The untimely death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has ignited a fresh debate around mental health in India. The news about the 34-year-old actor’s death by suicide left the country in shock. Many have since dwelt upon Sushant’s depression, bullying and behind-the-back gossiping in Bollywood. People have blamed producer Karan Johar and his gang for insulting the actor over the years.
The inner workings of Bollywood groups that often comprise a select few — the star kids, the ‘close ones’ — might not be known to everyone. But their devastating impact on people considered ‘outsiders’ — from small towns, from the TV industry — routinely figures in media interviews, personal posts or through ‘leaks’ from friends. This culture of separation and continued mockery may be an outcome of personal insecurities, but it almost certainly doesn’t take into account its effect on people at the receiving end. In such a scenario, it might be helpful to look at those who are able to deal with the never-ending barrage of abuse, insult, bullying, mockery in a systematic manner.
In India’s social media swarmed by IT cells of political parties — whose members mostly comprise anonymous trolls — several public figures are made targets on a daily basis. From Rana Ayyub, Swara Bhasker, Mohammed Zubair to Arundhati Roy, Barkha Dutt, and countless others, a set of people are constantly at the receiving end of bullying and abuse. But if there is one public figure who is the target of not just anonymous trolls on social media but even anchors on TV channels, it is Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
A permanent target
For close to a decade now, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has been at the centre of a concerted propaganda that targets and distorts everything he says or does. There is no better proof of this than his condolence tweet for Sushant Singh Rajput, which was photoshopped to change the word ‘actor’ to ‘cricketer’. And thousands bought into it. But this isn’t new.
Since that infamous Arnab Goswami show six years ago, Rahul Gandhi has had to face non-stop venomous comments and slander. Recently, the IT cell trended an abusive hashtag targeted at his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi. And it’s not just the Twitter or Facebook trolls or fake WhatsApp forwards where Rahul Gandhi is made a target; even leaders such as Home Minister Amit Shah repeatedly refer to him as ‘Pappu’.
BJP leaders’ communally divisive and stupid remarks rarely make it past some criticism on social media but even a fake tweet attributed to Rahul Gandhi reaches mainstream news and has to be later debunked. Rahul Gandhi has to be the butt of all jokes. But PM Modi can get away with his ‘cloud benefit’ theory, or the India-Canada ties producing ‘2ab’ similar to a mathematical formula. Piyush Goyal can attribute discovery of gravity to Albert Einstein. BJP leaders can quite comfortably eulogise the benefits of gaumutra (cow urine) and gobar (cow dung). MP Giriraj Singh can proudly declare that his constituency Begusarai in Bihar has begun conducting “40 coronavirus tests a day” — about four-and-a-half months after India reporting its first case, and in a district with a population of 30 lakh. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor too can share fake news. But Rahul Gandhi is the target of all mockery.
Under the established modus operandi used for Rahul Gandhi, his statements are exaggerated and distorted to suit the agenda. BJP’s Sambit Patra repeatedly shares or uses a ‘aloo-sona’ clip, which leaves out the part where Rahul Gandhi was using that reference to describe Modi’s remark. And so, something that was said by Modi is now widely credited to Rahul Gandhi. That’s how the ‘system’ works. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Amit Shah can confidently ask what Rahul Gandhi has done during the coronavirus crisis, because clearly it’s the Congress leader, and not Shah, the Union Home Minister, who assumes the charge of the country when a crisis hits.
Battling mental health
It’s difficult to comprehend what keeps Rahul Gandhi going. When people such as Amit Malviya, the head of BJP’s IT cell, began to tweet messages on mental health and depression in the wake of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, a lot of people shared their stories of mental trauma and being pushed into suicidal state by Malviya and his team’s incessant targeting, which involved a barrage of abuses and threats while sharing their family members’ photographs or personal details.
Journalist Karnika Kohli, who detailed her experience of being trolled and abused by the IT cell with thousands of messages in 2014, had to ultimately deactivate her account soon after she posted the messages. Several others have detailed similar experiences. Congress leader Salman Nizami is one of them, saying he was “almost pushed to die”. People’s slide into depression and developing other mental health issues is common when bullying and trolling goes past a person’s capacity to respond or shut out the targeted attacks.
Rahul Gandhi’s public life doesn’t appear to be shaped by the propaganda against him. He hasn’t reacted to the insults and trolling. When he did acknowledge it, he did it to show how the attacks have only made him “much stronger”.
On #TeachersDay I thank all those from whom I’ve learnt, over the years 🙏
That includes the army of social media trolls, some journalists-with-an-agenda & my political adversaries, whose vicious barbs, false propaganda & anger has taught me a lot & made me much stronger 🙏
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) September 5, 2019
On numerous occasions, he has said that he doesn’t have hatred for anyone. He hugged PM Modi in Parliament, which left the latter befuddled. Unlike Modi’s 2007 interview with Karan Thapar, where he didn’t answer pointed questions and left midway, Rahul Gandhi completed his 2014 interview with Arnab Goswami despite the latter turning into a visible bully. In another college conference in 2015, Rahul Gandhi was ‘booed’ by the audience but he didn’t reject them and accepted it with humility.
Perhaps, it is his composure and refrain from attacking his opponents in a similarly venomous way that keeps him grounded, no matter the criticisms heaped on him. Because the slander against him is unending and could easily take away a person’s peace of mind. He is often mocked for taking breaks from politics but perhaps it’s good for him and his mental health.
It’s time for India to accept 56-inch chests won’t help us overcome our increasing mental health burden.
Views are personal.