Monday, June 18, 2012

India: Meet the Internet Hindus

Decried by more liberal Indians as anonymous trolls and serial abusers, Hindu nationalists and other right wingers are making a serious play to dominate social media.

By Jason Overdorf

(GlobalPost - June 18, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — “Internet Hindus are like swarms of bees,” Indian television anchor Sagarika Ghose tweeted in 2010. “They come swarming after you."

The "Internet Hindus" Ghose refers to — actually, she coined the term — are right-wing bloggers and tweeters who seem to follow her every move, pouncing on any mention of hot-button issues like Muslims or Pakistan.

Liberal journalists and netizens sympathized with Ghose's exasperation. But for right-wingers, it was like throwing gasoline on the fire. Since Ghose's tweet, Hindu nationalists and other conservatives opposed to the Congress Party of Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have, if anything, multiplied and grown more organized — embracing Ghose's derogatory term and making it their own.

Today there are perhaps as many as 20,000 so-called “Internet Hindus,” many tweeting as often as 300 times a day, according to a rough estimate by one of the community's most active members.

“You will find thousands with similar sounding IDs [to mine],” a Twitter user who goes by the handle @internet_hindus said in an anonymous chat interview. “Some [others] prefer to openly do it with their own personal IDs."

Freedom of speech

Internet Hindus, largely because of their numbers and influence, find themselves smack in the middle of India's censorship debate. There are signs the country's growing problem with controversial online content has already eroded legislators' commitment to free speech.

In April 2011, India added new rules to the 2000 Information Technology Act that required websites to remove content authorities deemed objectionable within 36 hours of being told do so. The amendment specifically targeted allegedly defamatory content and hate speech, but it was less than crystal clear how either could be identified reliably without an arduous trip through India's notoriously slow court system.

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Some say the new rules simply bend to Congress Party officials' sway. In December, for example, Kapil Sibal, acting telecommunications minister, was reported to have met privately with top executives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook to ask them to pre-screen and censorsuch content before it appears online. According to theTimes of India, 255 out of the 358 requests that Google received to remove content cited criticism of the government as the reason it should be censored.

Offline, Hindu nationalist groups have used threats and violence to prevent people like artist M.F. Hussain and filmmaker Deepa Mehta from speaking or exhibiting works they deemed insulting to Hinduism. But in the online world, many Internet Hindus believe that Sibal has attempted to blur the line between statements that are slanderous or dangerously inflammatory and those that are only politically incorrect.

Journalists, too, are starting to question the value of certain online content.

In a recent article for the Hindustan Times, journalist Namita Bhandare argued that “when Twitter dwindles to a platform for abuse it loses its sheen,” citing tweets that questioned the moral character of an alleged victim of sexual assault, or the patriotism of a tweeter who criticized anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare and happens to be a Muslim.

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Television anchor Barkha Dutt has expressed the similar sentiment that “lurking online — usually behind anonymity or names that suggest an evangelical religiosity — are many propagators of hate and violence.”

Though neither of these journalists has openly advocated censorship, their comments are evidence that trolls, or cyber bullies, and others who abuse the freedoms of the web stand to force a cultural shift.

“The government is scared of us,” said Suvendu Huddar, a 33-year-old Mumbai entrepreneur who calls himself "Internet Hindu" online. “That's the reason they want to knock down the internet freedoms through some biased tools, which seem to be coming up very soon.”

When good Hindus go bad

The Internet Hindus don't have a monopoly on trolling, of course — some, like aspiring right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party politician Jits Gajaria, say they've had their own run-ins with abusive stalkers. But because they are so numerous, so committed, and can appear so organized — whether or not they are part of a formal network — it's the Hindu nationalist tweeters who have drawn the most flak.

“[Congress party] supporters tend to shout 'Troll' early and leave,” said Samit, a 37-year-old marketing consultant based in Mumbai. “The reason, in my opinion, is simple. Nationalists tend to have stronger views and are more assured about their 'identity.' This is generally miscontrued as 'stubborn' and ego-driven by the guilt driven/anxious liberals.”

Still, the trolls are out there.

Harini Calamur, for instance, a media professional and self-described “old-fashioned liberal,” frequently attracts online abusers — whether it's for her advocacy of due legal process for alleged terrorists or her support of free speech for controversial figures like Salman Rushdie. In one episode, a particularly odious tweeter from the Hindu right kept her Twitter feed busy with a relentless rant for more than 12 hours.

Similarly, Priyanka Chaturvedi, who holds an elected position with the youth wing of the Congress in Mumbai, has been targeted for attack for her statements on the anti-corruption movement's Hazare and Gujarat's chief minister Narendra Modi — who is vying to become BJP's prime minister candidate, though liberals still hold him responsible for what they call a deadly pogrom against Muslims in Ahmedabad in 2002. Modi is the principal hero of most Internet Hindus, along with Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy.

“I heard things like I'm a paid Congress agent,” Chaturvedi said. “[They said] I'm a Sonia Gandhi agent. I was called a bitch. I was called a whore. Any time I tweet about Narendra Modi, they say I'm paid to tweet.”

Committed Internet Hindus argue that it's easy to block abusive users on Twitter, so there's no need to complain. And all of the people who agreed to talk with GlobalPost — whether openly or anonymously — said that the community discourages tweets that are simply abusive, if for no other reason than that they do nothing for the cause.

“I have always maintained that disagreements have full space in democracy but abuse does not,” said Gajaria. “I have called up abusive tweeple [Twitter users] more than a few times for crossing the line. I feel abuse weakens your argument and chance to win a debate.”

Who are the Hindus?

Many Internet Hindus say they don't have any political affiliation — apart from a deep-rooted disdain for the Congress Party. But broadly speaking, most of them seem to sympathize with an ethnic nationalist doctrine called “Hindutva,” or “Hinduness,” which is the unifying ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or “National Organization of Volunteers” (RSS), a paramilitary organization with as many as 5 million members, and the BJP, its political wing.

Hindutva developed in opposition to the idea of secularism promoted by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress Party. It proposes that India is first and foremost a Hindu nation, and rather than “appeasing” Muslims and other minorities with special privileges, the government should promote Hindu culture.

“I want the Hindu dignity of India to be restored,” said another 23-year-old Internet Hindu who has yet to join any political organization, in a representative comment. “We've had a glorious past but the Muslim invaders, the Mughals and the Brits destroyed our sense of pride. After independence, the [Congress] continued with that policy. It continued with laws and acts drafted by the British and never bothered to frame new laws which incorporated the spirit of Bharat [India]. It continued with blatant Muslims appeasement while Hindus were reduced to second-grade citizens in their own land.”

At various points in history, Hindutva and the RSS — sort of like Boy Scouts of America crossed with the Ku Klux Klan — have proven problematic. One of RSS's chief ideologues, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, expressed open admiration for Adolf Hitler's ideas of racial (or in this case, ethnic) purity in “We or Our Nation Defined,” one of the founding texts of Hindutva, in 1938.

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“Kar sevaks” or “volunteers” inspired by the ideology tore down the 16th Century Babri Mosque in 1992, sparking nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots. Members of the Bajrang Dal — an organization affiliated with the RSS and known for beating up couples on Valentine's Day — burned to death an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons in 1999. And breakaway Hindutva extremists have been accused of perpetrating terrorist attacks on Indian mosques and Muslim shrines in 2007 and 2008.

That said, however, few, if any, of today's Internet Hindus profess support for such extreme manifestations of the dogma.

“[Muslims] are equal citizens of this country. This country belongs as much to them as much to me and everyone else. As long as they don't indulge in terrorism and/or forced conversions, I have nothing against them,” said Suresh Nakhua, a BJP member who attends RSS functions.

According to an informal online survey, the Internet Hindus are mostly young, educated professionals — as one might expect in a medium that requires a computer and a strong command of English. More than half of them are under 30 years old, 80 percent have undergraduate or graduate degrees, and two-thirds of them earn more than $10,000 a year — putting them on the high end of India's middle class.

Moreover, in branding them as fanatics and trolls, more liberal or “secular” Indians risk missing just how mainstream their anger has become.

“Why is it if there's such vocal Hindutva anger among the middle class, English-speaking classes, why don't we get to know it?” said Shivam Vij, a blogger with a left-wing political commentary site called “In our English mainstream media, the right wing has very little voice.”

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

India economy: How bad is it?

Stagflation looms for the middle class, but higher prices will hit the poor hardest.

By Jason Overdorf / NEW DELHI
GlobalPost - June 6, 2012

NEW DELHI, India — A 52-year-old handyman who has lived in New Delhi for 30 years, Ram Samujh has seen bad times before. But these days, as India faces an economic slowdown amid double-digit inflation, the future looks especially bleak.

“There's no more cutting back for me,” says Samujh, a soft-spoken, gray-haired man who carefully takes out a pair of rimless reading glasses. “I'm already down to only the absolute necessities.”

“I'm a daily worker,” said Samujh, whose skills give him a leg up on most Indian laborers. “One day I might get three jobs. But then I might go a week without any.”

Over the past three years, as prices for food and other essentials soared, Sadmujh was also able to charge more for odd jobs like installing new electrical outlets, repairing small appliances and fixing clogged drains. But with India's economic growth slowing to a nine-year low of 5.3 percent for the quarter ended March 31 and 6.5 percent for the fiscal year, Samujh's middle-class employers are also beginning to feel the pain — even as economists predict that prices will continue to skyrocket.

“Things are getting very expensive,” said Bharat Singh, who, as a sub-inspector with the Delhi Police, falls smack in the middle of the $4,000-$10,000 income bracket that economists here define as the middle class.

“Vegetable prices have gone up 25 percent. They are going to increase school fees 20 percent next term. We're no longer able to save any money,” Singh said.

“I'm afraid. I'm really afraid. How will I arrange all the things in the coming months, or coming years. I am afraid to see the future.”

How bad is it?

The short answer may well be yes. Or as Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley in New York, puts it:
India now has only a 50-50 chance of making it to the ranks of developed nations by 2050.Many middle-class Indians like Singh — who has three sons, two in private schools and one in college — have already eliminated luxuries like going to the movies and adopted simple economies like eating vegetarian five or six days a week. As car owners getting by on relatively modest salaries, the middle class was hit hardest by the government's move to hike petrol prices nearly 10 percent last month. And though India's labor laws protect them from layoffs, they now face ever greater competition for a stagnating number of jobs, hiring freezes and, possibly, wage cuts — prompting a leading national news weekly to ask: “Was it just a mirage then?”

Though 6.5 percent growth no doubt looks pretty good to countries where a full-on recession is looming, India's economy slowed steadily throughout the fiscal year. And the nature of the growth was not too encouraging, either.

“A lot of the income growth is coming from people selling their land,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “That's part of the India story, for better or for worse. Parts of India are getting urbanized. So I have a plot of land that is valuable, and I sell it off.”

Real estate gains — which don't create jobs — accounted for an unhealthy part of India's economic growth in the fourth quarter, when it slipped to 5.3 percent. Worse still, India needs to grow at nearly twice that rate to keep its head above water. Because of its expanding population, it needs to create about 12 million new jobs a year to employ the young people entering the work force — which might just be possible at a 9 percent clip, according to Debroy.

But even that's only the tip of the iceberg. To lift some 600 million farm laborers out of poverty, or near to it, India needs more than simple industrialization, it needs a complete metamorphosis. And over the past three months, its nascent manufacturing sector contracted instead of growing.

“The question is not whether we're growing faster than the rest,” said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at Crisil, the India arm of the credit agency, Standard & Poor's. “The question is whether we're growing fast enough to solve our problems. Clearly, we are not.”

That means that the only thing trickling down these days is belt-tightening.

“The poor man's wages have risen quite swiftly until last year. That cushioned them against inflation,” Joshi said. “The high growth we saw allowed people to pay more for household services, more for their drivers, more to farm laborers. But can wages keep rising at the same rate if the economy slows to 6 percent? I don't think so.”

On Monday, Crisil lowered its growth forecast for this year to 6.5 percent from 7 percent. And that could well drop further, if the troubles in the euro zone get worse, oil prices climb back up, or India's government continues to falter.

And wages?

“There's no point in asking for more money now, because nobody will give it,” Samujh said. “It's better to concentrate on keeping my clients happy.”

What's next?

India's business leaders have called for stimulus measures, beginning with an interest-rate cut. And economists like Crisil's Joshi have predicted that some such moves are in the offing — such as fatter tax breaks for export- and labor-intensive industries, and a deep cut to interest rates if growth continues to lag below 6.5 percent.

But it will take more than rearranging the deck chairs to stop the ship from sinking.

“Reform is a generic word,” said Joshi. “You can't ignore the governance and execution aspect of things, which has led to some pessimissm about India right now.”

The conventional wisdom is that India's economic woes stem from “policy paralysis,” a catchphrase that refers to the current government's failure to push through business-friendly economic reforms like loosening the rules on foreign investment for big retailers like Walmart. And, indeed, as the caretaker of a weak coalition government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hasn't achieved any big bang reforms, like deregulating fuel prices or selling off beleaguered Air India to end a depressing cycle of multibillion dollar bailouts.

The recent move to hike petrol prices may signal that the economist PM is now ready to rock. And Joshi points out that every Indian government has typically taken a “firefighting approach” to the business of running the country.

“I would not lose hope completely,” Joshi said. “Now there is enough fire, so I would expect some action.”

But the paralysis runs much deeper than policy. And, ironically, the root of the problem may not lie with Singh's recalcitrant partners in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — who stopped him from throwing open the doors to Walmart. It may have originated with the very same middle-class Indians who are now complaining the loudest about the slowdown.

The reason? It was the normally apathetic middle class that first fueled the anti-corruption campaign led by social activist Anna Hazare, which brought tens of thousands of Indians onto the streets last summer. Now, as the mass movement takes on the character of a witch hunt, the calls for blood just keep getting louder. And the fear of being targeted in a Central Bureau of Investigation probe has brought the already sluggish bureaucracy grinding to a halt.

Here's why.

Leaving corruption aside for a moment, India normally functions less by policy than by edict. Sure, there's a law at the root of every government activity. But it translates into action only when, say, the minister of education or rural development issues instructions to the secretaries and joint secretaries who actually make things happen.

By “moving a file,” the bureaucrats clear the actual projects, choose the contractors, and so on. In the current climate of fear, however, these bureaucrats are demanding their instructions in writing, and their ministers are afraid to comply, say insiders.

“The damn problem is not coalition politics and FDI in retail and petroleum product prices,” said Debroy. “The issue is that no one takes decisions, full stop.”