Sushma and the viciousness of male trolls

Trolls have made horrible memes of Sushma Swaraj and called her unmentionable names. Why? All because of a name!
Sushma and the viciousness of male trolls

Sushma Swaraj had threatened to shave her head off if Sonia Gandhi ever became PM. It was as terrible an insult as anyone could offer to the then Congress president in the times before the advent of social media. Today it would be described as trolling Sonia Gandhi. But last week when the external affairs minister was trolled heavily by bigots on Twitter, it was uplifting to see the Congress come graciously to her support and even take on those who wished death on her, in contrast to the stony silence from Swaraj’s own party colleagues.

It is stunning how the public discourse in this country has sunk so low that people could mock one of the most senior ministers in the government for her single kidney, describe her as ‘half dead’ on that account (many people live perfectly well with just one kidney for decades). They have made horrible memes of her and called her unmentionable names. Why? All because of a name!

Swaraj was not even in India when controversy broke out over a passport officer in Lucknow denying an interfaith couple their passports all because the Hindu woman refused to adopt a Muslim name after marriage. Firstly, that passport officer was overreaching his brief. He may have had problems with their interfaith marriage but there are hundreds of women within this country, married into the same religion, who do not adopt their husband’s name.

There are some communities who give the bride a completely new identity by changing her birth name at marriage. I have had friends who have submitted to the makeover docilely but there have been others who have fiercely resisted the complete submergence of their premarital identities, continuing to maintain their own names and father’s surnames on all documents including their college degrees and passports. And this had nothing to do with their religion. It is more about feminism or the assertion of gender equality, female identity and pride in one’s self and accomplishments that are not linked to marriage or the husband’s largesse.

Of late, since the advent of Facebook, I have noticed many of my friends who had meekly undergone name changes (for example a friend called Kanchan Bam had become Sunita Pharande, whom no one would ever recognise as their former classmate) are reasserting their birth identities on the social networking site to be recognised for who they are and catch up with long-lost friends. Others who may have undergone only a surname change are tagging on their maiden names for the same reason. Men, of course, face no such problems.

So if Tanvi Seth wanted to retain the name she acquired at birth rather than one given to her at marriage, as is done in many Hindu communities, she has a right to her own identity without having a random passport officer tell her otherwise. Seth claimed he also over-extended his brief by telling her husband to convert to Hinduism; the external affairs ministry officials were right to have transferred him forthwith pending detailed investigation.

The couple were given their passports expeditiously and the matter seemed to have been resolved amicably—until Swaraj, who had been abroad through all this imbroglio, returned to find her Twitter timeline flooded with abuse. She decided to ‘like’ those tweets from which it was apparent how far bigots would go to target even such a respected and senior member of the government, one even going so far as to ask if giving the interfaith couple their passports was influenced by her ‘Islamic kidney’ (yuck!). When Swaraj had needed a kidney transplant, many young Muslim boys had offered her one of their own. It shows that even the minority communities hold her in high regard. Though she had then graciously thanked all of them, it is not known who finally donated her a kidney. It is a private matter that does not merit public intrusion.

But I now think the discourse has sunk to the depths of morality to make allusions to that for disagreeing with her on her public action on the interfaith couple’s passport.

But while sympathising with Swaraj over her predicament there are others who point out that, unlike Maneka Gandhi, another senior union minister, who attempted to set up a troll tracker to monitor the abuse of women on Twitter, (she was then heavily trolled herself), the external affairs minister never came to the aid of anyone, including many leading women public figures, who were similarly abused for their independent views and actions on Twitter.

She maintained a studious silence and unlike Maneka Gandhi, did not throw her weight behind even senior women journalists she would have known and interacted with personally. Is it surprising then that not one of her colleagues has yet come to her aid even as it has been established that at least one of her abusers is being followed by one or the other of her ministerial colleagues?

But the level of attacks on Swaraj does shake one’s faith in the shuchita, samrasta and sabhyata that her party has propounded since the times of senior BJP leader L K Advani. Social media, which affords one the luxury of anonymity, has brought out the dark side of the Indian male psyche (most abusers seem to be men) and their level of frustration that compel them to shower the choicest abuse on women is astonishing.

I say this with full responsibility because the women Swaraj blocked or exposed for their scornful tweets have been harsh on her but not abusive. Independent women with their own minds clearly seem to, well, unman a certain kind of  man. Doesn’t matter then if she is Sushma Swaraj or Tanvi Seth. Just a female name is enough to bring out the worst in such men.

Sujata Anandan

Senior journalist and political commentator


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