais Ahmad, another social activist who is based in New Delhi, said India has two kinds of mobs.

"One is the 'street mob' and the other is the 'digital mob' that is ready to attack minorities, or anyone who espouses religious tolerance and harmony," he said.

In a report issued this year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said religion-based violence has grown worse in India in the last two years.

At least 10 Indians have been lynched by Hindu extremist groups in the name of "cow protection" over the past 12 month, highlighting how religious freedom is on a downward trend, the report stated.

India's history as a multicultural and multireligious society is being threatened by the increased adoption of an exclusionary concept of national identity based on religion, it added.

Christian and Muslim leaders say the atmosphere of intolerance has worsened since the BJP rose to power in 2014 based on a series of campaign pledges vowing to protect the interests of Hindus.

Even indigenous people and socially underprivileged Dalit communities have been subjected to violent attacks for converting to non-Hindu religions, or for offending upper-caste Hindus by working in the cattle slaughter trade.

Rights campaigners and minority leaders say Hindu groups have taken the BJP's landslide victory as a de facto mandate for them to accelerate their push to establish a Hindu nation based on upper-caste hegemony.

Hindus make up 966 million or 80 percent of India's 1.3 billion people while Muslims account for 172 million (14 percent) and Christians just 29 million (2.3 percent).

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