By Vaishna Roy

As the number of cases pile up and deaths mount, one imagines that things couldn’t get worse. But one is wrong. Because, of course, one has forgotten the existence of Tejasvi Surya, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s MP from Bengaluru South. If one thing has stood out this last fortnight amidst the sea of extraordinary lies, denials and stupidities, it is Surya sinking to a new low of despicability.

For six years now, a section of the educated middle-class has looked the other way when hearing of increasingly aggressive moves from Hindutva’s adherents. Cattle-traders assaulted, someone lynched for a train seat, a boy thrashed for drinking water from a temple tap — everything has been brushed under the carpet, explained away as “cow-belt” excess, the violence of “lumpen elements,” the “lunatic fringe” getting carried away. Which is why we cannot take our eyes off Tejasvi Surya.

This is no fringe lunatic, no roadside rowdy led astray. Surya is as mainstream as it gets — educated, well-off, articulate, a darling of the IIT-IIM-corporate-technocrat crowd. And this is not a small town in Uttar Pradesh. It is Bengaluru, the country’s IT hub, the epitome of modern, aspirational India. If such a man in such a city feels empowered enough to storm into a government health centre, brandish a list, read out the names of Muslim staffers, and make unsubstantiated charges against them, you can no longer deny that religious fundamentalism has become mainstream.

Possibly because it is Bengaluru, enough of a hubbub was raised to force Surya to return to the health centre and make a show of recanting, claiming he did not know the religious identity of the names he read out. The employees, who were insulted, detained, suspended, and finally reinstated, got neither compensation nor apology. These are young medical personnel, intimidated and perhaps without the wherewithal to pursue this further, but Bengaluru’s citizens must initiate action against the MP under Sections 295A, 211 or 499 of the IPC. Unless communal harassment and aggression are taken seriously and seen to be punished, we cannot contain the lunatics at the fringe.

A few days after this episode, 96 oxygen concentrators were seized from Khan Chacha restaurant in New Delhi. Almost immediately, a clamour went up because of the restaurant’s name, forcing several people to point out that the restaurant is owned by a businessman named Navneet Kalra.

But all these clarifications and disavowals still happen in what I think of as the “visible” world of mass communication — where news is still verified and disseminated in some of the time-tested, old-fashioned ways as before. But we are all aware of the existence of a massive parallel network, where misinformation is actively fed to hundreds of thousands of people through WhatsApp forwards, videos, and purported “news” stories published in a mammoth number of unknown, murky websites and channels, what I think of as the dark web of the information world.

In this nether world, a mythical “Khan” will still be behind the hoarded oxygen cylinders, just as “Muslim” employees will be responsible for the Bengaluru hospital beds scam. In this world, the video of Surya reading out the names will be broadcast repeatedly, but not of him retracting. The name of the original, long-dead owner of Khan Chacha restaurant will be shared, but not Kalra’s.

The creation of such a parallel universe, informed by “facts” that are the opposite of anything understood as fact in the verified, “visible” world, is possibly responsible also for the upsurge in data garbling and pseudo-science that has allowed large numbers of Indians to drop their guard so thoroughly against the pandemic. The challenge today is two-fold: not just to provide medical aid to the millions infected by the virus, but also to find a way to inoculate the millions who are being brainwashed by the virus of disinformation. One suspects the former war will be easier won. Because it is the confidence of never being called out that fuels hate fomenters like Tejasvi Surya and their army of fabricators.

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