Right-wing commentator, academic and journalist Madhu Kishwar was in the line of fire on Twitter when many people called her out for her misogynistic remarks against actress Rhea Chakraborty, currently facing probe in the Sushant Singh Rajput case. Kishwar, a founding editor of Manushi – one of India's first magazines devoted entirely to the cause of women and gender studies – called Rhea a "fortune huntress mafia moll" who was used by her father as a "sex bait to trap rich men".
But this is not the first time that Kishwar has made headlines for her questionable statements. With a Twitter account that boasts of over 20 lakh followers and her frequent appearances on primetime television, Kishwar’s history is riddled with controversies involving disinformation and bigotry.
Sample this: In February, as Delhi witnessed one of the worst communal violence episodes in decades, Kishwar used an old clip from Bangladesh claiming that it shows "the anatomy of riots as they happened" in Delhi. The video showed a mob, comprising men wearing skullcaps, carrying lathis, clashing with each other in what appears to be a large open ground. Even though multiple fact-checkers were quick to refute her claims, this was just one of many other instances when Kishwar was caught sharing misinformation to incite hatred against the minority communities.
So, what is it about Madhu Kishwar that makes her case important for the study of digital hate and the impact of disinformation on society? One can begin answering this question by understanding how Kishwar, who now comes across as a right-wing apologist, was a left-liberal in her early years of women activism.
From Student Politics to Kashmir, JNU and Ayodhya Dispute: A Complete Ideological U-Turn
The most interesting part about Kishwar's five-decade-long presence in India's socio-political sphere is indeed the shift in her ideology from a seemingly liberal position to what can now safely be considered as reactionary right.
At Miranda House, she held the post of the student union president during her undergraduate days and then went on to study History at JNU, a university which she now asserts has become a breeding ground for “Urban Naxals” and “Islamist terrorists” and needs to be “detoxed & cleaned up.”
As the Student Union President herself, Kishwar wasn't aloof to politics then, and five decades later she still manages to make heads turn over her opinions and ideas central to Indian political discourse. However, her political and social worldview including her opinions around Kashmir, peace and Pakistan have changed significantly. Take for example how she once wrote that the term "Azaadi" has multiple connotations and even linked it to India's freedom struggle and now labels the same slogan as a war-cry being used by Maoists and Jihadis.
Shamsul Islam, a professor at the University of Delhi who has known Kishwar since her early days told us, "Kishwar started her career with the Naxalbari movement and then she went over to the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist). After that, she joined the feminist movement, then became a civil rights' activist before she became a Gandhian and lastly a Modiite."
In a more recent example, Kishwar who now seems to be loathing filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s documentary ‘Ram Ke Nam’ based on Babri Masjid demolition, was once an admirer of the film, so much so that she herself interviewed the chief priest of Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, Lal Das, after the film released.
The interview conducted months before the priest’s murder, touched on various aspects of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement including a very pertinent question asked by Kishwar – if there was a need of one more temple in Ayodhya when the city already has 8,000 of them? Two decades later, Kishwar is one of the fiercest supporters of the Ram Mandir.
Kishwar's interchangeable use of terms like "Urban Naxals", "Anti-India Brigade", "Jihadis" and "Dhimmis" often results in her sharing disinformation targeting minority communities, which include not just Muslims but also Christians. In one such case, she tweeted an unrelated video to claim a Muslim man wore Sikh turban during CAA protests. Her claim was later debunked by various fact-checkers including The Quint.
Feminism, the ‘Right’ Way
From being a notable feminist voice in India in the 1980s and the 90s, so much so that renowned economist Amartya Sen described her journal Manushi, which she co-founded with a few others, as "a pioneering feminist journal" of India to a Hindutva hardliner, Kishwar's ideas on women and women’s rights have also been dogged by the shadow of her religious beliefs.
While she refuses to call herself a feminist arguing that feminism is a western concept, the once pro-women writer and journalist now finds scant support among her contemporaries and even successors. Her views on Hindu practice of Sati and Khap Panchayats have raised several eyebrows over the years.
She criticised her fellow feminists urging for laws to prohibit Sati and has attacked other areas of feminist activism like anti-dowry legislation and the abolition of Khap panchayats. Reason? She calls for a more nuanced and "cultural approach" to solve the problems.
Let us recollect at this point that Kishwar didn’t hesitate in calling student activist Gurmehar Kaur, “a flimsy women hero” for practising her freedom of speech. The only reason behind Kishwar’s utter disdain for Kaur seems to be a disagreement of ideas.
Her Twitter tirade again Rhea Chakraborty is another example of her open support for a misogynist campaign. In a series of tweets, she calls Rhea a "witch", "mafia moll" and "fortune huntress" when the case is still under investigation.
As a student, Kishwar fought against the Miranda House beauty pageant, but now comes across as a repeat offender when it comes to misogyny. For instance, she targeted former Congress MP Divya Spandana for her association with Vijay Mallya's IPL team. Kishwar, in her tweet targeting Spandana, said that she may have found “favours” in her role with the then team owner Mallya.
A Case of Aggressive ‘Hindutva’
A glance through Kishwar's Twitter handle will reveal a pattern that includes constant minority bashing, her unwavering support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the jargon of hate-mongering nationalistic pride, and a use of unverified video and photos to support her claims.
In another example, Kishwar courted controversy after tweeting a fake quote attributed to journalist Rana Ayyub, to purportedly portray her as defending child rapists. She later apologised after Ayyub threatened to take a legal course.
Again, in the year 2018, Kishwar was called out by the Jammu and Kashmir Police for accusing the then Director General of Police Shesh Paul Vaid of “playing doormat to jihadi politicians.” Referring to Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani’s encounter, she alleged that Vaid suspended the then Jammu and Kashmir SP for killing Wani in 2016 because Mehbooba Mufti was upset over the encounter. Although police were quick to refute her claims, her tryst with misinformation runs deep.
Kishwar’s efforts at promoting what looks like “Hindutva” pride do not stop here. She shares what she claims are ‘WhatsApp forwards’, no-brainer fake images and false quotes that look like threats (or befitting replies, as she calls them) to Muslims, attributed to political leaders, sometimes even chief ministers. Sample this instance when she shared a fake quote (which looked like a WhatsApp forward) from UP CM Yogi Adityanath.
Serial Offender or a Victim Herself?
This is a tough question to answer. When Kishwar was called out for sharing fake information related to journalist Rana Ayyub, she apologised by stating that the tweet was sent to her by a "very eminent person." This might make Kishwar look like a victim of fake news herself, after all, it isn't uncommon for even the best of us to fall for unverified and misleading content online in the day and age of social media.
However, in another instance, Kishwar shared random names of Muslims on Twitter accusing them of "stone pelting" a school bus in Gurugram in the garb of Karni Sena. In addition to various fact-checkers, Gurugram Police itself called her out for concocting facts. It becomes hard to believe that for someone who has been an aggressive campaigner of Hindutva, accusing Muslims was only an ignorant mistake, needless to point out how most of her fake/misleading tweets show Muslims in poor light.
In her early years as a civil society member, Madhu Kishwar has fought many a tough battles. She was a noted feminist voice, a coherent journalist and a valued academician. However, the radical shift in her ideas and her uninhibited use of fake and misleading information make her opinions look almost exaggerated, disillusioned and unfounded in the present context.
(We tried reaching out to Madhu Kishwar for a comment. The story will be updated as and when we get a response from her.)