1 Apr 2020

Facing the social media storm

When Anwesha Dutta wrote an op-ed about the growth of Hindu nationalism and the consequences for India’s battle against the corona virus, she was told to shut up and accused of meddling in politics. Is it possible for researchers to stay out when politics is everywhere?

-The first time it hurts a bit. Then you get used to it. Just try to ignore it.

To simply try to ignore vile comments in social media was the best piece of advise Anwesha Dutta got when she all of a sudden found herself in a massive storm after publishing an op-ed about prominent public figures in her home country India urging its population to battle the corona virus with cow dung, cow urine and herbs.

The advise came from a colleague studying the emergence, organization and internal culture of a group of Hindu nationalists in the USA. As an Indian citizen working and living outside India, he has been adamantly told to shut up when participating in the US debate on Indian politics, much like Dutta in Norway.

Her experience participating in the public debate raises questions any researcher can relate to. Can a researcher participate in controversial public debate without being accused of meddling in politics? Is it the case that it is harder to participate in public debates on your home country when you don’t live there anymore? And does living and working in a country other than your home country disqualify you from participating in the debate? Much of the feedback Dutta got from predominantly Indians living in Norway suggests so.

Can a researcher participate in controversial public debate without being accused of meddling in politics?

-I get accused of not knowing what is really going on in India since I don’t live there anymore. There is a strong sense of having let your country and people down. Criticizing India from the outside makes me a traitor, says Dutta.

Policing the public sphere
Dutta is a post doc at CMI and currently lives and works in Norway, but goes back to India regularly doing fieldwork. When news reports about people being urged to use cow dung, herbs and yoga against corona, she saw an opportunity to direct attention towards political developments in India by showing how a mix of politics, pseudo science and the narrative of India as a Hindu state can be just as deadly as the corona virus itself.

By now, the corona pandemic has thoroughly made its impact on India. As India enters day 8 of a national lockdown, 1251 persons have been infected by the virus and there are most likely hidden figures. So far 32 (numbers correct as of March 31) people have died in the country which has a public health system already pushed to the brink. But during the early stages, while the authorities started to implement standard measures in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, prominent figures from the governing party BJP, the Department of Ayurveda, and local businesses tapped into the population’s growing fears by promoting alternative cures against corona. These alternative cures have their origin in traditional Hindu medicine and fit the current political climate of growing Hindu nationalism.

When Dutta spoke out against the advise and shared her op-ed at NRK Ytring in her Facebook-feed, the comments were immediate. Some were supportive, but the vast majority were very unpleasant with many bordering on personal attacks.

-Living abroad, you are expected to contribute to build the narrative of India as a great nation. You are expected to sell a certain image of India, while omitting the bits and pieces that do not support the overarching narrative. It is not seen as a question of freedom of speech, but as a question of loyalty. Many seem to be of the opinion that a loyal Indian citizen should not criticize her or his home country says Dutta.

-Living abroad, you are expected to contribute to build the narrative of India as a great nation.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen, associate professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, has been doing research on Indian politics and democracy for years. He has contributed actively to the Norwegian public debate on India, but has yet to experience to be told to shut up when commenting on India. According to Nielsen and Dutta, what distinguishes them is first and foremost their nationality, not their arguments.

-Hindu nationalist organisations are working worldwide to strengthen India’s image. Critique of India is not taken lightly, and if the critique comes from an Indian, accusations of being unpatriotic are commonplace. Among the Indian diaspora, groups aggressively promoting the Hindu nationalist agenda have been most active and visible in the US where they sometimes have taken on the role as watchdog, monitoring American researchers’ portrayal of and participation in public debates about India. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that if you have nothing positive to say about India, you should keep your mouth shut, he says.

Flammable by definition
Dutta is not the first researcher who have been trolled, subtly threatened and told to shut up. Neither will she be the last. Participating in the public debate is encouraged by universities, research institutes, communication advisers and journalists. But do we talk loudly enough about what happens after your op-ed or the news article where you have been interviewed is published? Dutta, for one, was caught by surprise. And it was not the number of comments that surprised her, but their vile nature. Certain topics seem, sadly some would argue, to be flammable by definition.

Do we talk loudly enough about what happens after your op-ed or the news article where you have been interviewed is published? 

- There is nothing special about Hindu nationalism and India in that regard. I know Norwegian researchers who have received death threats after commenting on Norwegian affairs. Topics like immigration and July 22 provoke intense reactions. Being a researcher in the public debate can be tough, and social media and comment sections have made it even harder. As a researcher, the best you can do is to stick to the facts and try to respond to any critique as calmly and to the point as you possibly can, says Nielsen.

Yet, sometimes things really are easier said than done. He knows researchers who have given up on participating in public debates.

-Having to defend themselves against untrue accusations and replying to irrelevant arguments took too much time. Trolling pushes any discussion beside the point, he says.

So how can you brace yourself for the storm that you know will come at you, and perhaps even stronger than you ever anticipated?

-You should always be open to critique and relevant discussions. But I have learnt that trolling is a different matter. Nothing discourages people who attack a person rather than discussing the topic in question. Providing solid counter arguments and referring to facts will get you nowhere once they have pushed the discussion into the realm of the personal, says Dutta.

Her advise is to not respond to any blows under the belt.

-That’s their game. Your game is the factual knowledge, she says.

The thin line
Politics is the common denominator that binds the flammable topics together. They are political not necessarily because any of them are listed in a political party’s leaflet, but because they have real consequences for people’s everyday lives. And when something has consequences for people’s everyday lives, accusations easily get personal.

-Crossing the line between research and politics is terrifying to many researchers. Research is supposed to be objective and not tainted by politics. But you can do research on topics that have political implications without being biased. People who criticize researchers for blurring the lines between research and politics see politics as something ’out there’, but politics has never been and will never be ’out there’. Politics cannot be disconnected from people’s everyday lives. To the contrary, it has a huge impact on people’s lives. Bearing that in mind, I don’t see how researchers can stay out of politics, says Dutta.