By Paroma Ray:
In March of 2015, my college had organised a talk by Ms Christine Lagarde, the then IMF Chief. As a student of political science, looking at things from a critical perspective becomes second nature, and it is exactly from this vantage point that I asked a question to Ms Lagarde at the end of her talk. My question was regarding the vulnerable position of minorities in the current politico-economic scenario. While I knew that it would get a mixed reception I was not prepared for what was in store for me.
Within hours of the live telecast, memes were being circulated with the hashtag “NDTVGIRL”. Vile comments were posted on social media, and my Facebook spam inbox was filled with messages ranging from people asking me “how much you charge per night for Muslim men” to “benevolent well-wishers” asking me not to “ask ignorant questions”. Rumours were being spread that my question was “planted” and that I was an anti-national element placed by a political party to humiliate the country in front of an international personality.
I initially chose not to react hoping that things would die down. But soon I found myself tagged in a status by an acquaintance who had asked me out earlier and whom I had politely turned down. He had this opportunity to seek revenge, and he publicly shamed me by exposing my profile to several angry haters. I couldn’t understand why a question that was so commonsensical to me and my peers in college, alienated and angered thousands of people. Staying silent was no longer an option so I penned down a status of my own, articulating my stand on the issue.
After posting the status, people on my friends’ list were largely supportive and commented to make their support known. Online newsgroups shared my status and I got extremely positive responses to those news pieces. This positive reception made me feel more grounded than ever in my beliefs, and I was able to recover quickly due to the constant support from friends, family and teachers.
I was touched, when a friend of mine joined a social media platform, just so that she could counter those who were targeting me online. My peers in college also wrote down long statuses in support of me.
These messages created a chain of positive support, and people I barely spoke to, began reaching out to me with encouraging words. I don’t think I have ever received such overwhelming wishes, not even on my birthday! My mother (who was deeply shaken by the sexually explicit threats that she had read about me) made sure to sound brave and strong over the phone while talking to me, and several of my teachers extended their support to me and made sure I knew that they would be there for me whenever I needed them.
Yet, despite all the support I received, I am well aware that certain parts of my identity carry with them markers of privilege, and to a large extent, those privileges protected me from greater harm. Had I been from a different community, perhaps the degree and kind of hate coming my way would be much sharper, and more vile. When a person sends you a message saying “you should be raped publicly in order to be taught not to embarrass your nation” he legitimately believes that sexual assault is a valid weapon to put diverging women in their place even though he might not actually carry out his threat. Such messages made me realise that online bullying isn’t just a virtual phenomenon; it’s a manifestation of a larger trend in our society.
For instance, a friend of mine was bullied recently for her skin tone. But a large number of us immediately jumped to her defence and the bullies were completely outnumbered and outwitted. They deleted their comments and one of them even apologised to my friend on private chat.
I think people realise that bullying isn’t humorous and more and more people are standing up for each other.
I would like to end with a little advice – for those who have never experienced online bullying before, be careful not to silence those who do speak out. Support them even if you have ideological differences. Most importantly, be willing to listen when someone does speak out.
As for those who have faced such harassment, things do get better. Even if you do not find support in your immediate surroundings, you will find a source of strength in the multitude of us living in different parts of the world because we are absolutely unequivocal on one thing – the rejection of all forms of bullying.
Paroma is pursuing her Master’s at a prominent university in New Delhi.