Lazily labelling the Internet as elitist elides its potential as a platform for subversive voices to escape the censorships of an oppressive State, says Sayan Bhattacharya.
Let us begin by questioning some purported facts pertaining to the Internet. One such so-called fact is that the Internet is accessible to only the upper and middle classes. That this is far from the truth is easily discernible from simply looking around—how many people are there around us without smartphones today? A weekend visit to any public space in the city, say, the Victoria Memorial, provides ample evidence of the ubiquity of the Internet: phones clicking images of every moment spent in such a space, from gorging on phuchkas to marveling at the architecture, selfies being taken against different backgrounds and immediately being uploaded on social networking sites.
However, this essay is not about this urgency to document every moment of our life on Facebook or WhatsApp, because surely, there can be no one theory about why different classes of people choose to photograph themselves in a wide array of spaces. What interests me here is how the Internet becomes the site on which certain groups of people do pleasure, desire and protest in a way that affirms their hopes, aspirations and politics. To just talk of narcissism and view it as a societal pathology is therefore doing disservice to those margins of society who use Internet in varied ways to register their presence in a political economy that tries in every which way to keep them excluded.
For example, let us look at the queer movements in India. Queer mobilisations were attempted in various ways in postcolonial India, be it through underground newsletters, private parties, weekend retreats or support forums that operated from cafés and residences. However, with the economic liberalisation of the 1990s that opened up the market and the airwaves, queer movements gained an added impetus in terms of mainstream visibility. The mushrooming of NGOs that channelled international funding for the prevention of HIV/AIDS, the release of Deepa Mehta’s Fire and the debates that followed it, and the campaign against the reading down of Section 377 were all watershed events in the 1990s that brought conversations on sexualities to drawing rooms, to the media, even to Parliament.
The advent of the Internet and later its growing mainstreaming from the late 1990s helped queer activists across the country forge e-groups of solidarity for collective brainstorming, dialoguing, debating and even fiercely contesting each other’s political positions.
All these developments were connected by the Internet. The advent of the Internet and later its growing mainstreaming from the late 1990s helped queer activists across the country forge e-groups of solidarity for collective brainstorming, dialoguing, debating and even fiercely contesting each other’s political positions. Not only did the Internet propel queer activism, it also became that safe space for channelling queer desire freely and without inhibitions. Though the law of the country criminalises non-procreative sexual acts (thus bringing in its ambit anyone practicing sex other than penovaginal penetration), in effect, it criminalises homosexuals. However, fake profiles, profiles without photos, ‘closed groups’ and dedicated dating sites are those fruits of the Internet that create the private within the digital public. The cover of strategic anonymity allows one to freely seek out others like oneself for “criminal” sex, friendship and close-knit networks of support and sharing.
There are so many people compulsorily socialised in one particular gender but who want to transition to another gender through surgery, many whose sense of gender is not derived from their bodies even if they do not want surgery. Many of them have profiles on Facebook—hidden from the oppressive structures of the people from family, workplace or the education system that police them—where they present themselves in the way they think of themselves, where they talk of themselves in the way they want to, where they give themselves the names they want. So Deep, who is forced to remain trapped in the persona of Deepika by society, can freely be himself on his Facebook profile. When a photo he posts of himself in a formal shirt and trousers, taken in his closed room, draws comments like “handsome”, “Deep, you rock!”, every such comment is an affirmation of his self-making, and it is the Internet that enables such an affirmation. Perhaps one day, Deep will not need separate profiles for different groups of people, but that is beside the point. A linear journey from the ‘closet’ to the ‘open’ is not the point here; what matters is how the Internet is producing spaces where one can perform one’s self strategically, passionately, politically and just the way one wants to. The Internet is the platform that allows Deep and many like him to stage complex negotiations with the regimes of oppression within which we are implicated.
This is not to say that the Internet is an Eden of safety without any perils. Often, anonymous profiles have been used to blackmail queer people, interactions from the Internet have led to violent encounters of sexual abuse, physical hurt and sometimes even death. However, which platform is ever a utopia? We are operating within a surveillance economy, and we are all working towards ways of resisting it. So why should the pleasures and desire economies of the Internet be exceptions? There are serious dangers that need to be thought through while negotiating the Internet but that is not the reason one rejects the Internet as a politically urgent tool of mobilisation. Complexities, perils and contradictions have to be continuously navigated here—just as anywhere else—but that does not take away from what it has meant and continues to mean for millions of “criminals” across the country!
Now we move on to the second purported fact about the Internet: that it has supposedly created a convenient, easy and tokenistic way of protesting against anything from injustice and violation of human rights to the repressive state machinery and the corporates plundering nature and uprooting peoples, from gender violence to campus surveillance and so on. You sign an online petition, click “Join” on an events page, hit the “Like” button on a note of protest, post an update yourself or sport a black profile picture as a mark of dissent. Your protest is easily registered and you move onto the next issue, never really having to put yourself on the line or feel the heat. This is true, yet this is not the only truth. In today’s day and age, the importance of the Internet in staging resistance to hegemonies cannot be disregarded. Entire movements can spring from blog posts, protest mobilisations can be organised through the Internet. From the Arab Spring to the homegrown Hok Kolorob, what would these movements be without the Internet?
Ultimately, how these movements panned out, whether they could be sustained or not, isn’t the point here. What is important is how they shook the State, how they bypassed its censors to bring news from the ground. Look at the murders of bloggers in Bangladesh or the arrests of individuals in Mumbai, Goa or Bangalore for speaking out against the ruling dispensation, and it is clear why the Internet is such a potent medium, and why the theory that it has a limited reach is a myth. This is why the now-repealed Section 66A was repeatedly used by the State to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet in India.
On a different note, it is important to understand that the Internet is not a bubble outside of society. The staging of protests on the Internet is not a standalone feature cut off from the ground. In fact, they feed from the ground. Dissent on and off the Internet can and should complement each other. Today, creative forms of protests are being organised online, from spoof pages on the rabid Subramanian Swamy that uses parody subversively to pages that diligently document lies and false statistics peddled by our central government, from shuddh desi wedding invitations sent out on Facebook that culminated in mock same-sex, inter-caste and inter-religious marriages (complete with wedding songs and dance performances by cross-dressing individuals while being held in detention on police compounds) to call the bluff of love jihad to the Kiss of Love protests outside the RSS headquarters.
The staging of protests on the Internet is not a standalone feature cut off from the ground. In fact, they feed from the ground. Dissent on and off the Internet can and should complement each other.
Facebook, Twitter and blog posts are also channels of information from the ground. When traditional media, which are in any case mostly owned by a handful of corporate barons from Ambani to Murdoch, completely blacked out news of massive protest rallies and sit-ins against the land acquisition bill or grassroots protests against nuclear plants, new media is where one gets information of these resistances. A glaring example of a blackout would be the recent ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at the IIT Madras by the central government because it allegedly received an anonymous complaint about APSC circulating “controversial posters and pamphlets”. APSC is a staunchly non-funded group that has organised discussions with contributions from students. It has never received monetary support from campus funds. It has disseminated the writings of Ambedkar and Periyar on caste and has mobilised opinion on reservation policies and casteism on campus. However, critiquing the State and protesting against land acquisition policies or the Hinduisation of our histories was too threatening for the State. Yet, this is no single event. It bares once more how our campuses are ruled by upper caste Hindus—a Vivekananda study circle on the same campus that is openly racist and communalist continues to thrive, while Ambedkar needs to be throttled. However, it is the Internet on which the APSC’s letter to the Director of IIT Madras has been circulating; it is on Facebook pages that one is getting a blow-by-blow account of how Dalit students of this campus are resisting the State.
An initiative called Dalit Camera regularly uploads videos on YouTube about incidences of atrocities on Dalit men and women, non-implementation of reservation on campuses, academic engagements with caste, interviews with Dalit feminists, Dalit writers and poets, Dalit festivals and how they were Hinduised (for example, what would Ravan mean for Dalit narratives across India, or the iconography of Asura and Durga for the subordinate castes of West Bengal) and so on. Founded by Bathran Ravichandran in 2011, Dalit Camera is that shining example of what the Internet can do to pierce the violent silence on caste in the traditional media, which remains completely colonised by upper-caste voices. So while most newspapers do not report the acquittals of the accused in the Tsunduru massacre, one finds a series of videos that clearly outline the history of Tsunduru.
It’s not just Dalit Camera. Look at Roundtable India and the essays that it regularly carries analysing caste in India. The debates around ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, Arundhati Roy’s foreward to the Navayana edition of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, published on this website, were some of the most rigorous pieces on the politics of representation and the caste trajectories of India, discussions one rarely finds in the media.
Or think of CGNET Swara (Central Gondwana Network Voice), earlier covered in this magazine, which is one of the brightest examples of how technology can be used to democratise the media. Thousands of Adivasis in Central India regularly report about happenings around them from mobile phones and landlines, which are screened by moderators to be finally published on the audio channel of CGNET. One only needs to go to their Facebook page or their website to hear these stories. From deaths due to snake bites in the absence of medical facilities to unlawful detention by the police, from protest dharnas against land acquisition to the lack of potable water, Adivasis speak for themselves, which ultimately leads to broader engagements and dialogue. Even the audaciously brave but successful initiative called Khabar Lahariya, a rural newspaper brought out in languages like Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Bundeli that is run completely by a group of rural women coming from some of the most oppressed castes of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, reaches 80,000 people across 600 villages of these two states on a weekly basis. From the state of gender to the implementation of welfare policies, Khabar Lahariya keeps the State on guard. Their presence on Facebook and their website ensure that their initiatives reach far and wide, even as newspapers and news channels do not report their stories.
Dalit Camera is that shining example of what the Internet can do to pierce the violent silence on caste in the traditional media, which remains completely colonised by upper-caste voices.
Once again, this is not to say that the Internet is a utopia for dissenters and the oppressed, because the oppressor too uses it quite well to its ends. Trolls and cyber-bullies who stalk and abuse people who dissent against the State, Facebook pages and YouTube videos that work as propaganda tools of the State, are also glaring realities that one has to contend with. Just like any other space, the Internet too is a space for fierce battle between these forces, but unlike the traditional media, which remains completely subsumed under the powers that be, the messiness of the Internet still offers platforms for a radical imagining of futures.
Therefore, while it is disturbing to note how in some recent instances of rape, the rapists have filmed the violence and uploaded them online to further perpetuate their crime using new media, it is also heartening to note how women are writing blog posts about sexual harassment, writing that has the power to expose powerful judges, journalists and politicians. While one notes with dread how saffron forces are becoming increasingly visible in the new media, it is heartening to note a writer in exile breathing fire and poetry, love and anger regularly on Facebook to create massive public opinion against communalism—Taslima Nasreen, whose regular posts on Facebook and Twitter that ensure that dissent is always alive despite all the efforts to silence it. The question, therefore, is not just about the Internet and society, but also about the Internet through society and society through the Internet.