(This column was published in DNA edition dated October 22, 2010.)
On the walls of my Facebook ‘friends’, I’m quite used to seeing insightful postings about their bountiful harvest while playing frivolous Farmville games or their emotional outpourings over their dilemmas regarding their choice of calorific intake. Being a pacific non-judgemental sort of bloke, I take these in my stride, and they honestly don’t disturb the placid tranquillity of my socially networked life.
The other day, however, I came across a disquieting Wall posting that amounted to an elaborate justification for murder from – I kid you not – the real-life murderer himself! The post claimed to be the statement that Nathuram Godse – that’s Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin – made before the court that was trying him for the murder that shocked newly independent India in 1948. It was, in essence, an unvarnished attempt to pander to right-wing Hindu sensibilities and justify the Mahatma’s murder under the spurious claim that the man revered as the Father of the Nation was “pro-Muslim”, that his “experiments” came at the cost of “Hindu” lives and that he was guilty of “treachery” for consenting to the Partition of India. In this endeavour, Godse likened himself spuriously to an entire pantheon of Hindu gods: Rama who killed Ravana and Krishna who killed Kamsa, and additionally the warrior hero Arjuna who killed his own friends and relatives in the line of his karmic duty.
As is characteristic of a social media platform that doesn’t challenge anyone’s capacity to think things through, an entire brigade of Facebookers had indicated – with a whimsical click of a mouse – that they ‘Liked’ the post. That presumably implies that the obscene intellectual argument that underlies Godse’s justification of the Mahatma’s murder resonated with them.
Of course, there’s nothing new about Hindutva right-wing attempts to desecrate the memory and secular ideals of Gandhi. In the battle of ideas over how pre-independent India would evolve, their hate-inspired Hindu-supremacist campaign was as much to blame as Muslim League fundamentalism for the partition of the Indian subcontinent. And it was their sustained vilification and denigration of Gandhi in the months following Partition that created the laboratory conditions in which a fevered, brainwashed mind like Godse’s would take it upon itself to pull the trigger.
But whereas such hate-filled discourses were restricted in earlier times to right-wing pamphleteering, which could be intellectually challenged by those with the ammunition to do so, the democratisation of social media spaces and networks has served to ‘mainstream’ extremist thought. And the unfiltered dissemination of radical ideas into ‘closed-circle’ networks amounts to a slow-poising of uninformed minds that is no less dangerous than today’s jihadi indoctrination based on the promise of heavenly after-life pleasures centred around 72 virgins.
All this is not to say that Gandhi’s philosophy or his politics is above contemporary criticism: it is perfectly legitimate, even today, to posit that his faith in the goodness of all men was entirely misplaced, and that he was politically outflanked – and comprehensively let down – by both the Hindu right-wing and the Muslim League partition-ists. But that argument requires an intellectual framework that seeks to inform and be informed. In that clash of ideas, anyone who brings a gun to the table and pulls the trigger has already lost the argument. And anyone who, decades later, endorses such violent action with a lazy click of a Like button on Facebook, with no appreciation of the nuances of the arguments and the dangers of the dissemination of hatred, is morally complicit in that murder.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell recently propounded that the social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook won’t catalyse social movements and “revolutionary” activity in the way that real-life social activism did. His theory was spiritedly challenged by diehard social media evangelists, whose pronouncements were duly amplified in the echo chamber of Twitter and Facebook, perhaps disproving Gladwell’s point to an extent! Other up-close watchers of social media behaviour point out that ‘Facebook activism’ – which in some cases can amount to nothing more than clicking a ‘Like’ or a ‘Join’ button – comes with pitfalls as well. In the worst case, it’s been argued, ‘Facebook activism’ even disconnects people from their real-life civic duty.
It’s not fair to blame the medium – in this case Facebook; that would amount to ‘shooting the messenger’. In any case, there’s no dearth of intellectually engaging material on the Facebook platform – as anyone so privileged as to have access to my own Wall postings will know! But seeing the excessive dissemination of extremist political ideas, one wishes that more of one’s Facebook ‘friends’ would embrace the true spirit of the medium – and limit themselves to throwing sheep and playing Farmville games…