Battle rap artistes thrive on offence, irreverence and braggadocio, using language as weapons to beat their opponent. Their terrain is a free speech zone, where everything is fair game amid deft usage of homophones, similes and metaphors, among other arms.

But many among India’s growing community of battle rap artistes are finding themselves on the defence, even stunned, after a recent social media campaign that vilified one of the most popular names in the battle rap circuit and forced the rapper to even contemplate killing himself.

Mr Aditya Tiwari, also known as MC Kode, who is credited with nurturing battle rap in India and catapulting it from sweltering carparks to swish clubs, went missing on June 2 for several days after leaving a cryptic message on Instagram that many interpreted as a suicide note.

The 22-year-old rapper said the “constant suffering & trials and tribulations” had made him weak.

“Currently standing at an isolated bridge overlooking the Yamuna river where I could see the waves answering my distress call while giving me much needed perspective,” he wrote.

Mr Tiwari was the target of a campaign towards the end of May that was incited by an online meme page run anonymously.

It was built on the basis of a video from an old rap battle in 2016, which showed the rapper, who was 17 then, reciting lyrics widely described as disrespectful towards Hinduism and women.

The campaign was amplified by right-wing influencers and sparked a torrent of backlash and death threats. Several brands associated with him withdrew their endorsements and upcoming gigs were cancelled.

He was described as a “cancer”, people called for his arrest and his residential address was revealed.

One person also announced a reward of 50,000 rupees (S$905) for anyone who would slap the rapper 20 times and record it.

With his career and life threatened, Mr Tiwari took down his videos and apologised but threats continued even as hashtags such as #SAVEMCKODE #FindMCKode trended online.

His disappearance galvanised an army of supporters who called for help to find him. Mr Tiwari was finally tracked down by the police in Jabalpur in central India on June 9, and brought back to Delhi.

This episode is yet another instance of Indian artistes, such as cartoonists and stand-up comedians, facing public wrath of religious conservatives and nationalists for content deemed offensive.

The trolling and snap judgments that Mr Tiwari has been subjected to have left battle rap artistes feeling cornered, besides renewing concerns that India’s cancel culture may have gone too far.

“People now get offended by petty things and this places bars on our abilities as artistes,” said battle rapper Shantanu Salhotra, 22, better known by his stage name, Ashant Anu.

“Battle rap is supposed to be offensive. You cannot go on stage and be a goody-goody guy. You have to think beyond certain limits,” he told The Sunday Times.

As trolls began sniffing around online for other potentially controversial videos, the battle rap community sought cover. Two top battle rap leagues – Battle Bars Bombay (B3) and Spit Dope Inc – have since blocked access to their online content.

“People were trying to pick up content and morph it into whatever their idea of correct or incorrect is and we did not want that,” said Mr Vineet Nair, the founder of B3 and a hip-hop artiste also known as Poetik Justis.

“It is no longer just about battle rap, which allows us to vent and express. Actual personal lives are at stake and we do not want that kind of attention from them,” he told ST.

Some battle rappers who spoke up for Mr Tiwari have also been threatened with out-of-context clips of their old videos in an attempt to shut them down.

Amid this climate of fear, online battle rap events have moved to more restricted platforms such as Discord, where access can be better controlled, with even discussions on some form of censorship or control for offline events when they resume.

Battle rap culture took root in India around 15 years ago and much of its recent growth has been attributed to Mr Tiwari, who ran Spit Dope Inc, which offered a safe space for rappers and served as a whetstone to sharpen their skills.

Mr Gaurang Bailoor, a writer and host with the sketch comedy group Tadpatri Talkies, told ST the campaign against Mr Tiwari was run by people with little idea about battle rap and no appreciation for its inherent character which treats subject matters as literary devices for their bars (verses that a battle rapper recites).

” ‘Bars that go too far’ is understood as a means to an end – be it to justify a scheme, or to get to a punchline,” he wrote, criticising the campaign in a recent piece for the Indian edition of Rolling Stone.

Mr Bailoor said he was not defending Mr Tiwari for what he said.

“What he said was terrible as a bar but having said this, I want to defend his right to make that attempt,” he said.

“The point is, if you do not like something, unsubscribe and walk away. Ten less subscribers is fine but don’t shut voices just because you can.”