Enterprise Hindutva and Social Media in Urban India
Prof Sahana Udupa
Senior Research Partner, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany
This paper delineates ‘enterprise Hindutva’ as a mediatized form of Hindu nationalism shaped largely by the affordances of social media and the cultural practices surrounding them in urban India. Enterprise Hindutva is argumentative, experientially voluntary and capable of working with contradictions. It inhabits the ideological project envisioned as a range rather than a point of convergence. Enterprise Hindutva suggests that it is through the very bickering on social media and repetition of simplified summaries of key ideological principles that Hindutva finds its latest mediatic conditions for renewal.
The continued salience of Hindu nationalism in new millennium India presents the paradox of transnational Internet media technologies aiding a staunchly chauvinistic nationalist ideology. This paper delineates ‘enterprise Hindutva’ as a mediatized form of Hindu nationalism shaped largely by the affordances of social media and the cultural practices surrounding them in urban India. Enterprise Hindutva is argumentative, experientially voluntary and fun.1It inhabits the ideological project envisioned as a range rather than a point of convergence. Similar to white nationalism online, it is ‘an irreducible multiplicity with an operative logic’ (Deem 2018). It is able to assemble dispersed actors and varied motivations in a new media climate of rewarding self-activity, as well as diverse commercial interests clustering around social media as analytics and bots. Enterprise Hindutva is driven most prominently by techno savvy volunteers, whose knowledge of online networks, at least as end users, is key to their political claims in the public discourse. This essay follows two such volunteers active on Twitter, the microblogging social networking site, to highlight voluntary online work that constitutes enterprise Hindutva.
Enterprise Hindutva comprises at least four other prototypes I briefly mention in the concluding remarks, but the focus on online voluntary work presents a unique lens to examine how online actors experience and compose the ideological space of Hindutva, and what interruptions and continuities such activities could bring to the movement. While much has been written about Hindutva as a majoritarian imagination of Hindu-first India entailing ‘the desire to transform Indian public culture into a sovereign, disciplined national culture rooted in what is claimed to be a superior ancient Hindu past, and to impose a corporatist and disciplined social and political organization upon society’ (Hansen 1999, 4), the granularity of processes where such visions are composed by a range of ‘ordinary’ actors is nevertheless underexamined in scholarship. Building on the introduction to this special issue that covers the ground in terms of the latest theoretical thinking on Hindutva, my intention here is to bring the voices of ordinary actors and reflexive engagement with these narratives to the fore of analysis, and focus on the mediatic contexts in the digital age that provide an important angle of vision for the clumsiness and affective hold of ideological formations. This builds on ongoing ethnographic fieldwork which started in 2013, comprising in-person interviews I carried out with politically active online users, social media campaign strategists and volunteers for political parties, and ethnographic observations of offline events in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Banglaore.
In specific cases involving online Hindutva volunteers, ethnographic interviews were facilitated by collaborative fieldwork with the help of field research associates in order to not only approach different interlocutors at the same time, but also to manage the fluctuating scenario of trust and suspicion that met a ‘prying’ academic. As with any other research method, descriptions and analyses that follow ethnographic encounters are ‘partial approximations’ at best (Astuti 2017, 11). In addition, familiarity accumulated in the field could lead to greater focus on ‘what people discuss explicitly and passionately’, leaving out the ‘implicit and the unstated’ (13). One could see them as limitations, but it is possible to also view it as a productive tension that enriches the interpretative task by forcing the researcher to look through the narratives and situate them in lived contexts, all while remaining reflective about the performative aspect of ethnographic interactions. I will revisit this point in the later sections. For studies of Hindu nationalism, a close ethnography of studying with people rather than of them (Ingold 2017) entails a unique tension – still a productive tension – of recognizing the various vantage points of entry into the ideological space worked out by actors themselves, without imposing an overarching narrative framework predetermined by prevailing theories. Such an approach embraces ‘ethnographic theory’ as a point of departure, as ways to layer the critique with an up-close view of the field.
In the rest of the essay, I will briefly discuss scholarship on media and Hindutva, tracing the mediating contexts of national television, private commercial news, and the growth of social media in India. Highlighting the global significance of social media for political participation, I will discuss ‘enterprise Hindutva’ and locate it within the global climate of online political influence and online architectures that prod and feed on self-activity. To illustrate enterprise Hindutva, I will then introduce two tweeters who jointly manage an anonymous ‘right-wing’ handle on Twitter, following their narratives of the ideological mission, their dilemmas and fears. I qualify these narratives by reflecting on my presence as a ‘foreign academic’ but a South Indian ‘Hindu’ woman introduced to my interlocutors through familiar ‘surnames’ and mutual friends. Navigating these overlaps and familiarity, and how they framed our performances and subjunctive modes of knowing in the ethnographic encounter (da Col 2017), I locate the key aspects of my interlocutors’ online activities. The concern around facts and fringes that shapes the tweeters’ online work for Hindutva, I conclude, offers a way to delineate the contours of enterprise Hindutva in digital India.
Hindutva and media
Several studies have demonstrated the significance of media in the popularization of Hindutva, and the importance of media resources for the nationalist project to expand on a mass scale. Analyzing the period of peak popularity of national television in the 1980s, seminal works by Rajagopal (2001) and Mankekar (1999) have shown that the broadcasting of the televised series based on the Ramayana, the Hindu religious epic, on the state-run television media not only aroused popular excitement around Hindu nationalism as a political sensibility but also, less conspicuously, wove Hindutva into the everyday lives of television viewers. The state-run television’s decision to broadcast Ramayana became a critical moment in constituting a popular base for the Hindu nationalist project. The ideological movement, led by an ambitious group of political leaders aiming for political power at the national level, relied on popular symbols and icons that could infuse the public domain with the excitement of associating with Hindutva as a composite sentiment of religious, cultural and national awareness. Crucial to this phase of mass mediated expansion of Hindutva was the work of commodity images and the ease with which people could enter the ideological parivar [family] through the images, vocabularies and icons that were made ubiquitous by the television media.
That state-run television, representing the secular developmental goals of the nation-state, came to offer the symbolic resources for Hindutva, enabling a popular base for the movement, was no less than ironic. Indeed, it signaled a major shift in the official policy that eased restrictions upon religious expressions, allowing them into state institutions hitherto guarded by Nehruvian secularism.
The historical overlaps between the Indian National Congress Party and Hindutva illustrated by this policy continue to influence the political climate in contemporary India. The relation between Hindu nationalism and the private news media has been more complicated. If a large section of the bhasha journalists found the idioms of Hindutva culturally proximate and authentic in the face of the unsettling ‘global modernity’ of post reforms India, sections of the media advocating for open markets and cultural liberalism stood staunchly against Hindutva, especially when Hindu nationalist supporters challenged the liberal cultural expressions of the youth and popular media by resorting to ‘moral policing’ (Udupa 2015b).2Historical revisionist efforts of Hindutva have also drawn strong criticism from the organized media. Yet, the reforms agenda of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) drew its strength from the very sections of media advocating for economic liberalization and public-private partnerships in key developmental and policy domains, including urban infrastructure and agrarian reforms. The complex nature of mass mediation does not take away the key theoretical insight that Hindutva is shaped not as much by the political system or religious field per se but by the broader public culture where political discourses, commercial and cultural expressions, as well as official representations together constitute forms of recognition and identity (Hansen 1999).
The expansion of social media in the new millennium brought a significant shift in the media landscape, thus altering the mediatic contexts for Hindutva. Social media introduced new avenues of political expression for the common publics who had access to Internet connectivity and, more importantly, had reasonable knowledge of how online networks worked. Simultaneously, it created new channels of communication for net savvy political leaders and political parties who could now directly enter into a dialogue with their constituencies and keep voter loyalties alive with direct interaction (Pal, Chandra, and Vydiswaran 2016).
The recent surge in scholarship on online media reveals that new media practices for political influence and popular participation represent a global trend, which is reconfiguring the connections between media and publics within national as well as transnational fields (Bennett and Segerberg 2012; Bernal 2014; Gillmor 2006; Kraidy 2016). A large number of studies point to the momentum infused by social networking sites for political movements ̶ a phenomenon amply illustrated by the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Green Revolution in Turkey and similar dramatic events of confrontation between ordinary publics and established authorities in different parts of the world. Shirky (2011) elaborates on the ‘political power of social media’ by listing a number of enabling tools available for political participation in the digital era. Social media, she argues, offers ‘coordinating tools’, helps to create ‘shared awareness’, and fosters ‘horizontal communication’.
Although recent studies have corrected the initial euphoria around transformative citizen activism enabled by social media, including downright criticism of ‘slactivism’ as a form of evacuating actual political energy (Morozov 2011), no research contends that social media are inconsequential for politics in the new millennium. Indeed, corrective accounts have raised pertinent questions about how social media are transforming from a potential forum for radical empowerment of ordinary citizen voice to a propaganda tool of political authorities who are increasingly investing in the new communication form for influence enhancement using big data marketing, data surveillance, and bot forces (Howard and Wooley 2016).
Enterprise Hindutva, I suggest, should be located within this expanding global infrastructure for online influence management as well as popular participation in ‘high politics’ facilitated and animated by social media. In India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the first major political party to systematically adopt social media strategies for electoral gains. The run up to the Parliamentary elections in 2014 witnessed a flurry of intense mobilization tactics on social media, spearheaded primarily by the BJP and its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. It was matched only partially by the efforts of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteers and there were significant overlaps between the AAP and BJP volunteers around election time. Social media branding helped to transform Modi’s image from a tainted leader accused of complicity in the Gujarat riots of 2002 into a messiah of ‘New India’; the teams working for Modi deployed a meticulously crafted social media campaign that appealed not only to the country’s youth but also to expatriate Indians and the broader international community (Pal, Chandra, and Vydiswaran 2016, 54). Social media continued to be at the center of the party’s public face after the electoral victory in 2014. The ‘IT cell’ evolved into a significant wing of the party, drawing support from fully paid workers to manage the ‘digital assets’ of the party and (unpaid) volunteers whose number was as large as one hundred thousand across India in 2017.3
While the meticulous organizational structure of the party with the mandate to develop a robust online presence suggests a top-down campaign effort with an ambitious leader at the helm, the enthusiasm behind the ‘IT work’ was by no means empty engineering crafted by marketing savvy minds. The rebranding of Modi on social media ‘embodied the aspirations of the beneficiaries of neoliberal reforms, who wanted more of them’ (Sinha 2017, 4164).
As social media expanded across urban India, a range of new voices emerged on social networking sites, especially Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter, leading to a distinct middle class debate culture precipitating along the divide between self-fashioned ‘liberals’ and Hindutva supporters as ‘bhakts’ [literally devotees, a new media coinage for supporters of Modi]. Online volunteers of Hindutva are largely urban educated youth from the upper caste and intermediary caste groups; ranging from students and owners of petty retail business to tech entrepreneurs of small sized enterprises and those working for multinational companies; with reasonable tech savviness as end-users or coders, and fluent enough in English to compose the posts, or adept at using regional language scripts by enabling platform specific features. With the spread of affordable smart phones, the volunteer base has expanded beyond urban middle class users, although comprehensive data on this is as yet unavailable. Journalistic accounts have suggested that lower-middle-class youths from small towns are increasingly courted by Hindutva organizations (Poonam 2018; Sengupta 2016).4
Online Hindutva actors participate in discussions on the grander points of the ideology, gliding around a set corpus of themes, and by commenting, tagging, tweeting, retweeting and posting, reproduce the ideological formation from various points of entry and exit. The maneuvering within the ideological space testifies to the ‘diffused logics’ of Hindutva (Reddy 2011). Moreover, the fact that most of the discursive work is taken up by the net savvy youth of their own will, fueled by the excitement of scoring over their ideological rivals on online media, is indicative of a new form of ideological work which constitutes a key strand of enterprise Hindutva. Enterprise Hindutva as voluntary entrepreneurial work is shaped in part by the online architectures that reward self-expressivity in a data driven market place that converts the activity of online users into a commodity for data analytics (Fuchs 2013). Kumar (forthcoming) notes that ‘the affordances and default settings on social media platforms … reward self-revelation and disclosure while penalizing reticence and non-participation’. Furthermore, participation of users in online media contributes to content flows in ways that demonstrate that leisure merges with labor (Ross 2009). Market driven incentives thus facilitate content generation through self-expressivity and online sociality among ideological compatriots, alongside the technological possibility to team up on a real time basis across geographical distances.
The enmeshed offline-online experiences of Vasisht and Kunal5 described below represent an important prototype of enterprise Hindutva. Living in two different cities, they jointly ran an anonymous Twitter handle with more than 1400 followers that had mastered the art of belligerent tweeting. Both graduated from the Indian Institute of Management, (IIM(X)), a premier management school in India. In their mid-twenties, both had good enough knowledge of Twitter to make a plunge into the ‘public domain’.
Hindutva beyond a point of convergence
‘I can ask my friend if he wants to talk to you’, says Priya cautiously, when I request her to introduce me to the real people behind an anonymous Twitter handle that regularly trolls her for taking a‘liberal-secular position’. ‘How can you call your troll a friend?’, I ask, bemused by the troll-friend pairing. Priya chuckles, and offers to unknot the ties for greater clarity.
Priya’s friend Vasisht worked with her at a public relations firm, where they spent a good amount of time discussing politics in between work schedules that involved designing PR agendas for a variety of clients, some of whom were political parties of different ideological hues and vote bank strategies. It was 2014, the peak campaign time for the Indian Parliamentary elections. Aware of the political climate and the robust social media campaigning by the BJP, Priya remained active on Twitter to relay her critical take on Hindu nationalism and the BJP. Vashiht came to know of her handle, followed the tweets and realized he could not disagree more. He acted swiftly.
Teaming up with Kunal, he created an anonymous Twitter handle to lambast Priya’s views. To do so, he named the handle with a twist of words that resembled Priya’s handle but infused it with sneering ridicule. By naming his handle with a twist so close to Priya’s, Vasisht wished to stay within a proximate distance of his friend’s pool of comments on Twitter, satirically criticizing her ‘liberal views’. In other words, his handle was a way to stay close in order to undermine opinion through ridicule.
Twitter, it appeared, made the confrontational proximity possible with catchy pseudo names and tagging. Yet, Priya and Vasisht are great friends. They remain in constant touch in the big city of Delhi, even after they left the PR company to pursue different career options. Priya works for a social media strategy company that consults for political parties, and Vasisht heads a not-for-profit company to promote primary school education among economically underprivileged children in Delhi.
I plan to meet Vasisht near Janpath in central Delhi. I arrive early, and stand in front of a store, a few steps behind a thick parking line touching the pedestrian way. The clouds above us move about with searing speed in the gray sky. A large sweep of dust rises from the ground, forming rings and half circles. ‘It is dust storm’, comments a friend who has come to meet me after learning from my Facebook post that I will be in Delhi. I have found it difficult to coordinate the right time for meeting my friend, and have thus planned to first meet her at Janpath and request Vasisht to come there and meet me. I expect my friend to leave after Vasisht shows up, but now there is plenty of time to chat before he arrives. The street is crowded with vendors selling all sorts of things ̶ handcrafted curios, bags, shawls, kurtis [blouses resembling but shorter than the full length kurta], household plastic ware, books, necklaces and earrings. There are outlets of boutique clothing lines and international brands, and smaller retail stores for clothes, jewelry and footwear. With my friend I purchase a cotton bag and a bunch of silk scarves, wondering still how I will find Vasisht in the thick rush when he arrives. With the dust rising, we walk along the street briskly to find a calmer spot. We zigzag between the parked vehicles, leaping between the small traffic lights mounted for passenger crossing. Just as I am having a jolly girly talk with my friend, on the bustling streets of Janpath, a young man in his mid-20s walks closer to us, and addresses me with the correct name. I am surprised, although not unnerved because the young man looks too polite to be an intruder. He introduces himself as Vasisht. ‘How did you know it was me’, I ask instantly. ‘I looked up on the net’, he says, with a smile of knowing the net all too well.
I notice that Vasisht is extremely flexible and helpful. I am stunned by his politeness, gentlemanly demeanor and an utterly down to earth attitude. The caustic comments and posts on Vasisht’s joint anonymous handle give an entirely different image of the sender – one who is restless and uncharitable, lambasting views that do not reflect his understanding of the right course of thinking. Vasisht in this offline moment of our meeting does not appear to be anything like this. Where do we find a quiet place for a proper conversation that can also be recorded digitally? Café Coffee Day (CCD) we see across the street? No, too noisy, we decide. Vasisht offers help. He offers to take us to a quieter CCD in an adjoining neighborhood. He leads the walk, and then the auto rickshaw ride, checking throughout if we – the two ladies – are comfortable. There, at CCD, we take a corner table soaked in a dim bar light. Loud music and chatter surrounding our table worries me. I know the small audio recorder would capture all the sounds, eating into the recording of our discussion. Looking at my worried face, Vasisht offers to hold the audio recorder in his hand if that helps. I feel a bit awkward about this. It would look like a microphone, setting up an atmosphere of an addresser and addressee, which is far from the informal chat I had envisioned.
Moreover it would be an additional burden for our interlocutor. But we decide this is the only way to capture any audio of the interview on the small gadget. ‘If you feel uncomfortable, you can always place the recorder back on the table’, I tell him. No problem, he assures me, holding the recorder in his hand and waiting for my questions.
Vasisht graduated from India’s top management school, and a top engineering school, IIM(X). Rather than taking the usual course of a well-paying private sector job, he chose to work in the ‘social sector’. He is the director and co-founder of a not-for-profit company that supports school education. The mission of the company is to foster ‘greater collaboration’ between the local community and school management that can enable quality education for children. They work at public primary schools in the Delhi region, covering over one thousand schools. Several young educationists and volunteers work for the company. The objective to improve public primary schools which offers education to children largely from lower income families demonstrates Vasisht’s keen sense of social responsibility, and his commitment to ‘bring about a change on the ground’. The not-for-profit venture stands as an intriguing background to the aggressive tweets he sends out in support of Hindu nationalism.
Vasisht joined Twitter in 2012 with a ‘real handle’ linked to his real world ‘coordinates’. ‘I joined Twitter because everyone was on Twitter’, he says, ‘It was fairly apolitical and a very dormant kind of handle’. But the joint anonymous handle he started with his friend in 2014 had a definite political purpose. The aim was to correct what they saw as ‘the biased narrative’. His friend’s liberal views which first prompted him to start a Twitter handle were a symptom of the biased narrative.
According to them, the mainstream media and public intelligentsia had to be blamed for the narrative, and it needed urgent intervention:
I think a turning point in media was 2002 when the Gujarat riots happened. I was fairly convinced that Modi was responsible [and that] he participated in the riots etc. A lot of this was based on the opinion in the opeds [in the newspapers]. But slowly by 2006 or 2005, it was getting clearer that there is some shade of doubt and it was not as black and white … no charges were framed against Modi. So that’s when we realized that a narrative … has been pushed … . By the time we created the anonymous handle there was already a very strong right wing undercurrent where the theories of Gujarat riots were being challenged, 1984 riots were raked up again and again. The incumbent Congress government’s record of communal harmony was put forward. That’s where our handle came into picture. We created it at the peak of 2014 when the campaign was very hyped up. Those were the times when we realized that the room for subtleties was not there. You had to be either for or against. Both my friend and I were not comfortable to take the binary positions. But we created an anonymous handle which was pretty straightforward in its leanings. We identified ourselves as right-wing and most specifically a supporter of Modi and BJP, and disliking Congress.
As Vasisht’s long narrative about his foray into Twitter suggests, his awareness about a flawed narrative was not an isolated moment of realization but was part of the shifting political climate that preceded an intense period of electoral campaigning. The campaign style messages however connected well with his personal experience of ‘spotting’ a flawed narrative. He recounts how as a child he watched the coverage of the Kargil war in 1989 with keen interest, and started to admire English television journalists like Barkha Dutt as a ‘role model’. But his comforting world of role models was shattered by a controversy surrounding a blog post. A blogger who criticized Barkha Dutt for her coverage of the Mumbai terror strikes in 2009 was blamed for his insensitive comments. ‘This blog was taken down’, Vasisht recalls in anguish, ‘It showed the narrative is flawed’. In his mind, there was now greater clarity that a certain section of the media and public intelligentsia with ‘secular-liberal’ leanings allowed no alternative views to enter the public domain, and that the right-wing political position – understood as a combination of pro-liberalization economic policy, pride in Hindu culture and a challenge to liberal voices that went too far in criticizing the nation – needed a push. Twitter gave Vasisht a perfect platform to air his views. Until he discovered Twitter as a potential political forum, he had neither commented on the mainstream media, nor was he involved in any formal political party in any capacity. He had worked for what he defines as a ‘politically agnostic’ public relations company. Because the company served all political clients with the same bottom line interests, he didn’t feel guilty about designing public relations agendas for political parties of which he disapproved. But to be active on Twitter upon one’s own will and for one’s own reasons meant greater ideological responsibility. ‘To me ideology is a clear filter’, he reiterates, ‘I cannot work for any political party simply because I have the expertise with social media which can fetch me money’.
Ideology as a filter eliminated the Communist Party of India and the Indian National Congress from the list of favorable parties. Vasisht is convinced that the two parties ‘are not in sync with what the New India is.’ He cites the cases of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu which were economically on par at the time of India’s independence, but whereas the latter has progressed well economically, the former has lagged behind in the post-independence years. ‘A lot of blame has to go to the Communist party’, he complains, adding that the party’s sympathies for the Naxalbari movement is yet another reason for him to remain critical. As for the Indian National Congress party, his primary objection is to the ‘dynasty politics’ of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Even the state welfare schemes, he laments, are named after the members of the family. ‘Although Modi government is sometimes criticized for its autocratic tendencies’, he says with a wry smile, ‘no one can match the Congress party’s culture of not being questioned.’
As I note down the details of what ‘ideology’ has done as a filter for this young man, I notice that he carries a ‘non-smart’ mobile phone. He says this is on purpose. He wants to use a mobile phone that does not give him ‘real time access to emails’. He supplements the old fashioned basic cell phone with a smart tablet he always carries in his bag. He rarely uses the tablet, but when he does, it is for booking taxis on Uber and Ola, or for ‘some unforeseen circumstances’. The tablet has a SIM card with a data plan, but it is a ‘spam number’ handed out to marketing agencies and not for his real circle of friends and family. ‘Healthcare, insurance, and what not … all brokers have that number. I barely check it’, he says. With a smart tablet on a ‘spam number’ and a basic phone with no Internet connectivity, most of Vasisht’s tweeting is done on his personal computer. His astute management of online identities signals to me the layers of caution and care that have underpinned his Twitter presence. First, he teamed up with his friend Kunal to launch a joint Twitter handle as a collaborative effort to enter political debates; second, he named the handle with a twist of word to resonate with and ridicule his friend’s (Priya) liberal political views; and third, and more importantly, he kept the handle anonymous. These efforts were not a sign of a scheming political strategist who had all the steps worked out well in advance, but rather someone who was swept up by the realization that the narrative was ‘flawed.’ Why was his friend Kunal so keen to join this online venture?
‘I hope this is not a sting operation’, Kunal asks with apprehension when our field research associate Shadab meets him at the plush corporate office of a multinational company in Mumbai where he works. It is after Vashisht’s recommendation that Kunal has finally agreed to a research interview. As soon as I had received Vashisht’s offer to connect us with his Twitter double, I had contacted Shadab in Mumbai, briefing him about ongoing encounters in Delhi and what might emerge in Mumbai, anxious throughout not to lose the momentum or trust, and mindful of the dynamic inter-textual networks that social media had woven between physical spaces. Vashisht and I connect Kunal with Shadab for a meeting. Tall and well-built, Kunal looks professional in his black trousers and a checked shirt in beige. Shadab assures him that researchers strictly abide by the ethics that come with confidentiality clauses. His real name will not be used in the research if it makes him uncomfortable. ‘But I am not doing anything against the law’, he retorts, ‘Please go ahead and use my name. I am not scared’. He does not come across as pretentious, although we decide later it is better not to reveal his real name. Throughout the interview, the two sides of Kunal keep surfacing ̶ one apprehensive and the other audacious. As we discuss the first meeting, Shadab and I wonder if the corporate office and not a coffee shop as a meeting point might have accentuated the vacillation. Accentuated as it may be, we are sure the dilemma is not entirely because of the place or the moment of our meeting. Trolling and right-wing activism in Kunal seem to invoke an inescapable combination of hesitation and defiance.
Before the first meeting in Mumbai, we have taken a quick look at the anonymous Twitter handle he manages with Vasisht. The handle has just retweeted several memes to lambast Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal [leader of AAP], including a meme that made a snide comment that ‘People didn’t vote for Modi, EVMs did’ [ridiculing Kejriwal’s allegation that Modi’s victory is a result of the glitches in the electronic voting machines]. By popular metrics, Kunal has just ‘trolled’ the Chief Minister with his repeated retweets.
Back in the office, when they sit down for a conversation, Shadab notices that traces of trolling asan aggressive and repetitive online action are conspicuously absent. Kunal is polished and polite. He offers to take him to a coffee shop, and when he hesitates because of the noise levels, Kunal ushers him into a small, well-furnished conference room equipped with a projector, LCD screen and ergonomic chairs. As they settle down on the chairs, Kunal asks politely, ‘So, how can I help you?’ After a long description of the project laced with reassurances of research ethics guaranteeing confidentiality, he seems to feel more at ease to reflect on his foray into Twitter:
I was introduced to the world of social media by a close friend [Vasisht] who was already on Twitter. Back in 2012, Hum sab jaante they ke Congress is on a sticky wicket [Back in 2012, we all knew Congress was on a sticky (cricket) wicket]. We realized that social media gives a platform to the unheard voice and has a place for everyone with a political opinion which can influence the way people think. I saw this as an opportunity because I was really frustrated with the corrupt government. My friend shared with me a post from Facebook which said that the Congress has not been merely ruling India for a decade. They have technically been in power since Independence and India is still a third-world country. I was really struck by the words and I decided that I will also be a part of this online community as I wanted to ensure that the ruling dispensation is voted out. The election time campaign frenzy kept Kunal on his toes. He used to disappear periodically into the depths of his phone during office meetings, log on to Twitter using his laptop immediately after office hours and sometimes even before going to the office. Kunal says the intensity of Twitter debating affected his professional and personal life during this time. ‘And since the time BJP came to power I am now at peace and I’ve maintained a perfect balance between professional, personal and virtual life.’
Although the frequency of Kunal’s tweeting reduced after the elections, aspects of political belief ramped up during the election campaign time and bolstered further by the activities of other Twitter users did not disappear. Indeed, they coalesced into a more or less stable ideological orientation. As a result, Kunal finds it easy to sum up his political ideology as ‘Hindutva’. Soon, Shadab and Kunal enter into a feisty debate. ‘So tell me what your tweets are all about’, probes Shadab. ‘The tweets basically reflects our ideology which is Hindutva in nature’. Shadab intervenes politely, ‘I don’t understand one thing. You said that you are interested in politics and frustrated with corruption. So, are you implying that Hindutva is part of our political landscape?’ Kunal’s tone is defensive: See, India is majorly [predominantly] a Hindu country and since quite some time, the focus has shifted a lot on the well-being of the minorities. We have been pushed against the wall and then people expect that we will not even react.
Shadab repeats the question with a slight modification and insists, ‘So you are saying that it is fine to mix politics with religion?’ Kunal retorts, ‘This is a difficult question to answer. But let me tell you one thing, when Owaisi [a prominent Muslim political leader] can mix politics with religion, even we can.’ Shadab pauses and asks, ‘Okay, so please correct me if I am wrong in my interpretation. You are a highly motivated individual who wants development of the country but the development should take place selectively, only for the majority community?’
There is some hesitation in Kunal’s voice. ‘No’, he says rather sheepishly, but the two decide to drop the matter there. Shadab feels guilty about pushing the question hard, and Kunal feels awkward to play the host and field the questions simultaneously. Shadab confesses later that he had to muster a lot of courage to be insistent. The certainty with which Kunal invokes the label of ‘Hindutva’ and the details that give content to the label – the sense of Hindu victimhood and the defense of mixing up religion and politics by referencing the Muslim counterpart – are so close to popular understandings of Hindutva that they appear almost like a cliché. Yet, for Kunal, they are serious aspects of a political reality that he experienced for the first time. As with his friend Vasisht, ideology as a ‘filter’ had weaved the key tenets of Hindutva into the everyday ways of making sense of the political.
Kunal is not fluent in English. Hence, he relies on retweeting rather than posting original tweets. ‘My tweets are mainly retweets’, he confesses, ‘because I think I am not creative enough with words to say it in 140 characters or articulate enough to write anything.’ He follows a list of journalists sympathetic to Hindu nationalism, and keeps a close watch on those who are critical. He feels it is unfair that prominent female journalists he trolled for their critical views on Hindutva blocked him. ‘Can you believe it, they blocked me, is this fair?’, he asks in a gush of anguish. Such confrontations are so personal and real that Kunal does not feel social media campaigning by political parties is just a manufactured discourse or media manipulation. ‘Twitter is only a multiplier’, clarifies Vasisht. Both the friends are hence convinced that their ideological work is neither dubious nor orchestrated. Indeed, their handle, according to them, is not part of the propaganda but one that ‘calls out propaganda’.
Facts and fringes
Vasisht elaborates that calling out propaganda is achieved by infusing ‘data points’ into discussions around major issues that hit the media center. Kunal is convinced that their data driven contestation can correct the ‘flawed narrative’, citing many examples from their Twitter history:
We would like to think of taking part in a discourse which is based on facts and not necessarily opinions. That is how our handle came into picture, calling out propaganda. During the Delhi elections in 2015, there was this theory around church attacks. In terms of statistics, there was no significant spikes in terms of the number of incidents happening. That is where we thought that the narrative is being shifted so that the blame is on the BJP government. That is where I think we wanted to play a part to set the narrative based entirely on facts. For example, if you talk about recent incidents such as killings by gau rakshaks [cow vigilantes who chase and attack beef eating communities], I mean it is definitely not justified. It is definitely wrong. The central point becomes causality. How much blame can be apportioned to the central government, most specifically Modi. That is the question which needs to be looked at a much deeper level. The language of causality, facts and data drives the imagination of conscientious citizens who are ready with the wherewithal of fact-checking to amend the discourse of vested liberal interests.
Vasisht insists that a lack of transparency shrouds the left-liberal space in India, since the liberal critics are ‘quick and lazy’ with facts and figures. He cites the cases of Gujarat’s development indices as an example of the left-liberal clouding of the ‘actual reality’. With Gujarat, left-liberal commentators criticize state debt – a wrong measure – instead of malnutrition. While fact-checking has been a key preoccupation for Hindutva advocates, peaking especially during the Ayodhya movement, the immediacy, speed and uncontrolled nature of fact-based contestations are distinct to enterprise Hindutva on social media. These practices represent digital remediation of Hindutva practices as the older forms of agitation over history-making and fact-checking enter the continuous, synchronous webs of information display and ripostes (Udupa 2015a, 13).
At the same time, Vasisht’s reference to gau rakshaks highlights the characterization of ‘fringes’ in the Hindutva space. Because the handle has a large number of followers, it attracts fellow sympathizers of Hindutva online. But to be followed by all and sundry is not always flattering. ‘People keep tagging us for whatever reason, that’s when you realize what idiots they are’, he says squarely, and declares, ‘They are the fringe elements.’ Although he believes the number of people on thefringes is not as large as those on the ‘non-fringe’, he is clear about what comprises the fringes of Hindutva:
The very concept of Hindu rashtra which has no place for Muslims is a wrong concept to have. [It is] a wrong belief to have. That is something which is definitely not justified. Gau rakshaks’ vigilantism is not justified. Bhajarang Dal’s protests on Valentines Day are not justified. We would not want to be identified with them, although we belong to the same side of the spectrum. They would technically be classified as right wing protests. We would also be classified as right-wing Twitter account. But we would want to be different from what the Bhajrang is doing, what the gau rakshaks are doing, what the people supporting Hindu rashtra or Hindu supremacy would be believing in. The normal discourse does not give me that freedom to say that, look I am not left wing but I do not support these. If I am not left wing, by default I would be assumed that – unless I am given a chance to explain – I am against homosexuality, for gau rakshaks, for Babri demolition, for whatever. I not for all of these things. I am simply saying that on the spectrum, I am on the right.
To experience Hindutva as a spectrum and not an ideological point of convergence reveals the dilemmas and contradictions that compose enterprise Hindutva. On the one hand, Vasisht and Kunal feel compelled to take a position on the key battles of Hindutva, leaving no room for ambiguity. Vasisht confesses that supporting Modi on social media comes with the expectations that he would ‘naturally’ support the Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat riots or gau rakshaks. But he does not support any of them, and neither, he believes, does Modi. Positioning their handle in the online discourse is hence extremely challenging:
I might not go to a temple. But I will call myself a Hindu. At the same time, I do believe that there is a place for all religions, all cultures, all sects etc. So that’s where I would want to position our Twitter handle. But it [social media] is a very difficult place to put [position] our handle. You have to be either left or right. Social media exert the pressure to accept Hindutva as an ideological bundle, but on the other hand, the possibility to have an anonymous handle clears out the space to be as harsh as one pleases and disown, if needed, others’ positions within the same ideological space and insist on nuanced differences. Vasisht, for instance, reveals he has never been part of Dr Subramanian Swamy’s ‘Global Patriotic Tweeple Conference’, an offline gathering for right-wing tweeters organized in major Indian cities to encourage online tweeters to enter real world politics. ‘I personally find him [Dr Swamy] interesting’, Vasisht admits, ‘but a lot of what he says is too acerbic to support’. He admires the leader for his investigative work in the 2G telecom spectrum scandal, but not his views on the Muslim community in India. ‘I am sure you have read about Dr Swamy urging people to deny the voting rights for Muslims who don’t accept India as a Hindu state. That is something we will not accept at all.’
We notice the dilemmas of the two ‘right-wing’ tweeters appearing at varying points throughout our conversations. In Mumbai, we see Kunal vacillating between hesitation and audacious confidence when he greets us and takes the questions. His simultaneous support for Hindutva and condemnation of the gau rakshaks appears as a contradiction to Shadab. For them, online trolling for the cause of Hindutva is laudable and necessary, but the two friends do not associate with the street ruffians and ‘fringe elements’ who vandalize Valentine’s Day parties, condemn homosexuality, and other such behavior. As Vasisht shares his closely held positions, I do not suspect any of his words to be dubious or a put-on. The conversation is eased by the familiarity of the middle class urban Indian background we all share.
As I sat to write and revise this article, I glanced through my field notes again and recounted our interaction, and realized how I had played up my urban Indianness to come across as someone who could be trusted by my interlocutor – a key aspect of ethnographic fieldwork. My effort was quite conscious, especially after Vasisht said he had ‘looked up on the net’ to presumably gather more information about the study. I suspected that he would have noted my critical position on conservative majoritarian thinking. On his part, he appeared to be encouraged by the opportunity to clear the air and come across as a ‘normal guy’ with genuine political concerns. It was the presumed portrayal of Hindu right wingers as loathsome ideologues he seemed to be determined to set right for academics like me. I had noticed a similar performative effort to normalize the image of Hindutvavolunteers during my conversations among online Hindutva volunteers in Mumbai and Bangalore. As with any ethnographic encounter, there is a mutual gaming of impressions that offers ‘short cut’ for preparing appropriate responses (Goffman 1959). The expressive component of social life plays a profound communicative role in social interactions and forms an important aspect of ethnographic theory building. Da Col elaborates:
… the attunement and correspondence … [with interlocutors] can only be an emergent property of the interactional dynamics in which agents are necessarily caught. At stake in this process is the role of anticipatory cognition and imagination. Through their imagination and capacity to generate subjunctive frames of action, humans have the capability of questioning the flow of interaction and opening horizons or domains that are grounded on certain hypothetical, ‘as-if ’ qualities. (5) Ethnographic theory derives from the interactional dynamics where ethnographers and interlocutors confront and resolve confusions, anticipate action, as well as contend with complete failure at gaining trust.
Noting that Vasisht and Kunal actively distanced themselves from ruffian Hindutva during our conversation and speculating if it was just a result of gaming the impressions, I decided to triangulate the interactional context – the ‘as-if’ qualities of our ethnographic encounter – with the digital traces they have left behind. This does not resolve the problem of having no easy and one-to-one representational correspondence between field and knowledge. Nonetheless, it adds a further layer of meaning to our interpretational task. On 14 July 2016, @AisiTaisiDemo, a twitter handle with 96,000 followers (in 2018) and known for its staunch criticism of Hindu nationalism, took a dig at yoga marketer Baba Ramdev’s cover page story in India Today, a popular magazine, which showed him upside down in a yoga posture.6 The twitter handle used a slightly twisted version of a popular Bollywood song to satirize the portrait and posted ‘babey ka base pasand hey’ [Babe likes the base], seemingly alluding to the ‘base’ that was above the tangled legs and arms that held the face below in the yoga posture (Figure 1).7
The joint Twitter handle of Vasisht and Kunal replied to the post by endorsing its sarcasm, dismissing the yoga Guru by reminding us that he was the same person who said he could ‘cure homosexuality’. Similarly, on 8 June 2014, when Dr Subramanian Swamy urged the ‘PTs’ [Patriotic Tweeples] to rank the priorities (Figure 2):
If you are serious about UCC [Universal Civil Code], 370 [scrapping of Article 370 that gives special constitutional status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir], Mandir [construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya], Rama Setu [the mythological bridge to Lanka believed to be built by Lord Rama], Sanskrit [language learning indexing civilizational pride], Cow [protection of cows considered sacred to Hindus in the nationalist ideology], Virat Hindu identity [glorious Hindu identity], etc., then state by when and in what order
The twitter handle of Vasisht and Kunal ranked them thus: ‘(1) UCC (2) 370 (3) Rama Setu (4) Virat Hindu identity (5) Temple (6) Sanskrit and (7)Cow’. By ranking protection of cow slaughtering as the last priority (and not discarding its inclusion in the Hindutva agenda), Vasisht’s digital traces confirmed his active disapproval of the Hindutva ‘fringes’ who resort to cow vigilantism.
Disagreements with the fringes have not diluted the Hindutva vision for Vasisht and Kunal; rather they have brought the concerns closer to their online worlds. Just as they reshuffled the priorities but ultimately recirculated the list prepared by Dr Swamy, online volunteers like Vasisht and Kunal actively reproduce key discursive elements of the ideology, even when they exercise their experiential agency by acts such as ranking them differently to others. Similarly, although they sometimes disagree with the BJP’s active politics of cow vigilantism, they would frame them as ‘fringes’ that the party unfortunately accepts because of electoral compulsion, quickly pointing to public statements of moderation that leaders like Modi send out to condemn the actions when media events reach fever pitch.8Disagreements on social media confirm their experience of autonomy, even if trolling and abuse as a practice cuts through such differences. It is through the very bickering on social media – the little differences with an operative logic – that Hindutva settles as a familiar ideological vision among online users.
For organized Hindutva, anonymous actors experiencing agency through disagreements provide a steady support base. Although employing fictitious identities has been a time tested strategy for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) even before the digital era (Goyal 1979), the contradictory pulls of anonymity and self-publicity on online media provide a unique resource of voluntary work that requires a different style of modulation. By distancing themselves from active control over disagreements and maintaining an ambiguous position on the rudeness of online workers, the Hindutva organizational authority (RSS and BJP) is thus able to guarantee a sense of autonomy among online voluntary workers which is crucial to ensure its ‘enterprise’ character.
Enterprise Hindutva and social media
In this essay, I have sketched ethnographic portraits of two tweeters who jointly manage an anonymous Twitter handle, in order to offer a glimpse of enterprise Hindutva in millennial India. The two tweeters represent an important prototype of enterprise Hindutva, and are a part of the larger ideological formation clustering around social media with at least five distinct prototypes. These prototypes include party worker online; techie turned ideologue; bhakt business; political intelligence consultant; and monetized Hindutva. Kunal and Vasisht arguably represent the most important strand of enterprise Hindutva ̶ a diffused group of highly motivated, English educated and techno savvy social media volunteers. In contrast to organized media’s fractured relations with Hindu nationalism, shaped variously by the professional secular ethos, commercial interests, and linguistic divisions, enterprise Hindutva in the new media age is argumentative and experientially voluntary.
Here, the ideological vision of Hindu first India blends easily with technological expertise and market-inflected expressivity in new media environments. One might consider this as yet another node in the diffused logics of Hindutva. In an instructive overview of recent scholarship on Hindutva, Reddy (2011) points to the process of vernacularization of Hindutva as infusing the diffused logics of Hindutva into the body politic. Vernacularization connects the ideological vision of Hindutva with diverse sets of politics including regional political interests around caste mobilization and multiculturalist ethnic claims within the diaspora locations.
In each instance, Hindutva political action intersects with multifarious and at times contradictory vocabularies, practices and logics. Reddy defines the trend of vernacularization as ‘Hindutva’s coming of age as a discourse that mediates political practices of all sorts, without always or necessarily being driven by its ideological core’ (2011, 413). To illustrate this point, Reddy surveys social welfare, historical revisionist and diasporic multiculturalist practices as constitutive ‘moments at which “Hindutva” occurs’ (413).
Social media discourse, I suggest, represents an increasingly important strand of the diffused logics of Hindutva, emerging within and shaping a constellation of political practices and aspirations. The arguments that expand on social media, including the dilemmas around the ‘fringes’, complement rather than counter the Hindutva parivar’s organizational emphasis on inculcating Hindu Figure 2. Dr Subramanian Swamy’s official Twitter handle urging ‘PTs’ [Patriotic Tweeples] to rank the priorities of the Hindutva movement. awareness and national discipline (Anderson 2015; Jaffrelot 1996; van der Veer 1994; Zavos 2000).
Enterprise Hindutva assembles a variety of motivations and dispersed actors, allowing contradictions to flourish. Indeed, it is precisely by allowing arguments and contradictions around repetitive simplified summaries that enterprise Hindutva finds its conditions for renewal.
This article has been extracted from the author’s original paper titled “Enterprise Hindutva and Social Media in Urban India” published on November 22, 2018. The original paper can be accessed here.
- I have elsewhere argued that fun is a meta-practice of right-wing ideologies (Udupa forthcoming); the focus in this article is on the nature of Hindutva that emerges as a result of these mediated practices.
- ‘Bhasha media’ refers to a self-reflexive and performative realm of news practices articulating its difference with global urban modernity and its classist underpinnings through the very structures, histories and bilingual dynamics of the news industry. ‘Bhasha’ is not the same as regional language media, although regional language journalists are more likely to inhabit this ethos (Udupa 2015b, 19).
- Personal interview with Amit Malviya, head of the BJP national information technology cell, 24 July 2017.
- Journalistic accounts point out that in these cases online mobilization has gone hand in hand with physical attacks on Muslims and Dalits for vigilante agendas of protecting cows and rescuing Hindu girls from Muslim men (Poonam 2018).
- Real names of all the online users cited in the essay are replaced with alternative names to protect anonymity. The name of the anonymous handle is also not mentioned in order to avoid the possibility of background details provided in the essay exposing the real individuals behind the handle. Similarly, tweets posted by the handle are paraphrased to protect anonymity.
- https://twitter.com/AisiTaisiDemo/status/753657348976021504 accessed 1 August 2018.
- https://twitter.com/Swamy39/status/475525337615327234 accessed 1 August 2018.
- https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/narendra-modi-condemns-killings-in-name-of-gau-raksha/article19179766.ece accessed 1 August 2018.