On July 10, The Habitat - a cafe in the Bandra locality of Mumbai - was vandalised, allegedly by members of the Hindu Nationalist and son-of-the-soil ideology-subscribing political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
The men were protesting against a video by a standup comedian that was shot at the venue a year ago. It began as rightwing outrage against comic Agrima Joshua for her comments on a proposed statue of king Shivaji Bhosale I, who ruled over parts of western and southern India during the 1600s. The outrage spiralled: right-wingers on social media issued death and rape threats against at least 10 other comics who spoke out in Joshua’s defence. A number of comics had to issue apologies and suspend social media accounts after being doxxed.
As he watched the cafe he owned being vandalised by the men who wanted Joshua’s phone number and apology, Balraj Singh Ghai - a live comedy producer since 2016 - noticed something.
“The people who filmed themselves breaking tables, and even two men who showed up the next day after seeing the video of the studio being vandalised, had mannerisms that closely resembled that of a video content creator,” he told VICE News.
Ghai also pointed out how the person vandalising his property - who was ferociously barking orders as he shot himself trashing the place - took on a softer, more polite tone while speaking to him off-camera.
The men also livestreamed their vandalism. A video of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena members arguing with the venue’s employees and kicking furniture over to stress their point went viral across social media. The video shared by one Twitter user gained more than 190,000 views and 13,000 likes on Twitter.
According to Ghai, the weekend after the video of vandalizers damaging the property went viral, several other young boys showed up at the venue. They wanted to shoot videos of themselves issuing threats and vandalising the cafe, but were turned away by a policeman posted there since the first attack.
Trolls had converged on Joshua after she tweeted in support of comic Kenny Sebastian, who had pushed back against a Hindutva supporter who had called him a “rice bag:” the implication being that Sebastian’s ancestors had converted to Christianity in exchange for a bag of rice.
Joshua was trolled for comments about the Shiv Smarak, a 212 metre-tall statue of king Shivaji proposed in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Mumbai, at a cost of $540 million.
In the 2019 video, Joshua can be seen discussing the misinformed reactions of chat forum Quora users to news relating to the statue. Users of the forum had speculated that the statue would contain solar cells to power the western state of Maharashtra and shoot laser beams at terrorists.
Shivaji Bhosale I, more commonly known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, is an icon of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital. Shivaji is also important to the Hindutva nationalist ideology, followed by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A day after The Habitat attack, Joshua took down her video and issued an apology to all those whose sentiments she had hurt.
The next day, July 11, two YouTubers uploaded videos to their respective channels abusing Joshua for what they thought was disrespect towards king Shivaji. Both threatened to rape Joshua: while Shubham Mishra spoke of wanting to rape Joshua’s mother too, Imtiyaz Shaikh said that he would rape the comic. Both were arrested after outrage on social media; Mishra on July 12 from the western state of Gujarat, Shaikh the next day from Maharashtra.
Mishra had 228,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel at the time of his arrest, Shaikh had 324,000. Both men go by aliases on Youtube: as Badass Shubham and Umesh Dada respectively. They also record videos the same way, by sitting inside cars.
Their videos set off a new wave of trolling, this time against comics who had talked in support of Joshua. At least 10 of them were called anti-Hindu and were trolled for jokes or tweets put out years ago. Many were forced to take down content and apologise; there were three such apologies on July 14. Some spoke about their phone numbers and addresses being leaked and said their families were threatened.
YouTube had taken down his video and suspended his channel, but Mishra - out on bail - created a new account two days after his arrest. On July 14, he posted a new video where he promised the new channel was an “upgrade” that would be twice as ferocious. It amassed 5,700 subscribers within a week but is now unavailable on YouTube. VICE News has reached out to YouTube for comment, and will update the story accordingly.
YouTube now has channels by individuals who claim to be fans of Mishra. Some of them have as many as 10,000 subscribers.
Both Mishra and Shaikh often collaborate with a former YouTuber named Vikas Phatak who adopts a persona named Hindustani Bhau for his videos. Hindustani Bhau, who had over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers in February 2020, shot to fame on YouTube and TikTok for his foul-mouthed videos against anyone he considered “anti-national.”
“This content capitalises on people’s frustrations and worst impulses, utilising shock value for lack of anything else to talk about,” Shwetabh Gangwar, an author, motivational speaker and YouTuber with more than 900,000 subscribers said in a video pinpointing the trend of using hate speech and threats to get views.
Phatak’s usual list of targets included, but was not limited to, Pakistani YouTubers like Doctor Turki, Indian film and television producer Ekta Kapoor, Bollywood producer and director Karan Johar, religious minorities and liberal social media attitudes. Almost every video of his featured the creator sitting in his car, using abusive language, and making rape or death threats with a tone of terror.
Phatak amassed a massive following after his videos were used as reaction shots in several memes. This led to him being invited to be a contestant on Big Boss, the Hindi version of the Dutch reality show Big Brother, in 2019.
His YouTube channel was terminated in February 2020, which other YouTubers say happened after users reported his hate speech. However, Hindustani Bhau still has more than three million followers on his Instagram account and continues to get around a million views per video.
After Mishra’s July 12 arrest, Phatak uploaded video to Instagram suggesting that the rape threats made against Joshua were as bad as her jokes, which he felt insulted king Shivaji. He went on to say that Joshua’s jokes had insulted his “religious sentiments.”
On July 14, an old video of Phatak surfaced, in which he says that king Shivaji, who he claimed to be his idol, would insert his sword into women’s vaginas.
After being criticised by Chhatrapati Shivaji’s admirers for the video, Phatak announced that he was going off social media, but would continue to encourage his followers to take down those he considered to be the country’s traitors.
On July 20, Hindustani Bhau resurfaced on Instagram, threatening to push a broom up people’s backsides and “make them peacocks” if they celebrated his hiatus. The video got more than two million views.
“They don’t actually intend to follow through with their threats, but it gets them views,” Gangwar, who runs an English YouTube channel as well as a Hindi one to reach a wider audience, told VICE News.
Gangwar, who has been an active YouTuber for five years, said he first noticed signs of hate speech and abusive language two years ago, when YouTubers began making videos insulting TikTok users. Gangwar pointed out that once other creators noticed that these videos - which often use classist or homophobic slurs to roast people - were popular, they also emulated the model.
“They’re just picking soft targets based on what’s trending, like nepotism in Bollywood,” he said.
In a video posted in May 2020 that reportedly got more than 80 million views, the 21-year-old Ajey Nagar - whose online persona is CarryMinati and is India’s biggest YouTube creator with 23.9 million subscribers - roasted TikTok influencers.
A few days later, YouTube took down the video for violating community guidelines on bullying and harassment. In retaliation, Nagar’s followers, who call themselves the Carry Army, lowered TikTok’s rating on the Google Play Store from 4.6 stars to one star.
The Economic Times reported that Nagar’s followers bullied and sent rape threats to TikTok creators following this incident. Nagar also received a death threat from Indian actor Ajaz Khan - who also shot to fame after being a participant on Bigg Boss - and took an exception to Nagar’s views.
Khan, also a YouTuber with over a million followers, had four million followers on TikTok. He has been arrested twice, in July 2019 and April 2020, for allegedly posting communally-charged videos of his on TikTok and Facebook respectively.
“Now that TikTok has been banned [in India], their attack has shifted to punching down on trending topics like the Neha Dhupia comment,” Gangwar said, referring to a recent controversy, where actor and television host Neha Dhupia berated a boy on a reality show for assaulting his ex girlfriend when she cheated on him.
Hindustani Bhau reacted to Dhupia’s anti-violence stance by saying the boy only hit his girlfriend because “he loved her” and couldn’t do anything else.
YouTuber Lakshay Chaudhary, who has more than 1.14 million subscribers, made a video saying Dhupia was part of a “fake women’s empowerment” movement because, “women like her advocate nudity, drugs and pre-marital sex” and then “blame the courts and Prime Minister Narendra Modi when bad things happen.”
“It’s like when you’re watching a movie and some people cause a cacophony in the theatre,” said Ghai, to explain why abusive content grabs attention online. “Because of the disruption, the entire theatre stops watching the movie and focuses on them instead.”
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