In her December 2016 book, I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Social Media Army, the journalist Swati Chaturvedi reports on the social media strategy, campaign and cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the online “trolls” that support it. She examines the social-media strategies the party employed during its campaign leading up to the 2014 general elections, and how it has used social media to its advantage since it came to power. In her book, Chaturvedi states that she spoke to more than two-dozen former and current members of the National Digital Operations Centre (NDOC), the BJP’s digital-campaign wing.
One such individual is Sadhavi Khosla, a former volunteer who worked for the NDOC for nearly two years, until late 2015. Khosla told Chaturvedi that the NDOC and its heads—including Arvind Gupta, the national convenor of the BJP’s IT cell—ran targeted campaigns over platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter against those who appeared to criticise the Modi government or the BJP. On this list, Khosla said, were celebrities such as Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan as well as journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt. According to Khosla, after Aamir Khan commented in November 2015 on alleged acts of intolerance in India, the cell ran a campaign to ensure that he was ousted from his role as the brand ambassador of Snapdeal, an e-commerce platform. She also spoke to Chaturvedi about the methods that the NDOC volunteers used, including threats of physical and sexual violence. Khosla told Chaturvedi that the absence of any reprimand from the BJP leadership for such acts led to her disillusionment with her work. Since the release of the book, several BJP members, including Gupta, have denied Khosla’s allegations, and accused her of lying about her involvement with the BJP. Many have also claimed that she either defected to, or was working for, the Congress party.
On 2 January 2017, Kedar Nagarajan, a web reporter with The Caravan, met Khosla, and later continued the conversation over the phone. They discussed the structure and functioning of the NDOC, the work she did, as well as the events that led her to resign. They also spoke about the allegations that have been raised against her. At the beginning of their discussion, Khosla said, “I would not be surprised if my phone is tapped and my activities on the phone are being monitored.”
Kedar Nagarajan: What drew you to the National Digital Operations Centre?
Sadhavi Khosla: I want to set one thing very straight, I was neither a member nor an employee of the Bharatiya Janata Party—I was a volunteer. I was driven by my passion to be part of a movement that was created at that point in time. In 2012-13, there was a huge anti-establishment wave with the Anna Hazare movement and all that. I think that this was the first point in time where young Indians—apolitical people and educated Indians—came forward to be part of a political change. The year 2014 was the first time I registered my voter ID card and chose to vote.
I am the only one in [my] family who supported a non-Congress candidate and I did so because at that point I was listening to my own voice—there was a serious void in the Congress leadership, and so the choices in front of the country were Mr Modi and the Anna movement. I am not a very ideological person; national interests drive me. I feel that for a healthy democracy, things need to rotate and power should never be only in one set of hands. I have lived in the US and seen how rotation works there.
Writing is my passion and I used to write on Twitter about the [United Progressive Alliance government]’s failure. That’s what caught the BJP’s attention. I was given a call [by the BJP] asking me to join, and I said no, I would like to volunteer. So they said that we have our Mission 272+ website [the BJP’s campaign for the 2014 elections], go register there and be part of the change. A few days after that, Mr Modi began following me [on Twitter] and he still does. It has been almost three years since. I do not think that any other leader has used social media the way Mr Modi has.
KN: What was the nature of the work you did for the NDOC?
SK: I helped organise many door-to-door campaigns to increase the volunteer base. I organised many “Chai Pe Charcha” events [an outreach programme launched by the BJP in the run-up to the 2014 general elections]. I helped organise an event for Smriti Irani [the union minister for textiles] and I worked directly on [the BJP member of parliament from Chandigarh] Kirron Kher’s campaign in Punjab. The door-to-door campaigns also bothered me because often these campaigns focused on maligning political opponents, instead of talking about the development intentions. It was, however, a combination of both kinds of rhetoric
KN: Can you elaborate on the organisational structure of the NDOC?
SK: Once I joined in January 2014, I got a call from their Ashoka Road office [the national headquarters of the BJP, in Delhi]. A person named Vishal Gupta, who was an employee of the BJP, became my daily point of contact. He used to report to Arvind Gupta [the national convenor of the BJP’s IT cell and reportedly the head of the social-media cell until July 2015]. Vishal Gupta is no longer a part of the BJP. He was the one who made me a part of many volunteer [WhatsApp] groups. We would have meetings at our homes, cafes and even at the Ashoka Road office.
There was a lady named Smita Barooah [another volunteer, who was tasked with coordinating women volunteers for the BJP] who has attacked me the most. She is a friend of Arvind Gupta’s from Singapore and she took a sabbatical to come and help at the Ashoka Road office. I went with her to Chandigarh to work on Kirron Kher’s campaign. [Barooah] came to my house to kickstart the “Chai Pe Charcha” campaign.
KN: Barooah posted on Twitter that you were not a part of the IT cell, and that you did not attend any strategy or management meetings. What is your response?
SK: She is bound to make the same claims as Arvind Gupta. I have never said to any reporter that I was any more than a volunteer; I have never claimed to be a member of the BJP or a paid employee of the NDOC. [Barooah] had come to my house to kickstart Chai pe Charcha and together, we hosted 50 other women. All this is proven by the several images and tweets on Twitter. Moreover, if I never had any involvement and I was nobody, then why does the PM still follow me on Twitter?
KN: What was the professional background of most of the employees and volunteers at the NDOC?
SK: They were all educated people, mostly NRIs [non-resident Indians] that had taken a sabbatical. That was a big motivator: I myself am an MBA with a corporate background, to have people from similar backgrounds motivated by this really charged me up. Everyone was very keen on bringing Modi into power. Mr Modi being the great marketer that he is, he sold the Gujarat model to us very well. We all believed in his [campaign promises of] acche din and good governance.
KN: In her book, Chaturvedi mentions that you said that the work you were given was not what you expected you would be doing.
SK: I am a very peace-loving person. The only man I follow after god is Mahatma Gandhi. For someone [like me] to become a volunteer in a party where he is hated and abused, and doing something opposite to his ideology, was very disillusioning. I understand that in politics you have to attack your opponent, but spreading hatred in this way is wrong.
It is not that I was made to do any work in particular. A volunteer is a perfect person, or what Modi would call a yodha [warrior], because you do not own them. If you read the comments [made publicly by] the members of the BJP in the [the recent days], they all claim that they do not know me. That is very easy for them, because then they are not accountable; because you can then say that they [the volunteers] were all tweeting things according to their own wish.
What I disliked was that, in those groups, there was continuous hate directed at minorities, some journalists, and anyone else who has opposing views. When the head of the NDOC [referring to Arvind Gupta] sends me direct WhatsApp messages saying, sign the petition to remove Aamir Khan from the Snapdeal campaign, what does that mean? [Chaturvedi’s book includes a screenshot of a message that Arvind Gupta allegedly sent Khosla, encouraging her to sign a petition asking Snapdeal to remove Aamir Khan from their advertisements.] When the head sends you messages with hashtags for the day and targets for the day, what does it mean? No one is forcing me to do work, but it means that the heads of these organisations are endorsing such views. To me, it becomes the official line.
KN: Was there a marked difference in the hate campaigns targeting women and those targeting men?
SK: When Barkha Dutt’s book came [Dutt’s book, This Unquiet Land, was released in December 2015], the entire [WhatsApp] group was full of posts and plans to make sure that her book was a flop. It is not like anybody was made to tweet in any particular way. There would be targets and agenda, and the volunteers and employees would themselves go out and tweet. The PM till date follows some of the most abusive people online. Should a prime minister be doing that?
At that particular point in time, people who are at the helm of the BJP affairs managed those groups. When Mrs [Sonia] Gandhi was in the hospital, I read some of the tweets wishing her death—it was obnoxious. When [the senior Congress leader] Digvijay Singh’s daughter died, I felt very bad, being a parent [myself], but there was so much abuse even on that day.
KN: Were the other campaigns similar to the Snapdeal campaign?
SK: As I mentioned, there were campaigns against Shah Rukh Khan and the journalists Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai. This was what made me disillusioned with the [NDOC’s] work. Their policy was that they would bring down opponents and people with differing views to such a low level, and present themselves as larger than life. For me, the biggest shocker was that suddenly Aamir and Shah Rukh— among people like my friends, who are apolitical—have become “Muslims.” I have watched [the actors] while growing up, and they were our stars. I never thought of them as Muslims.
KN: How involved do you think the prime minister was with the other party members’ online campaigns?
SK: I am only assuming that he was. I was told that he was overseeing all social media campaigns because there was so much at stake for him. I give a lot of credit to the social media army for Modi’s victory. I was also told [by people at the NDOC] that he had frequent phone calls with Arvind Gupta and other seniors at the NDOC.
KN: During your time at the NDOC, did you raise objections to some of the tweets that were put out by abusive trolls?
SK: Yes. I had tweeted that the same social media army that led to his victory will bring him down one day. I had very seriously objected to these hate campaigns and was never a part of any myself. I wrote my objections on Twitter and tagged the PM and the NDOC. I said on a public platform that this is wrong and we should not be doing this. Even while supporting Modi, I consistently raised objections. I did not have the sort of access where I could complain to anyone directly.
KN: Was there a tipping point or a moment that finally made you quit?
SK: In my mind, I had quit at the beginning of January 2015. I am an activist and I tweeted to the PM about the drug-abuse issue in Punjab. I have also made a documentary on the issue [Khosla’s documentary, titled Fading Glory, was released in early 2016]. The PM’s silence when I reached out to him was the beginning of my disenchantment. I think the Aamir Khan case was the tipping point for me.
KN: Gupta claimed that you joined the Congress after the BJP rejected your request to work for their Punjab campaign.
SK: This is all rubbish, he has to say something now that I have come out and spoken. If there is an assumption that I worked for the Congress in Punjab, you can check with the Congress.
KN: What has been your involvement with the Congress party in Punjab?
SK: At the time that I was screening my documentary, I, as an activist, had invited everyone including the prime minister and the home minister to come and see the documentary. But none of them came, and Rahul Gandhi—whom I have publicly criticised for two years—chose to attend. That was the only time I met him.
Punjab is my home state; I want my state to recover from the drug problem. I had written to the PM and other senior members of the BJP on Twitter many times asking them to break their ties with the [Shiromani] Akali Dal and set up their own base there. I received no response for them. I have explicitly stated that my family has been a supporter of the Congress for generations, but I have never been a part of the Congress in any capacity. I am from Patiala and so is [the senior Congress leader in Punjab] Captain Amarinder Singh, and our families have known each other for a long time. Does this mean I am volunteer, a party member, a person asking for a ticket or the head of the social-media cell of the Congress? No, it does not at all.
KN: On your twitter profile, you referred to Rahul Gandhi and Captain Amarinder Singh as guests of honour at the screening of the documentary.
SK: Rahul Gandhi and Captain Amarinder were the only ones that accepted the invitation. Had the PM, home minister and other leaders come, they would have also been guests of honour.
KN: Since your departure from the NDOC, have you received any threats?
SK: You have to see my Twitter page to see the kind of slandering that has been going on there, especially in the past few days. I have become one of the main targets on their hit list—there are so many threats and sexual remarks.
After [Rahul Gandhi] attended my documentary screening, I wrote a blog post about how I had misconceptions about him. After I wrote that—oh my god, if I send you the screenshots of the abuse I have received. All this actually only proves my point.
KN: What made you decide to speak up about this?
SK: I have been associated with the BJP, so I can speak about their social media. I do not know how it works in other parties. Social media can be a boon or a bane, and I have been witness to the way the BJP has used it negatively. I wanted to come out and share my views so that everyone who does not have any specific political leaning applies their mind and does not blindly listen to what they see on social media.
KN: Has this experience eroded your faith in the prime minister and in the BJP?
SK: They have become very arrogant. I will support the PM as and when he does anything in the national interest. I came out publicly and put out a tweet expressing my support for demonetisation. But I am against any kind of hatred being spread because I feel that we do not realise that freedom is very hard-earned. For me, a united India is way more important than 100 smart cities and bullet trains.
What we cannot afford is communal disharmony. I do not think that religion has divided us as much as politics has. Times were different even under the previous BJP government. Now it is either you are with Modi or [you are] anti-national—I do not support this at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.