Angry Indian Trolls vs “Power Bitches”

Social Commentary

Angry Indian Trolls vs “Power Bitches”

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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s I swam through Twitter’s usual pool of bile and vitriol a few nights ago – this time courtesy Paresh Rawal, an elected member of parliament who had asked for author Arundhati Roy to be violated – I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. I was back in 2016, aimlessly attending The Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai. Over those two days, I attended two talks that I remember to this day; both memorable for two vastly different reasons.

Both the talks were anchored around two of India’s most articulate public speakers, Shashi Tharoor and Barkha Dutt. Of course, it’s a pleasure seeing them perform, not just for their command over the spoken word, but the felicity with which they answered audience questions. However, if you needed any evidence of the different barometer we have for perceiving men and women in the public intellectual sphere, there it was, unfolding in front of your eyes.

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At Dutt’s talk, centred around her book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines, an elderly gentleman seated in the front row pronounced her a traitor. He was polite in his assertion, but not without rhetorical flourish. Dutt answered him with eloquence but with a visibly tired smile that made it clear she’d been through this routine many times before. This was perhaps one of the most civil abuses Dutt has witnessed – just scroll through her Twitter timeline to see the Ferris wheel of venom directed at her every other minute.

On the other hand was Tharoor, rockstar Congress MP and clearly the most popular figure at the event. I know this because he was showered with whistles and rabid applause. In contrast to Dutt’s session, not a soul in the audience was interested in fiddling with the personal controversies tailing him. The closest a person came to ruffling the MP’s feathers was to ask how fishermen in his own constituency would benefit from developments driven by global tech solutions. (He replied that they were already using apps to locate fish, to laughter and unanimous applause.)

This has stayed with me, as an example of just how disproportionately personal, the criticism of our female public intellectuals is. Where there was a backslap-py cheerful quality to Tharoor’s session, Dutt’s was marked by a palpable air of personalised hostility, mostly from men who populated the front rows.

Roy, Dutt, even sworn Modi-bhakt Madhu Kishwar, or the newest kid on the dance floor, Gurmehar Kaur: There is a clear pattern to how these women are identified and abused.

More than a year and a half on, it seems that all those people who wanted to corner Dutt that day, now have Twitter accounts and a longer list of targets that constitutes only women. The micro-blogging site is a morbid Blue Lagoon where hate-filled young- and middle-aged men are always ready to propel themselves with the weight of their entitled gender at women with minds of their own.

Paresh Rawal might not know it, but he comes from an illustrious line of men reminding women of their place in hierarchy; where they are supposed to fit neatly into motherly, sisterly tableaus. Anything other than that and it befuddles the worldview of egg-shaped, Digital India-filtered Twitter personalities. Roy, Dutt, even sworn Modi-bhakt Madhu Kishwar, or the newest kid on the dance floor, Gurmehar Kaur: There is a clear pattern to how these women are identified and abused. Maybe Roy, Dutt and Co. represent an idea that Indian men are simply not used to – fiercely independent, outspoken women. If my unscientific dipstick survey of the kind of abuse they are subjected to is any indication, this is nothing but the fear of female intellect.

This online abuse is just an extension of how successful, especially independent women are viewed in India. It borrows heavily from an office culture where a woman’s success is ascribed to her sofa-skills with the boss. From families where any dissent from the daughter/daughter-in-law/mother is considered “ladki haath se nikal gayi hai”.

A smart woman is an inconvenience, especially if her opinions challenge your own intellectual faculties or remind you of your own shortcomings. A smart woman armed with English, is even more forbidding. The likes of Dutt, Roy, Kaur or poet Meena Kandasamy occupy this formative liberal landscape that most of India aspires to. It’s easy to see why men, not in possession of that diction, would choose to despise anyone who is on the inside and appears to have their back turned towards them. Not to say that women who don’t write or speak English fare any better or that their abusers are never men who drink tea with their pinkies sticking out. But you don’t have to be Sherlock to detect a severe, crippling inferiority complex operating behind this invective.

Rawal seems to be the latest victim of this complex malaise. Today, he seems so distant from the roles he essayed in Oh My God and Sardar. With this one move, he’s ensured that we’ll remember him as a batty old man and reader of fake news, flailing haplessly at the windmills.

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