Most of the Twitter world knows about ABC’s ‘Quantico’ being targeted for a recent episode in season 3 that ends with Priyanka Chopra’s character stopping a nuclear attack by terrorists. The most offensive scene that set trolls loose? When Chopra recovers a rudraksha mala – described in the programme as a “Hindu rosary” – and suggests the terror plot is a “false flag operation by Indian nationalists hoping to frame Pakistan in a mushroom cloud”.
For hyper-nationalist TV channels in India, this fictional plot has been manna from heaven. An India Today show featured an angry anchor asking whether Priyanka Chopra has “insulted India”. As a clip from Quantico played out, his voiceover said:
‘Priyanka Chopra seen defending Pakistan. Priyanka’s role puts Pakistan’s role, a state sponsor of terror, off the hook. Hindu nationalists say Priyanka is a traitor. US TV drama frames India, vindicates Pakistan. Is this freedom of expression or dirty Pakistani propaganda? Is there a sinister plot to say Indian nationalism is bad, that Indian nationalists are terrorists … Rudraksha, the symbol of our prayers is being denigrated.”
The anchor finally rounded on the writer of the episode, who he said was “apparently a Bangladeshi American.” What are vested interests behind this, he asked rhetorically.
ABC was quick to apologise to those taking offence. They seemed generous with the bullet-proof vest they offered their heroine:
“The episode has stirred a lot of emotion, much of which is unfairly aimed at Priyanka Chopra, who didn’t create the show, nor does she write or direct it.’
ABC went on to say that they were at fault for not understanding the political situation. “The show has featured antagonists of many different ethnicities and backgrounds, but in this case we inadvertently and regrettably stepped into a complex political issue. It was certainly not our intention to offend anyone.”
Hundreds of fictional plots are generated by the movie and television industry around the globe every day but only in India is the patriotism of an actor questioned. And since such a storyline could not be the product of bad writing or poor research or simply a writer’s desire to be provocative and entertaining, everyone is convinced a deep conspiracy must be at play. This is where the ‘Bangladeshi’ angle – false and nonsensical though it is – has come in handy.
For the past week, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American writer, has been trolled by self-appointed protectors of Hinduism who see her as the villain of the piece.
Ahmed is an established fiction author and a playwright who has been writing in various publications for years. On a more global level, she is known as the first female American of Bangladeshi origin to have written for a American television show. This week, she came under attack for a Quantico plotline she wasn’t even a part of as a writer.
Ahmed was on the writing team for Quantico for precisely one season – season 1 – from 2015 to 2016.
Back then, she got her first round of trolling from fellow Bangladeshis owing to a line in an episode that referred to a Bangladeshi nightclub bombing. Tweets against her went off claiming there were no nightclubs in Bangladesh and that she (even though it’s a team of writers) was misrepresenting the country.
I asked Ahmed what she felt about being trolled by people from her country of origin back in 2016.
“It’s false pride and misguided patriotism that in fact ignores serious social issues,” she said. “There seemed to be a general notion that terrorism doesn’t occur in Bangladesh. I found it as absurd as I find the situation with the Hindutva trolls I am facing today”.
Ahmed says it was tragic that the trolls had to be so ironically proven wrong when 22 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Dhaka. One of those victims happened to be Ahmed’s friend. “Only one person apologised to me after that.”
Let’s skip ahead to 2018. ‘Hindu’ trolls started to tweet-harass her about the India-Pakistan episode which Ahmed had nothing do do with.
“Care to explain your wildest fantasy while you wrote Quantico with Indians being masterminds of an attack? Does this stem from a deep rooted bias, hate, anti-Hindu, pro-islam conditioning of your fragile mind ??”, she was asked on Twitter.
All of a sudden, a storyline in a fictional TV show that she had no connection to becomes Ahmed’s ‘wildest fantasy’ because of her ‘anti-Hindu conditioning.’
I asked Ahmed how she took the experience of reading accusations like “In the eyes of people like Sharbari killing Hindus is not genocide but a religious right in all Muslim countries”.
“It’s jarring to say the least on a personal level. As a writer it is an opportunity to bring to light some serious issues involving fake news, an obfuscation of hard facts. Bigotry and the problematic issue of rabid nationalism has the whole world in its grip”.
Ahmed feels people are willfully ignoring facts. Hard, indisputable truths are being disregarded to form hatred and violence. She says it’s very much happening in the US on an almost daily level as well.
Twitter trolling is the easiest way to intimidate, threaten, and obliterate any intelligent discussion on the internet today.
“The discord in South Asia is rooted so deeply in a violent past that it has now breached the surface. Like Trump has emboldened the white supremacists here, Modi and his cronies have given agency to the Hindu right. This is all connected. It’s synergy.”
And this is how media cycles keep repeating themselves. Trolls trolls sniff out the potential for controversy in a matter of minutes and start to form internet mobs. Before you know it, there are so many grossly inaccurate facts twisted in personal attacks that even an average citizen just ‘browsing’ hashtags will think there is an actual problem. Half-baked information and personal sentiments are reconstituted and made whole. And before we know it, we have watched another writer being shot down for simply existing.
Ahmed believes writers need to bear witness to this and constantly address it. To that effect, the hope shining in this story is the amount of support she has got back from other artists and friends. ABC might have left one of their own ex-writers to fend for herself out in Twitter hell, but others have come in to support and voice their opinions.
While facts no longer matter in these times, it’s important to note that this is also the era of writers, artists, and thought influencers coming together to reclaim the right to dissent, discuss, and disagree.
Shujaat Bukhari: In many worlds at the same time, yet rooted to the ground
Shujaat Bukhari, perhaps embarrassed about his tall and distinct demeanour, hunched just a wee bit to make his friends comfortable. His two children, before they were five, would walk with their head distinctly bent to the right, as that was a good imitation of Abba, always on the cellphone, trying to be hands-free. Always wired, he was quick to read up NYT and The Guardian first thing in the morning, before the smartphone arrived, as he tapped his fingers, itching to read the newspapers that reached only in the afternoon. With a trademark mischievous smile, he had mastered just the right manner to disarm you as he proceeded to slowly rip your arguments apart —whether in the biting Kashmir cold or the sweltering Delhi heat. He had just turned 50 this February.
A journalist with spunk, courage and a keen sense of his calling, of telling the story, Bukhari fundamentally believed it was his bounden duty to jump fences between holders of different truths and come to his own conclusions. It is no surprise that his ‘pinned tweet’ is from an Editors Conference in Lisbon in May. He liked being in many worlds at the same time.
Bukhari, widely travelled inside and outside Jammu and Kashmir, was able to blend a truly rooted view of the ground in the state with an easy cosmopolitan perspective. His stints in universities abroad, his long journey with The Hindu brought out the best in him, even though in his final years he gave his newspaper, Rising Kashmir, his everything.
Laughingly, he would speak of The Hindu as being the best teacher, because he had to ultimately ensure that “Anna Salai” (the road with The Hindu’s head office in Chennai) understood the importance of what was happening “downtown or in Baramulla”. That, he said, forced him to be able to tease out stories and be most matter of fact. A long and sustained stint there through very troubled years in the state made his a reliable and valued byline. Says Harish Khare, his editor for many years who got him into The Hindu group, “He was my first contact in Kashmir and I was always struck by his commitment to fairness in reporting. I met him in 1994, got him into the group then.”
Bukhari, in his own office at Press Colony, hosted hundreds of parachuting journalists in and out of the state — in dark times, when stepping out was impossible after sunset, to rosier times, when apple orchards would be covered and there was optimism over the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.
Says Sachidadand Murthy, resident editor of The Week, “His deepest quality was his curiosity. He was always hungry for all kinds of information from all sides and had an ability to piece together all the nuggets. He was an excellent reporter, always ahead of things. After a recent health scare, we all flocked to him after he came to Delhi, but he scoffed our concern away with the reminder that he needed to bring out a paper everyday and had to have his hands back at the wheel.”
On quitting The Hindu, Bukhari took to editing his own newspaper. Even in his avatar as an Editor-in-Chief, with more responsibilities now and a sibling who went on to become (and still is) a minister in the PDP-BJP government, always punched hard and stayed above the fray. In a world dominated by social media, Bukhari adapted remarkably to being able to translate his thoughtful and shrewd assessments to the demands of expressing himself 24X7.
With a declared and courageous view that he stood by the peace process, Bukhari was part of a small group of voices with a well-rounded view of the Kashmir situation and an ability to convey what changed there and what didn’t, convincingly to the rest of the country and world. He was happy to not always be seen to be in sync with the dominant view of his peers in the field. For example, he felt that Kashmir should host a literature festival in 2011, contrary to what influential colleagues and writers felt, and he wrote about it and held his ground. In the past few months, while he welcomed the Ramzan ceasefire, his world had grown darker and he did not like what he saw.
Among the last things he did was to still write about his defence of objective and solid reporting from Kashmir as he wrote about allegations that Kashmiri journalists were biased, “we have done Journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on the ground”.
Journalists In Kashmir Risk Everyday
In one of his last tweets before he was brutally shot dead, Shujaat Bukhari wrote,” In Kashmir, we have done journalism with pride, and will continue to highlight what happens on the ground.” This was Shujaat, exasperated with the increasingly polarised discourse in the country which seeks to label all of us, and more so, journalists from Kashmir. Shujaat was hard to label. Because he was a moderate voice from the Valley. In today’s reductionist terms, that means he was a “jihadi” for the extreme right wing, which is now a ‘compliment’ for anyone who advocates peace and dialogue. And that is exactly the reason why the other side thought he had “sold out” to India.
The fact is, Shujaat always stood for dialogue and peace. He was very active on the “Track 2” circuit between India and Pakistan. And within India, he regularly organised and attended seminars and conferences on Kashmir, which included sessions on bridging the divide between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. Over the last few years, he appeared regularly on our TV shows. We didn’t always agree, but he was polite and put across his point of view firmly but respectfully.
He would make it a point to always tell me how some other TV channels had poisoned the discourse in Kashmir with their hate-driven agenda night after night. Those sections of the media have done so much harm, essentially in labelling all Kashmiris as stone-pelters and terrorists, calling anyone who wants peace a “lobbyist” and “Pakistan apologist”. They haven’t even spared Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti from these labels, she who is a democratically-elected Chief Minister no less.
Which is why I tweeted last night that armchair patriots really don’t understand what journalists in Kashmir go through, the kind of pressure they face in their reporting day after day. My colleague Zaffar Iqbal was shot by terrorists and miraculously survived. I know it takes immense courage for him to report from the Valley; for years, he didn’t have the strength to go back to live there. Both he and NDTV’s Nazir Masoodi have always been fair, objective and courageous in their reporting, along with many other journalists in the Valley. Today, I want to thank them for what they do.
Shujaat had welcomed the recent ceasefire announced by the centre in the Valley, a ceasefire that terrorist groups and their supporters have been seeking to destroy from the very moment it was put into place. His killing reminds me of the assassination of separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002, who was murdered for talking about peace. I have no doubt that Shujaat has been killed by the same forces. The onus is on us to make sure those forces are eventually defeated. RIP Shujaat.
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