Bigots On The Internet

WE like to believe that modern technology facilitates the dissemination and nurturing of science and rationality. While it does contribute to such an endeavour, we must realise that there is nothing in technology per se that does not lend itself to quite the converse. Communications technology merely allows us to access information that is sought to be communicated by people across the globe at speeds that were unthinkable even a decade earlier. It brings to us the latest in human enterprise. But the latest is not necessarily forward-looking or progressive. Cable TV has opened a window to the globe for millions of ordinary Indians. But a view through that window also includes glimpses of decadant bourgeois culture and revanchist feudal values. Trashy American soap operas compete with the “teachings” of Rajnish.

The role that the Internet plays, has to be seen in this context. Today, it is possibly the fastest and the most accessible medium of communication. It is also more egalatarian, less hemmed in by restrictions, and thereby allows rapid exchange of information and views. What sets the Internet apart from other forms of mass communications—TV, radio, the print media, books, journals—is its relative anonymity. It is difficult, sometimes impossible, to reliably check the source of material that is available on the Net.

This anonymous character of views expressed on the Net lends itself to two kinds of tendencies. Because it is anonymous, it allows greater freedom to people to put information and views on the Net. At the same time it also alows people to air their views and place material on the Net with a markedly lower degree of responsibility.
The former tendency has made it possible for a radical counter culture to establish itself on the Internet. The character of the Net ensures that a Bill Gates is as prominently “heard” as are hundreds of voices that oppose Microsoft. The Internet, theoretically, provides equal opportunity to large corporates and the opposition to their growing power and influence.

As a medium for exchange of information the Internet is more democratic than any other medium that we have known. But this very democratic character comes with a “cost”. The line between informatioin and disinformation is much easier to cross on the Internet because of its anonymous character. The Internet allows freer exchange, but does not determine what is going to be exchanged. The medium has no control on the superstructure that determines the flow of ideas.
Contradictory Influences Shape the Internet

Thus the Net also allows free flow of decadent, obscurantist, and backward ideas. The Net is thus also a haven for pornography, fascist and communal propaganda, and crass consumerist ideologies. In other words, the dominant ideology of our times and the ideas and their reflections that grip the minds of people also dominate the Internet or the World Wide Web.

It is this that makes it more likely that milk drinking by dumb idols is discussed on the Internet, rather than humans dying of starvation in Orissa. The strength of the Internet—its anonymous character—thus becomes also its greatest weakness. Anonymous people sitting behind their personal computers are presented with an opportunity to share their views with thousands, often millions. What they share is not shaped by the Internet, but by prevalant values and ideas in society.

The Internet provides the opportunity to reveal ones identity, and yet deny it. While it is often possible to glean the source of information available on the Internet, it is much more difficult to prove the same. This relative anonymity allows views to be shared and propagated, that would otherwise not be tolerated in society.

The gullibility of common people towards anything that is linked with the tag of modern technology allows the Internet to become a source of disinformation.

Propaganda on the Internet, thus, is privileged over ordinary word of the mouth propaganda. Few realise that the information available on the Internet is less likely to be accurate than what is available through other methods of communication. The Internet allows the user to choose in a more focussed manner the kind of views he or she wants to access. The Internet is a democratic medium only as long as we use it with open minds.

These complex, often contradictory, factors that shape the Internet also shape the manner in which ideas and information are exchanged on it. In India, nowhere is this more visible than the way the Internet is being used as vehichle for propagation of communal propaganda. The Internet is a major source today of material that is designed to push the communal agenda.

Tarun Vijay, editor of the Rashtriya Sevak Sanghs’s mouthpiece, Panchjanya, proudly declares on an Internet website, “One of the world’s best-organized internet websites belongs to the US-based RSS body, the Hindu Student’s Council. RSS is probably the first organization in the country to hold conferences of its workers, the world over through its own cyber unit.”

Vehicle for Communal Propaganda

Material that was earlier available on railway platforms in the form of shoddily produced pamphlets have now acquired a new sheen on the Internet. The messages are all too familiar—hate campaigns against the alleged enemies of Hinduism, glorification of feudal and revanchist values, anti-minority, anti-women, anti-dalit, anti-modern. The anonymity conferred by the Internet now allows these messages to be communicated more blatantly, in a more virulent fashion.

It would be incorrect, however, to infer that all sites on the Internet that seek to push a communal agenda are of the same ilk. Communal propaganda carried out on the Internet has many layers. Individual members of the Sangh Parivar have separate websites, apart from the Panchjanya and the Organiser (the organs of the RSS) which are regularly updated.

Websites run by the sangh parivar’s official political and social arms, the BJP and the RSS for example, are more sober. They do not carry overt “hate messages”. But even here the window dressing is known to slip. The BJP’s official site, for example ( ran a bulletin board before the 1999 general elections where messages from people could be posted. Messages on the Bulletin board posted at that time included those that called for physical extermination of muslims and other minorities. They also included pornographic references to prominent non-BJP women leaders, including the Congress president. The Bulletin Board was taken off the BJP’s site only after some organisations sent an official complaint to the Election Commission.

Manufactured Experts on the Internet

Other pro “Hindutva” sites on the Internet operate in a more insiduous manner. They target NRIs—a major source of funds for the Sangh Parivar— and also seek to supply their supporters among the middle class and intellectuals with supposedly “unbiased” data and arguments that buttress communal “pro-hindutva” propaganda. These sites have, over the years, created a breed of self styled intellectuals as the Internet has no means of checking the credentials of “experts” and “intellectuals”.
These manufactured experts strive to propagate spurious evidence that try to confer legitimacy to the familiar communal arguments regarding the origins of early Indian civilization and culture.

There is another genre of websites on the Internet that seeks to utilise the religious sentiments of common people to draw them into their communal agenda. For example, The Hindu Universe Resource Center website provides links to numerous sites that carry information on various Hindu festivals and rituals. They contain detailed calendars of such events and information on places (mainly in the US) where such festivals are celebrated. These sites facilitate the offering of prayers and even material offerings to major Hindu temples in India through the Net. They instruct people on the manner in which specific rituals are to be observed during Hindu festivals. They also link up with websites that are now being run by a number of large temples in India and abroad. A visitor from the US to such a website, for example, has the opportunity, sitting at home, to make an offering and pray at a temple in South India.

The Stormtroopers on the Internet

The next set of sites are the real “stormtroopers” of the communal brigade on the Internet. These sites carry overt communal messages, and often prominently display exhortations to physically eliminate the supposed “enemies of hindutva”. The names of many of these sites—Hindu Unity, Sarvarkar Darshan, Soldiers of Hindutva, Mabharati, Karamsad, Indian’s Hindutva Web Site, Mera Bharat Mahan, Hindu Women vs. Muslim Women, Hindu Force, Saffron Tigers, etc.—are a good indicator of their content.

The common refrain in these sites is the alleged atrocities perpetrated by muslims and christians on hindus and the need to unite against them. The sites are replete with false propaganda and virulent attacks against minority communities. They spout venom against individuals who are perceived as enemies. Most of these sites are managed from North America, by associates of the “Friends of the BJP”.

The Hindu Unity site is a perfect example of the kind of propaganda that these websites carry out. The opening page of the site starts with a quote from Nathuram Godse that ends with the following words: “I do say that my shots were fired at the person (Mohandas Ghandhi) whose policy and action had brought rack and ruin and destruction to lakhs of Hindus.”

Discussing “Hate”

Websites such as this also spawn hundreds of, what are called “e (electronic) discussion groups” and “newsgroups”. These groups exchange their views through e-mail, and subscribers to a single such group may run to thousands. Many of them maintain detailed and elaborate “mailing lists”, i.e. lists of email addresses of potential converts and sympathisers. They attempt to network potential sympathisers and also disseminate information released by organisations such as the VHPA (VHP America). They are active in collecting donations and organising protest actions.

Most of these groups are based in the US, though their tentacles reach out to most parts of the globe. These groups also track initiatives that they percieve as harmful to the “Hindutva cause”, and are known to target specific organisations and individuals.

The NRI Connection

The NRI community in the US lives in scattered pockets and is prey to contradictory pulls. On one hand they feel the necessity to assert their Indian identity, and on the other they feel the pressure from their country of domicile to integrate within the “American way of life”. These pulls ensure that a section are prey to parochial and communal sentiments, as a reaction to their relative isolation and the perceived threat of being overwhelmed by the dominant local community. It is this terrain that has been used by communal organisations, prominently the VHP America. In the eighties the VHPA were faced with the gigantic task of “organising Hindus” scattered across the vast country. Two events caused a qualitative change in their scope and span of activities.

The first was the growth of the Internet that allowed easy and fast access to scattered groups. The second was the recruitment into their ranks of a section of educated professionals who started migrating to the US in larger numbers in the nineties. A section of whom, moreover, were already beginning to embrace the sangh parivar’s ideology. The Hindu Students Council, the VHPA’s student wing was created to tap into the space created by these developments. Members of the HSC, largely drawn from amongst professionals, were proficient in the use of the Internet and fast emerged as a solution to the problem of growth and expansion of the VHPA. The first HSC was formed in 1987 at North-Eastern University (Boston) and by 1995, HSCs accounted for 45 chapters across the US and Canada. Thus, the internet and its websites, newsgroups, mailing lists and discussion groups became an insulated space for expressions of nationalism and identity.

Learn From the Enemy!

It would be necessary to end with a word of caution, lest what has been discussed be construed as an attack on the whole construct of the Internet. The Internet opens a whole new way of communicating. The sheer volume of material available on it would have been uncomprehendable even a decade back. A lot, in fact a major portion, of this material is junk or worse. But that still leaves an enormous amount of material that is useful.

Like any form of expression, expression on the Net needs to be regulated. We already see this happening in areas where the use is most blatant and fraught with dangerous consequences—child pornography, terrorism, etc. But a censorship of the Net is not the answer. For if the Internet were to be censored, it would be regulated by the same forces that control the globe today. The Internet allows us to share and exchange our views with a much larger community, at a relatively much lower cost. Let us, instead, avail of this opportunity to make our presence felt on the Net. At times it is useful to learn from the enemy!