It began when Rana Ayyub, who is nowadays a Washington Post columnist, posted a cryptic message on Twitter on 8 November about the ruling that India’s supreme court was due to issue the next day on a fraught 30-year-old dispute between Hindus and Muslims over a religious site in the northern city of Ayodhya. It ended with the words, “I hope my country does not disappoint me tomorrow.”
It immediately unleashed a torrent of Twitter insults and calls for Ayyub to be raped or murdered that were orchestrated by trolls linked to the Hindu nationalist movement. Even more amazingly, it elicited a threat of legal action that came from the Twitter account of the police in Amethi, a town 100 km south of Ayodhya.
Posted less than half an hour after Ayyub’s original tweet, it said: “You have just made a political comment. Delete it immediately otherwise legal action will be taken against you by @amethipolice.” Amethi has no jurisdiction over either Ayodhya or Mumbai, the city where Ayyub lives.
Ayyub, who is currently on a visit to the United States, told RSF that, because of this threat, she feared that could be arrested on her return to the India. The message has not been disowned by India’s home affairs ministry.
“Police wanting to prosecute a journalist for making a so-called ‘political comment’ is something one might expect from the worst dictatorships,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Either someone hacked into the Amethi police Twitter account, which would indicate serious incompetence, or the police are complicit in a campaign of calls for Rana Ayyub’s murder. We urge the home affairs ministry to conduct an internal investigation to identify these responsible for this unacceptable scandal.”
Wave of hate
The author of “Gujarat Files,” a book examining the rise to power of Narendra Modi, who was reelected as prime minister by a clear majority in May, Ayyub is one of the favourite targets of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s notorious army of trolls.
In April 2018, RSF condemned an earlier and unprecedented wave of online hate messages against Ayyub, in which her phone number and address were posted online. RSF referred the case to the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, who then wrote to the Indian authorities requesting protection for Ayyub.
This kind of campaign is orchestrated by followers of Hindutva, an ideological blend of fascism and Hindu nationalism that inspired Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.