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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.

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A protest poster against the Indian government's increasingly restrictive regulation of the internet outside a shopping mall in Bangalore on June 9, 2012. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

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 censor such content before it appears online. According to the Times 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