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Towards an internet of equals

Anti-caste collectives have created unique spaces online for a new kind of activism. But the battle to make the web truly democratic continues

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

In March 2016, Havells India released a video advertisement on various media platforms taking a dig at India’s reservation policy. It seemed to suggest that applying under the “quota" category for a seat in an educational institution amounts to a betrayal of the nation. Perhaps the company did not anticipate the barrage of social media criticism that followed. Eventually, the electronic appliance company was compelled to withdraw the ad and issue an apology. While this instance in itself may deserve only a footnote in the long history of the anti-caste movement, which spans not decades but centuries, it shows the potential that internet-powered platforms possess in effecting social change in recent times.

Anti-caste activists have been quick to embrace “new media", making innovative use of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram. Publications such as Round Table India, Forward Press, Velivada, Savari and the newly re-launched Prabuddh Bharat, are increasingly challenging the age-old Brahminical control of information and knowledge—thrusting the keyboard in the hands of Bahujans (Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs) in order for them to represent their own world.

The songs of Ginni Mahi and Dhamma Wings, which pay homage to B.R. Ambedkar, garner thousands of views on YouTube (Mahi’s song Fan Baba Sahib Di has close to a million views). Dalit Camera’s YouTube channel successfully utilizes video, presenting first-person accounts to the world. Twitter accounts such as @ambedkarperiyar, @AmbedkarCaravan and Facebook pages such as Inedible India, Sassy Bahujan Memes, Just Savarna Things and NewsDrum have made anti-caste critique both accessible and fun by tapping into meme culture.

“Velivada was created to give an opportunity to those who wanted to express themselves. It is not an attempt to be the voice of the voiceless but pass the pens, or mics, to the voiceless and let them write about their pain and their struggle," says Pardeep Attri, the founder editor of Velivada, a web publication that is updated periodically.

A recent initiative called Project Mukti aims to build an incubator where a new generation of Dalit activists, technologists and artists can come together. Its founder, Sanghapali Aruna, says, “I cut my teeth as a social media activist, working with collaborators and allies across the globe, building the footprint of national and global campaigns like #DalitWomenFight, #DalitHistoryMonth and #JusticeForRohith. As a Dalit woman, this is significant because we are underrepresented in the media, particularly as content creators and editors, so to be an organizer who harnesses technology, internet and the media are really the next frontier for fighting caste apartheid. That is why I founded Project Mukti."

Digital dualism

There is danger in conflating a movement with the tools it uses. As various technology sociologists have argued, the binary of online and offline is false. Online is not a different world that we separately inhabit. American sociologist Nathan Jurgenson, while introducing the term “digital dualism", wrote in 2011, “... some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is ‘virtual’ and the physical world ‘real’...I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy."

“Online" activism can at best be described as activism that uses internet-powered tools like Twitter and Facebook. People who use internet-powered platforms for advocacy also organize events, give lectures and interviews, hold seminars, write and publish books. Activists do not lead dual lives with respect to new technology and hence their activism cannot be neatly categorized as online and offline. There are people who only participate in social media discussions as they are not full-time activists, but they too draw directly from their own lived experiences, and the anti-caste consciousness cultivated over centuries.

The identity effect

Identities perform an important role in bringing people together, building solidarities and propelling them towards action. The class-based labour movements of the 20th century rallied people against capitalism around the identity of the “worker". In the post Ambedkarite anti-caste movement, the Dalit identity has gained hegemonic salience. While the Dalit Panther manifesto defined the term more broadly, including not just members belonging to the Scheduled Castes but also “Neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion", the term now is only applied to members belonging to castes that historically faced untouchability. The late Kanshiram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), mobilized people around the identity of Bahujan, bringing electoral success. Lower-caste Muslims have built solidarity around the Pasmanda identity for a few decades now, and the movement is gaining greater currency in the digital age. Pasmanda Muslims contend that caste is the primary contradiction of Indian society, irrespective of a person’s religion, and accuse Ashrafs (upper-caste Muslims) of homogenizing the Muslim identity and furthering the discourse of the Hindu–Muslim binary.

While an outsider may find the multiplicity of identities confusing, and even detrimental to the cause, they make perfect sense to those involved. Age-old identities—and even new ones—are reproduced on social media, and it isn’t rare for activists to indulge in boundary policing, or to question the legitimacy of identities they do not subscribe to.

Social media has played a critical role in shaping political identities in the movement. Dalit youngsters often say that Twitter gave them a sense of community—for the first time they weren’t ashamed of disclosing their identity in public. Dalit households were historically restricted to the margins of villages, with fewer homes than caste Hindus. Educational institutions mirrored this reality, becoming zones where Dalit students felt alienated and discriminated against. Social media was, finally, a platform where lower-caste individuals could come together to overcome geographic and cultural boundaries. There is safety in numbers and social media brought courage to open up about their life experiences, whether publicly or in private messages.

Collective identities are activated during incidents like January’s Bhima-Koregaon violence against Dalits, or the recent dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court. On 20 March, the court ruled that, for an offence under the Act, a government officer could be arrested only after approval from an appointing authority. Social media activists contested the court’s observation that the Act was being misused by Dalit communities by giving detailed figures. They also spoke about the dangers inherent in dilution of the law, and called for a nationwide bandh on 2 April. In August, responding to the agitation by Dalit groups, Parliament passed an amendment to the Act—it has the effect of reversing the 20 March decision of the court.

Us against Them

While anthropologists acknowledge the importance of identity in social movements, there is a tendency among left scholars to pejoratively term these movements as identity politics. Their argument—cue British historian Eric Hobsbawm—is that these movements are concerned only with liberation of a specific group (Dalits, in the anti-caste case) and hence are sectarian. This argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The feminist movement isn’t concerned only with empowering women; its primary goal is transforming the “male" identity and stripping it off of its normative status, hegemony and power. The same can be said about the “Brahmin" identity as far as the anti-caste movement is concerned. The “us" in “us" versus “them" is important to give the “us" an identity for collective action, but the focus is always on negating the power of the “them", so that a society based on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity can be built.

Since the struggle is largely framed in “us" versus “them" terminology, the “them" of this binary do not easily accept the legitimacy of the movement. Anybody who speaks about caste online has to deal with the hostility of upper castes, who indulge in strategies such as denial, misinformation, trolling and abusive language.

“Social media, I always say, is not social at all," says Attri. “It is not democratic, no matter what social media companies claim. Different communities are sitting in their bunkers and firing at each other, and even here dominant castes set the narrative and suppress dissenting voices."

While activists agree that the agenda of the movement is the annihilation of caste, there is no consensus on the methods and strategies to be used. Everybody agrees that the anti-caste movement needs to stay united, but this is not followed in practice. The differences sometimes lead to sparks on social media.

However, social media has brought Bahujans together, helped them raise consciousness, and continue the forward march. But one must remember that the same tools of social media are being used by their opponents to nullify their efforts. There are Twitter accounts, with thousands of followers, that extol the virtues of upper-caste practices, cement the Hindu–Muslim binary, deny the reality of the caste system and dish out a propagandist historical account of India’s past. Mainstream political parties that are antithetical to the anti-caste movement’s agenda have their own social media cells churning out propagandist material. The government holds significant powers to influence policies of corporations like Facebook and Twitter and make them bend as per its wishes. The routine censorship and suspension of accounts of Kashmiri activists is a case in point.

“On a larger scale, social media has also made us vulnerable to government surveillance and online harassment, making us easy targets to digital and physical attacks," says Sanghapali. “Any Dalit woman who has spoken out on social media will tell you that it has not been a friendly space, and expressing themselves often comes at the cost of personal safety."

“On one hand social media helps us increase visibility of issues, bypassing the savarna (caste Hindu) media, which diminishes the violence of caste apartheid and highlights savarna impunity," adds Sanghapali. “Through it (social media) we can engage directly with the world. But it also means that we are using corporate platforms, which often are complicit with the negligence of minority rights."

The challenges ahead of the anti-caste movement are huge. No group gives up power out of its own volition. Brahmins have a lot to lose if the caste system ceases to exist. Opponents will try to stop the forward movement of the anti-caste struggle. I am not a tech-utopian, but social media has opened up opportunities for Bahujans that were unavailable previously. The fact that one doesn’t need to be well-versed in English or the written word to use internet technology to produce content—one can easily make videos by using a phone camera, that too in one’s mother tongue—can prove to be a game changer.


How I found solidarity online

Since I learned how to read, I have read voraciously, especially newspapers, as there were no books in the village in Maharashtra I grew up in. But I had to come to Twitter to find caste in print. Caste pervades every aspect of Indian society but it was conspicuous by its absence in the Marathi and English newspapers that I read.

In 2014 or 2015, I came across the Twitter feed of Kuffir Nalgundwar, and through that feed, the Web publication that he is the founder-editor of, Round Table India. I devoured the plethora of articles on Round Table India. A new world had opened up to me.

I first wrote an article for Round Table India in April 2016, a piece on surnames and their relation to caste. What made me happiest was the instantaneous connection with contributors and readers of the portal, the sharp sense of solidarity and community, as I received a flurry of friend requests on Facebook. Since then, Facebook has been a useful tool to engage with issues related to caste,
and continues to educate and enrich me.

Tejas Harad is a copy editor at Economic And Political Weekly.

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