The internet has changed our lives in ways we could not even imagine. The way we book our tickets, the way we prepare for our examinations and the way we watch movies. Netflix and Amazon Prime have modified our living rooms. It has been years since I have actually approached a travel agent to book tickets for me. The rise of internet has also had many darker effects. Cyber sex and hacking were words unknown to our parents. Pornography has influenced the sex lives of so many millennials. The late nineties saw the rise of the internet generation – Liberal, impatient and ambitious. We craved speed – faster networks and instant gratification. But a very decidedly different group of young men and women arose.
What was confined to the Wahabbi madrasas of Saudi Arabia could pervade the mobile phones of young Muslim boys in Tirunelveli. The xenophobia of the saffron fringe could infiltrate the living rooms of the Indian middle class. The fundamentalist Christianity of Billy Graham in the United States was in our fingertips.
A new sub-generation arose. Radical, opinionated and doggedly religious. The phenomenon started about 15 years ago. The Stonebench team approached Dr Akbaruddin ( names changed ) a general practioner in a southern district of Tamil Nadu. His family of devout Muslims was prominent in the nearby few villages. Dr Akbaruddin was a senior doctor who catered to the medical needs of many local villagers. The changes were subtle in the beginning. Dr Akbar’s nephew started growing a beard and Zakir Naik’s sermons started to inspire him. He refused to attend the Muharram festivities in the village because it was allegedly ‘shirk’ (prohibited). Dr Akbar and his family initially enthused by his new found devotion were shocked. One day he asked his own aunt to cover up and wear a hijab. Dr Akbar practiced a moderate and tolerant version of Islam that was suddenly being questioned by his own nephew. The inclusive Islam that his family had practiced for centuries was not similar to the new version. The final straw was when he told his own father not to vote for a friend in the local panchayat elections because he was a kafir. Anwaruddin all of 19 years then left home 7 years ago and joined a radical Islamic evangelist outfit which now proselytises all over Tamil Nadu. He is active on Facebook and frequently quotes radical preachers.
We approached Anwaruddin on Facebook and met Rajiv , a fervent internet Hindu through Anwar. Rajiv and Anwar had spent half a day trolling each other on a Facebook post about Modi. Abuses such as “cow-piss drinkers” and “porkistani” were exchanged liberally between themselves. Rajiv was an fervent internet hindutva warrior. He held beliefs that are incompatible with modern morality along with a masters degree in computer science. He spoke about how Hindus were being “ outnumbered and ill treated “ in our nation. A religion which had survived 3000 years was suddenly under threat. During the day he worked at a corporate office in an IT park. Evenings were spent spilling vitriol over the so called secularists and liberals. He spent hours justifying lynch mobs and cow-protectors. His knowledge about Hindu scriptures was limited but spent evening scourging for phrases in the Quran and the Bible to justify his anger against Muslims and Christians. The Facebook groups of which he was a member fed his fears and fuelled the hate. Violence in the name of a temple was justified. He told me unapologetically how he had once asked his father to stop doing business with Muslims.
It has been difficult being devoid of belief. The first time I encountered it was in school, when a Christian friend offered to ‘save me’. I had to politely refuse the offer. Offers to save me from mathematics classes were more welcome. College was not much different. I met young men and women who were more internet-savvy and more religious than their parents. They were educated and yet were ready to accept the non -scientific beliefs of their religions. I spent hours debating with colleagues about evolution – a concept my religious doctor friends could not accept despite immense proof. LGBT rights were an area when all the bigots of varying denominations agreed upon. “Homosexuality is a sin “they boomed. Babas, maulvis and pastors jointly agreed upon it and their online followers thundered their approval with clicks and likes.
It has become morally acceptable to tell women to stop wearing short skirts. Unsolicited advice is the norm on Facebook. It has also become mainstream to use your office internet connection to abuse a person who disagrees with your views. Bigotry spreads exponentially with every retweet. When I was a teenager, my father was more worried about pornography on the internet. It won’t be the same for my son. I would be more worried about grown men preaching from studios with scriptures in their hands. Drinking chocolate milkshake on Wednesday might be forbidden in your religion. Just don’t ask me not to drink it. Concept of God is a very private thing and is best left confined to the prayer rooms of your homes. Internet is not the place for it.
Vinayak Rengan is a General Surgery resident in Chennai who writes on socio-political issues and technology. He is interested in public health and using technology to solve public health problems. He sometimes forgets his wallet at home and doesn’t keep his room neat.