The women of Shaheen Bagh, through their intense courage and determination, have captured the imagination of the entire nation and have inspired similar sit-in protests in different parts of the country against the triad of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the National Population Register, and the National Register of Citizens. The Shaheen Bagh protest, which crossed its 50th day and continues to grow, has become a tricky challenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. They have not been able to respond to this modern-day Satyagraha politically due to their stubbornness and have ultimately resorted to the only weapon left in their political arsenal, ie, character assassination.
The BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya, who is notorious for sharing and propagating fake news, posted a dubious video on his Twitter handle, claiming that the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh are paid Rs 500 on a shift basis to sit there. The BJP IT Cell head accused the Congress party of paying these women and later the BJP IT Cell machine trended ‘Shaheenbagh_ki_ Bikau _Aurate’, (the ‘sold out’ women of Shaheen Bagh), which reeked both of sexism and hatred but also saw a lot of criticism from a significant section of netizens.
Earlier, in the aftermath of eruption of a brutal violence in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), as soon as videos and narratives started coming out about how the Hindutva fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists were behind the brutal attack, the BJP IT Cell started another round of character assassination, most infamously by “inverting” a photograph of JNU Students’ Union President Aeshi Ghosh, in which her right hand is seen plastered against the original, where her left hand is fractured. Later this piece of news was busted by several fact-checking websites.
The use of character assassination is not something new in politics, its history goes back to the times Roman City-states; it is as old as politics itself. It continued to grow with the evolution of print technology and with the advent of the so-called information age; it has grown by leaps and bounds. The proliferation of social media and its weaponisation by political parties created an unprecedented situation as far as the politics of character assassination goes. The politics of character assassination is intricately linked with fake news which has become a menace in contemporary times. Every day we come across a lot of news and posts which are either completely false or are based on half-truths. BJP and their social media machinery have certainly gained mastery over this weapon particularly in the last six years in India.
What is the character of character assassination? Its logic is based on this dictum ‘Kill one’s reputation, kill one’s cause’. It is a process of destroying or damaging the reputation and character of opponents by attacking their moral and personal ‘selves’, thereby diminishing their legitimacy in the public eye. Most of the character assassination takes place in the name of revelling the ugly ‘truth’ of those who are attacked and are centred on implicit or explicit accusations of hypocrisy, depravities, and transgressions.
Why do politicians and political parties resort to character assassination? When the facts don’t support their arguments or they are not able to present a viable counter-narrative, politicians and their supporters go after their opponent’s character to delegitimize them in the public eye. They employ the tools of mockery, allegations, exaggerations, insinuations, and lies to target the opponent.
The women of Shaheen Bagh are accused of taking Rs 500 for sitting there and eating Biryani, rumours are spread about ‘condoms’ being found in the protest area !! Similarly, JNU — one of the best universities in the country — is accused of being a hub of sex and drugs!! There are certain themes on which character assassination is designed, which can be found in every character assassination campaign undertaken by the BJP IT cell.
The number of condoms that are found in JNU or are being found in Shaheen Bagh or several morphed images of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, showing them in the company of women, is meant to project opponents as deviant from socially accepted moral character and sexual behaviour, thereby delegitimizing them. Sexual misconduct, real or alleged, has been a convenient threat playing a major part in character assassination and we have seen various attempts in the past as well as in present.
Another theme in character assassination is that of ridiculing the opposition. The best case for this in the Indian context has been that of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has been called ‘Pappu’. This term, which crudely translates into ‘fool’, is an attempt to question the mental capacity and psychological health of the person in question, thereby questioning their capacity to lead.
Another important theme that is a part of character assassination is the constant questioning of the religious identity of the opponent. This holds much relevance in the contemporary Indian political scene. The Hindutva fascist ecosystem has, again and again, questioned the religion of India’s first Prime Minister Nehru; there are several memes and posts which are floating in social media about his secret Muslim identity! Similarly, the Hindu identity of Rajiv Gandhi is questioned again and again by bringing up the name of his father Feroze Gandhi, who was a Parsi, whose name is changed into ‘Firoz Khan’ and the whole ancestry of Rajiv Gandhi and that of his offspring are questioned. The entire legacy of these deceased leaders is discredited through slander and allegations.
This identification of Nehru-Gandhi family with ‘Islam’ helps the Hindutva fascist ecosystem to substantiate their accusation of the Congress party being pro-Muslim and Anti-Hindu. But by attacking the religious identity or questioning the moral character or ridiculing the opponents, the character assassins are not merely attacking their enemies, but are also attacking the whole ideology or the organisation, and in the case of JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), entire institutions.
The defamation of individuals also has ideological implications. The character assassination of Nehru, of Gandhi, of Rahul Gandhi, of Shaheen Bagh women, of students of Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, and AMU is also an attack on the ideology of secularism, on communism and Muslims.
In all the above cases, the character assassins attempt to weaken and trivialise the ideas for which the victim stands or stood. The victims of these attacks are invariably portrayed as symbols or agents of these ideologies. Secularism is bad and pseudo because it was propagated and is upheld by closet Muslims!! JNU is bad because the left wins there in student union elections, while both AMU and JMI are bad because they are both minority institutions!!
In the last few years, we can see every element of character assassination employed by the Hindutva ecosystem. Private lives, values, behaviour, and identity of opponents are attacked daily in both social media and mainstream media. Biographies of deceased ideological opponents are altered and their achievements are questioned at every turn and they are also accused of most of the existing problems. We have lost the count of times when the current Prime Minister has accused India’s first prime minister of impeding his work!!
Character assassination not only aims to damage moral standing and elicits negative emotional responses from the public towards their victims but it also aims at the construction of an ‘enemy‘ image.
This enemy imagery is both constructed from and imposed upon the political opponents. The archetypical anti-national is also a communist, liberal, sexually deviant, morally corrupt, Muslims asserting their identity, etc. Character assassination in the age of post-truth politics has become a more potent weapon today as it plays on the fears and pre-conceived notions of peoples and is a threat to working democracy.