As I told my publisher how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party in government, was actually paying to troll Indian citizens, she was excited but sceptical. Could I prove it? Yes, I could. The excitement won, and we were on.Now began the process of tracking down and meeting the trolls. Any one of them could causally reveal what I was doing. This caused me huge trepidation. I promised all the trolls anonymity, a promise I intend to keep. One of them challenged me and said, “You might tell my party leaders.” I had to show him proof of a habeas corpus petition issued against me by the Delhi High Court and how I had told the division bench I would rather be jailed than reveal my sources.This satisfied the troll. But it pretty much made me question my sanity. I was now proffering proof to anonymous trolls, a high point of my obsession with this investigation, which consumed me for two years.
If you are an investigative journalist, you know that every story needs luck, a break. As Juggernaut made what they agreed were “impossible demands”, I felt my stress levels ratchet up. They wanted me to turn a troll.
“Impossible,” I protested, while figuring out how I could make this happen.
That’s when the break happened, and I convinced Sadhvi Khosla to talk. Not only did she reveal the nuts and bolts of the workings of the BJP’s social media cell, but she was also brave enough to sign and initial every word of her chapter.
Even my impossible-to-please publisher was thrilled.
We edited all the way through Diwali; I remember rushing to the airport to board an eight-hour flight while frantically answering last-minute queries. I did get a day off generously on my birthday.
During the investigation, I was shaken when I discovered the secret “IT shakhas” and the depth of the rigorous planning of social media operations. After I spoke to Ram Madhav, the BJP’s National General Secretary, on tape, I was even more terrified that the secret would leak.
I was also taken aback by the sheer ordinariness of the trolls. Here were people abusing, slandering and indulging in communal incitement, making rape and death threats, yet treating it like a 9-to-5 call centre job. My investigations had revealed how a major political party was literally mainstreaming hate into India’s DNA. The questions and demands for documentation placed on me once I submitted this book felt daunting. Yet, it made the work solid and authentic.
We meticulously detailed each screenshot of the trolls followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and were simultaneously appalled and amazed. This book exposes them.
Now that it’s over, I even miss the paranoia and the secrecy of the investigation.