A friend called me up in deep anguish, wanting to share with me his bafflement, hurt and helplessness. He had written an article against the death penalty after Yakub Memon was hanged and had been mercilessly trolled for it. He asked glumly if there was any sensible, positive way of dealing with what he was going through.

The idea that the death penalty, however heinous the crime, is not a deterrant and turns the State into a murderer, has been discussed around the world for decades. As a result, 140 countries have abolished it. The first was Netherlands, back in 1870; the most recent was Latvia in 2014. We must presume that the lawmakers and citizens of these countries were as proud of their nations as our nationalist trolls claim to be of India. So why can't an idea like the death penalty be openly discussed here? Why did trolls tell my friend to write for the Urdu press or go live in Pakistan? He had not said Yakub Memon was innocent. He had merely argued that the death penalty was wrong. So why?

Counter-question: Why do bullies make life miserable for classmates who are differently abled? Why do neighbours taunt a young rape survivor to the point where she prefers death to life?

Trolls aren't unique to Twitterland. They've been around for ever. In Norse mythology, where the word troll originated, they were the enemies of the gods. Human in appearance, just as today's trolls are, they were gigantic, ugly, and, as every story about them demonstrated, incredibly stupid. That's how they were portrayed in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's epic verse drama, Peer Gynt. In his later plays, however, they took the form of men and women who symbolised the dark alter egos of his chief protagonists, supporting Ibsen's idea that "our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves". Some of us manage, through the exercise of reason and the conscience, to repress these forces. Others find pleasure in giving them free play. Nor is it always the narrow, irrational, hate-filled extremists who do so. Under certain circumstances, even liberals turn into vicious trolls. 

Not so long ago, the Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt, was hounded out of his job as honorary professor of Life Sciences at University College London for making a stupid, mysogynistic comment at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul. Asked to say a few words at short notice during a lunch for women journalists and scientists, he said, "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” He thought he was being funny. Nobody else did. However, he ended his short speech with the words, "Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me." Ignoring this, one woman tweeted just those 37 unfunny words, setting off a gale that hit Hunt even before he reached home and destroyed his career for ever.

How then do we, normal, open-minded, live-and-let-live citizens protect ourselves from the savage power of social media and Twitter? If you are witty and gutsy and know a bully for what s/he is, you can give as good as you get. J. K. Rowling has been doing that in support of every liberal opinion she holds and gets trolled for. Else there's the Thor ritual. Thor is the hammer-wielding god of Norse mythology who produces thunder and lightning but also protects mankind. To get him on your side, all you need to do is equip yourself with two bells, ring them three times, stomp the ground three times, name your troll and chant, "I call upon you to cease your troublesome behaviour. So does Thor's hammer drive you back underground as sunlight grows." Repeat this for every troll you want to send crawling back into the woodwork.

But if you are blessed with a scientific temper and have no truck with magic, do what the wise duck does. Wiggle your bottom, flap your wings and let your trolls slide off your back. Then return to what needs doing if our beloved country is to progress beyond the rise and fall of the Sensex. Think, question, debate and create. Fortunately, the Constitution is still on our side. It doesn't talk of sending us to Pakistan.

Happy Independence Day!

Published On : 02-08-2015