The worlds of media and politics have been dramatically altered by developments in new media over the last quarter-century or so. The universe of Indian politics, and the world of Hindu nationalism within it, are no exception to this trend. The political, social, and cultural impact of new media has been extensively studied over the last twenty five years, and that of social media specifically over the last decade.
The history of the internet in India has been intertwined with that of Hindu nationalism well before Modi’s well-documented love affair with cyberspace and his coronation as the Indian prime minister. A professed yoga fanatic, Modi avers that there is but one thing that exercises a stronger hold over him than his daily regimen of early morning yogic exercises. As an article in Time magazine noted, Modi is addicted to his iPad. Narendra Modi is an early riser. He is awake before dawn and soon ready for the yoga and meditation routines that help prepare him mentally, physically, and spiritually for the day ahead. Before he settles into position to follow an exercise regime that has its roots in centuries of Indian tradition, however, he has a more contemporary reflex that will not wait. He connects to the Internet.
The intertwined history of Indian politics, Hindu nationalism, and the internet can be roughly traced to the early to mid-1990s, in the early years of an emergent Indian public sphere, after the invention of the World Wide Web really made the internet part of global consciousness.
Also read: Liberal democracy is under threat from digitisation as govts, tech firms gain more power
By the late 1990s, a nascent Indian internet industry had emerged, replicating the kinds of firms seen in Silicon Valley. Portals like Rediff On The NeT, Yahoo! India, Sify; Indian email service providers, inspired by Yahoo mail and Hotmail; auction sites like Baazi.com, based on Ebay; a host of cricket, jokes, and contest websites; online brokerages; and fledging e-commerce sites could all be seen as part of an ‘Indian’ web. Even though many of these would go bust around the year 2000, just like their Bay Area counterparts in the US, they set in place the template of an Indian online audience whose wide influence persists till date.
One of those characteristics is the dominance of right-wing Hindu ideology in Indian cyberspace, and now on Indian social media as well. I had the opportunity to witness this first-hand, when, after a stint in academic publishing in New Delhi, I moved to Bombay to work at Rediff On The NeT, India’s first web portal. Rediff On The NeT, which would later be renamed rediff.com, was a spin-off of Rediffusion, an ad agency that had managed to make a reputation and name for itself in Bombay’s crowded and cut-throat world of media and advertising agencies.
Founded in 1973 by Ajit Balakrishnan, Mohammed Khan, and Arun Nanda, the last of whom had been a schoolmate of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the elite boarding school, Doon, the company got one of its big breaks by locking in the accounts for the Congress’ campaigns in 198537. The name Rediff On The NeT was a way of leveraging Rediffusion’s name recall and brand recognition to assure Indian clients unfamiliar with the internet that the technology and medium was here to stay and, as such, was worth investing in in terms of advertising.
Rediff On The NeT started out as the digital equivalent of an advertising agency, focusing on corporate web solutions for a range of clients across different market sectors, including major banks, government organisations, and other big corporations. It was this division that I was hired to work for in mid-1998.
Also read: In India, it’s save-the-internet time once again
Modelled very much along the lines of an American start-up, Rediff On The NeT was the entity that introduced many Indians to this strange and wonderful new technology and form of media. Rediff On The NeT was meant to stay as a digital advertising agency but expanded into a journalistic publication – and later a full-services portal – as a result of the serendipitous discovery, early in the existence of the online initiative, that there was an overseas Indian audience hungry for news from India.
As the company would expand, rebranding as rediff. com and eventually listing on the NASDAQ, following a barrage of advertising, it would also develop an email service, a messenger, a search engine, and in-house content channels on education, health, and the like, as well as co-branded content on finance and other areas. For the journalistic side of the business, rediff hired a number of columnists across the political spectrum to write regularly for it. It was, arguably, the first Indian publication, online or otherwise, to unapologetically feature three very strong Hindu right-wing voices of the time: Varsha Bhonsle, by her own account, a Leftist in college who had swung sharply to the right; Rajeev Srinivasan, a one-time Indian expatriate in the USA, who on returning to India had dedicated himself to the cause of an aggressive and assertive Hindu India; and François Gautier, a French journalist settled in India, and an ardent advocate of the ideology and philosophy of Hindutva.
Judging by the reader comments, the views expressed in these columns appeared to resonate with a large audience. It is perhaps safe to say that a range of views that would have been considered beyond the pale for any number of publications had now found a hospitable home in the online space provided by rediff. Between them, the columns often combined moral outrage with conspiracy theories about a sophisticated anti-Hindu and anti-Hindutva machinery at work in the deep Indian state.
Also read: BJP supporters have a secret weapon in their online poll campaign — satire
A typical example of such a piece is Varsha Bhonsle’s column on the gruesome murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons, all of whom were burned alive in a village in Odisha in 1999 by a group of Hindu fundamentalists belonging to the Bajrang Dal. In the column, Bhonsle argued that Staines was not an innocent man working for the betterment of the villagers but was an evangelist trying to convert Hindus to Christianity. The implication was that Staines had brought upon himself the rage that resulted in him and his children being burnt alive. According to a report in the Times of India, quoted by Bhonsle in her article, Graham Staines’ widow, Gladys Staines, had clarified that her husband ‘never converted anybody; he only devoted his life to the service of the poor and downtrodden’. Dismissing this as ‘bollocks,’ Bhonsle insisted that he had been converting members of the tribal Santhal community to Christianity, including on the day he had been killed. Equally, if not more troublingly, Bhonsle went on to suggest that there was something fishy about the Staines murder and that it had been arranged to frame Hindu nationalists. Presenting her theory that the murder was the result of a tussle between the Vatican and evangelicals, both competing for the souls of Hindus, Bhonsle concluded by making a prejudiced jab at Sonia Gandhi, whose Catholic origins have been a constant target for the Hindu Right for decades, and at other prominent Christian political figures.
Bhonsle’s article is a small representation and reflection of a mode and style of argument as well as of the themes that have continued to persist in expressions of Hindu nationalist ideology on the internet. While seemingly extreme in its sentiments, the article is fairly typical in terms of the tropes, conspiracy theories, and sense of victimhood that pervade Hindu nationalist conversations and online discourse, even some twenty years after Bhonsle penned these thoughts.
I believe Rediff On The NeT’s role in creating a template for the Hindu Right online has not received the attention it deserves.
This excerpt from The Virtual Hindu Rashtra by Rohit Chopra has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.
It is correct. It was by virtue of these articles that I stopped feeling the deep sense of shame that I had felt for being a Hindu since my childhood. I began to understand that my identity was not a joke. So thank you ‘rediff on the net’.
Thank God for the Internet. By the 90s, all traditional media outlets in India were eating from the palm of the congress-communist parties and were part of that ecosystem that deliberately kept the Hindus splintered and demonized. One could argue that it is still true of most of the traditional media – after all, the editors of such media owe their careers to the political patronage received from the Congress party early on in their careers. The narrative of the state education in India has been that if you are a Hindu, you have to be ashamed of yourself because of the caste system and there is nothing else about Hinduism except the caste system. The internet gave voice to the Hindus and for the first time allowed educated Hindus to feel like it was ok to feel good about their Hindu identity; sure their society is not perfect, but they can fix the iniquities; the core philosophy of Hinduism is something to practice and protect. True democracy started in India only after the arrival of the internet.
The author seem to conveniently forget about the websites of countless websites which propagated hate against Hindus at that time. Jamat ul dawa website and such affiliated websites were plenty. I distinctly remember a lot of Indian users were also posting in that website. The so called mainstream media always molly cuddled the apparent underdog and glossed over every kind of excesses by other communities. There seems to be a tendency to show only one part of the story, the part which suits so called authors these days.
O come-on rchpra , you are neither leftist liberal nor secular. If you are so , why you show your khatri caste surname.You people have pathological problem.
Do you remember what so-called liberal and leftist media propagated after gruesome murder of kamlesh tiwari. Some said it must be money matter or personal enmity.
Rajeev Srinivasan certainly had a great impact on me personally. His service for the protection and wellbeing of Motherland certainly deserves gratitude.
Comments are closed.