Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.18: Sanchita Srivastava, "A Note on the Everyday Construction of Hindutva in the Context of Social Media in India"

In the contemporary world, social media has emerged as a site where “counter-hegemonic narratives can be articulated, where individuals, social activists and collectivities, together constituting the ‘public,’ could gain visibility and violence.”[1] Not only has it fostered a seemingly direct interaction and relationship with political leaders, it has also enabled like-minded people to come together to form robust online communities. In the context of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, the community is made up of individuals on social media who, as I have found in my observations throughout my research, define themselves as wronged and historically overlooked Hindus.

There are intimate senses of belonging to online imagined communities. Many online interactions occur between a follower and a leader. Every tweet that is retweeted or favorited by the person one admires and “likes” are treated as matters of great pride. Numerous people I spoke with in my research claimed that to be followed on their accounts was the ultimate form of endorsement of the views of an ordinary citizen. This interaction between political leaders and their followers on social media enables the state to be both more intimate through this relatively new media and form of communication, as well as to be more solicitous of the individual lives of citizen-consumers.     Propaganda messages on social media have the power to mobilize with a degree of intimacy that was hitherto unmatched by traditional media such as print media and television.

 For example, recently more than forty Indian soldiers were killed in the disputed state of Kashmir in what has been described as the worst attack in the history of the region. After the tragedy, there was an unbridled outpouring of a vitriolic, jingoistic form of Hindu hyper-nationalism online.  Thousands upon thousands of people were baying for blood with profane hashtags and videos quickly became common made by men wearing camouflage shouting profanity towards and about Pakistan and non-Hindus and asking for respect for the martyred Indian, Hindu soldiers in the same breath.[2] Others were content with what I describe as an “extortion of empathy,” people who demanded influential personalities, from actors to makeup gurus on YouTube, to “stop going on with their lives as if nothing had happened,” and instead not only be mournful but also make a clear public display of that mourning on their online platforms and profiles. Others made videos on the app TikTok by lip syncing ostensibly to (Hindu) nationalist songs, as a mark of supposed respect to Hindu victims. It is to be noted that such actions are no longer confined to the privacy of one’s room or cellphone. All of the people in question have engaged in a public display, bragging about their prejudices, and sharing and pinning their actions and conversations on social media apps, as they would physical badges of honor.

In the case of YouTube for instance, a distinct genre of music has emerged in recent years touting Hindu nationalism via “Hindutva Pop.” Beyond the shoddy editing and the disturbingly catchy beats, these videos feature mostly men brandishing swords in the air, in an overt display of hyper-masculine nationalism, with calls for building a Hindu temple at Ayodhya—a religious site whose ownership has been long-disputed among Muslims and Hindus.[3] While several historical studies have portrayed right-wing women as perpetrators of violence,[4] it remains to be seen whether the calls to eliminate anyone who comes in the way of making the Ayodhya Mandir, at least in these videos, are directed at women as well. Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, have come to serve as an arena where “Internet Hindus“[5] have a voice, every instance of what is perceived as minority appeasement is accounted for, and so-called “proud nationalist Hindus” come together to lament their long history of oppression, either by “Muslim invaders” or the “pseudo-secular” (a term that glosses anti-nationalistic sentiment by alluding to minority or in this case, Muslim specifically, appeasement in politics and society). These also serve as spaces to lament corrupt Congress Party governance, and where what you eat, to whom you pray, and who you love are no longer matters of personal choice but are taken to be determinants of your patriotism instead.

Consider, for instance, the following tweet:

“Islamic vandalization of female Murtis [idols] has a distinct pattern. Observe it the next time you visit a desecrated temple. The nose, breasts, hands, and feet will be cut off/vandalized. Imagine, they did this to women carved in stone, what would have happened to real Hindu women.”

This tweet is accompanied with an image of the body of a headless woman carved on a temple, the caption alongside which reads: “We are a civilization which has been humiliated by Islamic invaders as they destroyed our temples and mutilated our Gods. Generations passed by dreaming of Resurgence and Victory….”[6]

Women, in particular, become important here as by participating in the creation and perpetuation of broader discourses, campaigns, and policies of exclusion, hatred, and violence against the designated “other,” one can discern their agentive participation in contemporary politics, their desire to influence politics not just through their cooking and housekeeping skills but in their capacity to mobilize publicly, and their embrace of violence as a political tool.[7] Only this time, it is in everyday (virtual) spaces. By their very act of writing/tweeting/posting, they help rationalize, legitimize, and naturalize feelings of anger and hatred towards others in the virtual public, contributing to popular support for the Hindutva cause. Understanding their engagement with social media is to understand their constitution of their own selves as gendered and national subjects, their construction of the national and communal pasts, and their justification of violence committed in the name of the nation.[8]

By communicating, spreading, and forming online communities, the Hindutva movement has seeped into everyday intimate spaces of living and being in India. Apps and social media accessed on mobile phones have become indispensable tools for expanding support for Hindu nationalism, which is why analyzing the ways in which ordinary actors utilize social media is important, as this gives us key insights into understanding the desires and practices of people for whom this movement has become important and why. While the issue of access to the Internet in India continues to be constrained by urban-rural and gendered divides, my research focuses on women who are both urbane and empowered, and the ways in which they utilize social media, notably, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to both perpetuate and challenge the ideology and the politics of Hindu nationalism.

Sanchita Srivastava is a research scholar in the Department of History at the University of Delhi, India. Her dissertation focuses on the relationship between contemporary Hindu nationalism, social media, and women, and attempts to understand the granularities of the politics and ideology of Hindutva as it unfolds in everyday life.

[1] Pamela Philipose, Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2019), 2.

[2] Cf. the channel “Shifuji’s Mission Prahar” on YouTube. The channel boasts over two million subscribers and has uploaded videos on the Pulwama attack, the contents of which can be gauged by their titles, such as ‘Badlaaa Pulwaama Humle ka Atankiyon ke Ghar Me ghus kar maara' and HaramKhor Gaddaron Ko Public Me Goli Maro Saalo Ko.’

[3] See, for instance, Sandeep Chaturvedi “Ayodhya,” Topi Wala Bhi Sar Jhuka Ke Jai Shree Ram Bolega, YouTube

[4] Paola Bacchetta, and Margaret Power (ed.) Right-Wing Women: From Conservatives to Extremists around the World (New York: Routledge, 2002); Tarini Bedi. The Dashing Ladies of the Shiv-Sena: Political Matronage in Urbanizing India (State University of New York Press, 2016); Akanksha Mehta, “The Aesthetics of “Everyday” Violence: Narratives of Violence and Hindu Right-Wing Women,” Critical Studies on Terrorism 8:3 (2015), 416-438.  

[5] The term ‘Internet Hindus’ is said to have been coined by journalist Sagarika Ghose and refers to "right-wing bloggers and tweeters who seem to follow her every move, pouncing on any mention of hot-button issues like Muslims or Pakistan.”  See “India: Meet the 'Internet Hindus,’” PRI, published June 18, 2012, https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-06-18/india-meet-internet-hindus.

[6] Tweeted by Shefali Vaidya, November 29, 2018:  https://twitter.com/ShefVaidya/status/1068139194814554112

[7] Cited in Swati Parashar, “The Sacred and the Sacrilegious: Exploring Women’s ‘Politics’ and ‘Agency’ in Radical Religious Movements in South Asia” in Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol.11, Nos. 3–4, 435–455.

[8] Purnima Mankekar. Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 11.

robert shepherdComment