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In solidarity with Rana Ayyub

June 02, 2018

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RANA Ayyub is an Indian journalist. Her book ba­s­ed on her eight-month undercover investigation of the Gujarat riots of 2002, implicating the then sta­te chief minister and current prime minister Nar­endra Modi and his key BJP strategist and current party president Amit Shah was published in 2016.

Ms Ayyub says she also reported on several extrajudicial murders in the state between 2002 and 2006 that Mr Shah was accused of being involved in.

In an op-ed piece for New York Times on May 22, Ms Ayyub wrote: “Like many of my colleagues, I regularly write and speak about the violence against India’s minorities and lower-caste groups and have called out Mr Modi’s silence on the violence and his dog-whistle politics.

It is heartbreaking to see mainstream media becoming a willing conduit for the flow of lies, bigotry and even vested-interest propaganda.

“For the past few years, like several female journalists critical of the Hindu nationalist politics and government, I have been targeted by an apparently coordinated social media campaign that slut-shames, deploys manipulated images with sexually explicit language, and threatens rape. Mr Modi and several of his ministers embolden the virtual mob by following them on social media.

“Yet nothing had prepared me for what was thrown at me in the past month. On April 22, I was alarmed to find a quotation supporting child rapists falsely attributed to me and going viral on Twitter ...”

“I tweeted a clarification about the falsehood to no avail: my social media accounts and my phone were inundated with WhatsApp messages urging others to gang-rape me. Various leaders of Mr Modi’s party, who promoted the lie, refused to delete their tweets despite my pointing it out.

“The following day, on April 23, another tweet was generated using Photoshop and attributed to me. ‘I hate India and Indians’ it said. The online mob asked me to pack my bags and leave for Pakistan, some threatened to tear my clothes and drag me out of the country while invoking the genocidal violence between Hindus and Muslims during the partition of India in 1947.

“In the evening, an activist from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist mother ship, alerted me to a scurrilous pornographic video being shared on various WhatsApp groups. He had received it from a group with many Bharatiya Janata Party members: a two-minute, 20-second pornographic video ... with my face morphed onto another woman.

“Despite our political differences, he was upset at this new low. He urged me to take legal action to keep it from spreading further … A minute later, he shared the video with me. I was with a friend in a cafe in New Delhi. I saw the first two frames and froze. I wanted to vomit and fought tears. ...”

A tech forensics expert told Ms Ayyub the video was fake.

“I have no way of finding out who produced the video. What I do know is this: most of the Twitter handles and Facebook accounts that posted the pornographic video and screenshots identify themselves as fans of Mr Modi and his party, and argue for turning India into a ‘Hindu rashtra’ — a country for Hindus only, where religious minorities have almost no rights. I reported several of those accounts to the police.”

“As I collected myself, I thought of Gauri Lankesh, the editor and outspoken critic of Hindu nationalists, who was murdered outside her home in Bangalore last September. She had published my book in the Kannada language.”

I sought the indulgence of my editors for quoting at such length from Mr Ayyub’s piece, detailing her harrowing experience, as it exemplified the extent ultranationalists, the self-proclaimed patriots, are willing to go to suppress dissent.

When I tweeted her piece, there came a spate of responses from India-based Twitter handles slamming Ms Ayyub as a ‘fake news reporter’ and one accusing her of ‘seeking Pakistan’s help to spread her lies’.

As a journalist I will stand by Rana Ayyub and all other journalists who fight for free speech and strive to expose bigotry and excesses in the name of faith or country or whatever the supposed cause. But I must say I have never had the privilege of meeting her or even e-communicating with her.

My one Tweet on her NYT story, made the sad souls, who can’t live their lives without pigeon-holing people and issues, jump to conclusions as far from the truth as their own utterly mistaken brand of nationalism, patriotism.

Not one for sweeping generalisations, one tries and keep silent when people make their ‘Oh we are the same people, so similar in every way’ observations.

But I would agree that the self-appointed guardians of faith and ultranationalists are united by their intolerance, bigotry and self-righteous disregard for individual liberty and freedoms wherever they are.

I am not sure if ‘we’ are all the same. However, it is a certainty ‘they’ are all the same whether they are in India, the United States or closer to home in Pakistan.

The mostly un-moderated social media can become a source for spreading lies, as Ms Ayyub’s experience demonstrated. It is also true that this very medium allows one and all to put their point of view across with equal ease.

As someone who has worked in media for over three decades, what breaks my heart is to see mainstream ie traditional media now becoming a willing conduit for the flow of lies, bigotry and even vested-interest propaganda.

Advocates of freedom of expression have their work cut out for them. It is not that many of them have not been here before. They have and outlasted those determined to stifle their voices. This may be another such round of intolerance which will fade away with time.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2018