Issue 3

Do Social Media Protests Amount To Anything In India?

“Twitter storm at 9 PM with #BringMigrantsHome”. “Please share #EndSARS”. Hundreds of thousands of hashtags like these are being used to protest on social media. The most recent of these is the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter in the wake of a brutal rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh. 

The past decade has seen an exponential increase in the number of social media users world over, with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter being the most popular few. A McKinsey report states that India had around 294 million social media users in 2018, with this figure only increasing. Anna Hazare’s Anti-corruption movement was one of the first to use social media as a tool for social movements and protests. With the COVID induced lockdown, physical protests are no longer possible and social media has become the primary protest medium. 

Protests earlier required careful planning and organisation with people sometimes having to go door to door to raise awareness. Social media has greatly accelerated this process. The December 2019 attack on JNU students saw immediate protests on the same night, mobilised through social media. More importantly, social media has helped movements reach wider, sometimes international audiences without having to depend on traditional media outlets. Hashtags are an important tool — the more they are used, the more popular they become. The #MeToo movement highlights the immense potential of online protests. Not only did women feel more empowered to come forward with their own stories, governments and companies world over instituted sexual harassment policies and began to take reports much more seriously. The story is a little different in India.

Multiple reports state that two years after the MeToo movement gained traction in India, little has changed. Most of the accused continue to live their lives unaffected by the movement. While the immediate movement saw an outpouring of anger, the storm died down quickly and things were back to normal. It had all but disappeared from the media and national conscience alike. The movement lasted for roughly 3 months since it took off in October 2018. Many companies created Internal Complaints Committees and sensitisation workshops, but it was mostly lip service. MeToo continues to exist in the online space, primarily due to its prominence in the western world.

The infamous “Bois Locker Room” group chats that surfaced in May 2020 met a similar fate. Screenshots of a private Instagram group chat consisted of teenage boys from National Capital Region schools sharing intimate images of teenage girls, sexualising and body-shaming them. These screenshots were widely shared on social media. The police soon caught wind of these and conducted an investigation. What followed was dubbed mini #MeToo movement with people coming out with similar stories of online harassment that they had faced. After the news of police action spread, social media users and a few newspapers and television channels were preoccupied with this case for two weeks, debating the causes and correctional measures before interest fizzled out.

Similar trajectories can be observed for movements like the anti-CAA protest, the attacks on JNU students, the new Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 and Indian occupation of Kashmir. People still share occasional reminders that things aren’t normal yet, but most information and activism remains confined to a few accounts.

The Dalit Lives Matter is the most recent iteration of this cycle. The usage of this hashtag peaked on the 3rd of October, a few days after news broke of the events, following which its use declined steadily. Physical protests were impossible during this time due to COVID-19 restrictions, so people improvised by posting pictures of themselves holding placards in their own homes, from Mumbai to NYC, Toronto and Berlin. Today, in the final week of the same month, the hashtag continues to experience spikes on days when new similar cases come to light but is otherwise rarely used.

So, what is responsible for this life cycle of social media protests in India? Can the same not be said of protests around the world since people generally have a limited attention span? The Hindu quotes a 2019 report by Kantar IMRB, a market research, survey and business consultancy firm, as stating that internet penetration in rural India is just 25%, compared to 66% in urban regions, even as it continues to grow rapidly. Caste and religion demographics further complicate this divide. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has found that Upper castes have the highest exposure to social media, followed by Muslims and then Dalits and tribal communities. Men were found to have more internet access than women. A primary issue is that of access. Many of these protests are for minorities, whether Dalits and Dalit Lives Matter or Muslims and the Anti-CAA protests. The people amplifying these voices online very often aren’t the stakeholders in these movements and can thus afford to lose interest or forget about them. An upper-caste male, however sympathetic to the cause of caste-based violence, will have the luxury to choose his battles. This is one reason for this cycle. 

The rhetoric of social protest online is complicated. The medium, more often than not, is English. According to a joint report published by KPMG India and Google, the total number of English language internet users in India in 2016 was just 175 million, compared to 234 million Indian language users. Online protests try to reach a wider audience across the country and the world, for which English is the most convenient medium. This further limits the reach of the posts. The issue of partisanship is worldwide, but people in other countries do not always have to cross language barriers in hundreds of languages. Thus, even when the other party may not agree with you, they can at least be exposed to your point of view.

Anti-CAA protests continued like the Black Lives Matter protests in the US continued long after media houses had stopped reporting on them. The reason the former fell out of online public consciousness and the latter did not was the levels of exposure they received. BLM was sustained by prominent figures like Hollywood celebrities. Artists like Zendaya Coleman and Shawn Mendes, who have a large young following would regularly hand over their online platforms to leaders of the BLM movement. Indian celebrities also have a large and diverse following, but most were unwilling to speak up on the issue. These movements thus lost out on harnessing the power of millions for their sustenance.

A woman in a Tamil Nadu village stated that most people around her dismissed MeToo as being associated with “trouble-making” feminism. The MeToo movement was dominated by upper-caste, upper-class women. There was little space for Dalit women, the maids and nannies that worked for these women. Many might not even know about this movement, which had an English name and rarely appeared in translation. While Dalit women disproportionately face caste-based sexual violence, they were left out. 

These movements do not fade away entirely. Long after news media and the public have moved onto the next sensational news, certain groups keep working. In addition to on-ground work, online accounts like “standwkashmir” and “fridaysforfuture” continue posting about issues. The final culprit is social media algorithms, which customise your newsfeeds to your tastes. Someone who has not expressed any interest in these causes will never be exposed to them and a large audience is lost. The #EIA2020 successfully got the deadline for the EIA pushed by a few months. MeToo did bring about limited positive change. This article isn’t to discredit social media protests. It is simply to examine why we haven’t harnessed their full potential

For the online world, power is in numbers. When a majority of the population is unaware of the existence of movements, movements cannot be sustained. When stakeholders themselves do not have a voice, little progress can be made. The limited life cycle of social movements in India is not a matter of a lack of interest but one of access. 

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 3

Louise Glück Wins a Prize She Never Needed

I don’t know why I picked up The Wild Iris but I did. Maybe it was the shiny stamp that read “Pulitzer Prize Winner” adorning its cover. I’ve always been a sucker for awards of all shapes and sizes. Even awards that I hate. Actually, especially, awards that I hate.

The Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the ‘O.G.’ (Original Gangster) literary prize, has heard its fair share of criticism— fuel for the flame of my growing disdain for awards of its ilk. The Nobel Committee has been accused of ignoring authors for extra-literary reasons, being too Eurocentric, and being too male-oriented. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen controversies surrounding the 2016 prize which was the first to be awarded to a songwriter, Bob Dylan; the 2018 prize which was cancelled due to a sexual assault scandal surrounding an Academy member; and the 2019 prize which was awarded to a prominent genocide-denier, Peter Handke. I bring up these criticisms and controversies because it is important to remember that the Nobel Committee is, at the end of the day, an organisation, like any other, comprised of ordinary humans. They care about their brand.

It is this logic that led many pundits and commentators to expect the 2020 prize to go to a ‘safe’ choice. Now that Louise Glück has won the prize, the reactions, alongside many of celebration and joy, include a sizeable number of folk who believe the Swedish Academy has simply done the expected. She’s a white, American writer who has been perceived as not overtly political; the statement given by the Swedish Academy about her is as bland and vague as it gets, praising Louise for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.  As much as I would like to agree with these cynics and naysayers – walk as I do amongst their ranks too often – perhaps it is my love for Glück, borne solely of the one collection of her poetry that I have read in its entirety, that compels me to pen a defence of her win (although, it goes without saying, it’s not like she, nor the literary community at large, are waiting for me, of all people, to come to her aid).

Let’s start with a common misconception. The charge that she isn’t ‘political’ enough. I think those who bring up this accusation often forget that politics isn’t just the flashy flairs of identity politics laced revolution that permeates a generation of young, slam poets. Politics exist within every relationship of power. And where Glück excels, often, is in using simplicity, wit and vulnerability to interrogate the politics, or the relationships of power, within marriages and love, within loss and grief, and, within our innermost lives. Here’s just an excerpt of one line which illuminates the best of all her biting qualities:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

Who would dare to call this apolitical? A glaring flaw in our evaluation of Glück is the retrospective, ’20/20’ vision which we use, all too often, to judge work being created and published more than half a century ago. Her ability to assert the inner lives of women, the banalities of family and personal tragedy as subject matter worthy of the forefront of the page are political achievements in and of themselves. However, this is not to say that the effect of her poetry is lost on us today. In fact, Glück’s work, old and new, will always be remembered for its seamless, effortless and, almost invisible, quality in its approach to a myriad of thematic concerns. If anything, these qualities make it stand out more today. Reconsider the line presented above with the knowledge that Louise Glück suffered from debilitating anorexia in her youth— to the point of it almost killing her. A poet today would, arguably, waste no time in confronting their suffering on the page. I certainly don’t mean to shame them for doing so, yet, I must appreciate Glück’s restraint. Read the line again:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

How much more tragic is it now? She presents what one can only imagine is a startlingly intimate confession without being confessional. She makes an astute, insightful observation without being observational. She waxes her intelligent, poetic craft into a universal, political statement— without being intellectual or political. Is this not magic?

Louise Glück has spoken about not wanting to be “somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many”. Unfortunately for her, or rather, fortunately for us, she is accessible: understandable, likeable and available. But is any of this easy? No. The experience of reading Glück’s work is far from diluted. It requires an immersion, an imagination and an empathy that will elude not just the instant, clingy, Instagram poets but also many casual readers of all ages who aren’t ready to reckon with the full force of all her meaning. This doesn’t mean Glück writes in riddle or code. She writes, like all the best poets, arguments of the heart. The real question is if you’re willing to engage.

This piece is short and, suffice to say, there is much more to explore about Glück’s work which could not be covered here. In particular, her manipulation of the mythological and the natural are precious, winning parts of the entire Louise Glück phenomena. I would not be able to forgive myself, however, if I didn’t include at least a few lines from The Wild Iris. The premise of this collection, to give proper context, is that each poem is written from the perspective of a flower or a plant. Glück inflicts their inner lives with a devastating level of detail, the closest one can get to granting them a soul. In the following passage, she flips the usual human concern with the transient nature of life and the preoccupation with symbolic immortality – as Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 55, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” – into nature’s tale of literal immortality:

“I don’t need your praise

to survive. I was here first,

before you were here, before

you ever planted a garden.

And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon

are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.”

This haunting verse reminds us, or me at least, that Louise Glück, no stranger to awards, – having won the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, poet Laureate of the United States and many more – does not need another one. Her poetry existed before me, and it will exist long after I am gone. Of course, the Nobel prize will bring her a lot more attention, and that’s a great thing, but I truly hope that it is not the Nobel prize for which she is remembered.

Kanishk, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, is a graduate in political science from Ashoka University. His first collection of poetry, ‘Please Glue This Book Together’ was published by Shubhi Publications in 2016.  He is the founder of the humour and satire publication, ‘Kalinga’, and Ashoka University’s filmmaking society, ‘Navrang’. Along with award-winning short films posted on YouTube, he has co-written his first professional short film, ‘Suttabaazi’, set to release on Disney+ Hotstar.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 3

Issue III: Editors’ Note

What did coronavirus, the border clashes and the ban of many apps do for the Indian people? They made discussions surrounding China everyday and commonplace. And yet, we still approach the topic in a myopic manner. The mainstream gaze refracts China under the lens of war, economics, diplomatic relations, concerns about democracy among others. Is there, however, a more nuanced way to understand what the rise of China means for South Asia and the world at large. The need is to explore everyday cultures in border areas and identity formation, regional influence from the perspective of different states, and the impact of Artificial Intelligence on diplomacy and ultimately us. Can India surpass China as a global production centre? Does China’s influence in South Asia eclipse India’s?

In this issue, we will talk about China with an equal focus on exploring different questions relevant to the regular lives of people, that which is conventionally dubbed ‘mundane’. Have the Nobel prizes changed our everyday lives? Can documentaries help us develop a collective consciousness about the environment? Can we remember rock music virtuoso Eddie Van Halen a month after his passing? In the context of the pandemic, how does one succeed in protesting online? What do the newly enacted regulations mean for civil society efforts in the area of human rights in India? What does author Jyotsna Mohan say about technology and the lives of Indian teenagers? In this issue, we are trying to bring to light concepts we don’t necessarily engage with even though we are engulfed by them constantly. For instance, what is the Disinformation Ecosystem and why are we all vulnerable to it? We consume advertisements by the minute, what does the recent Tanishq ad controversy reveal about the trickling down of hatred from our TV screens to real life outcomes?

There is a lot going on in the world. Every other day seems like a barrage of new information– coronavirus numbers, climate change, elections in different contexts and affected by different issues. It is very easy to be consumed by anxiety in this situation of information overload. Hence, we might become short-sighted and lose perspective of the larger context that events play into. Our issue aims to convey the importance of engaging with these issues patiently; unpacking how they affect us. We place them in history and attempt to provide clarity.

–Mansi Ranka, Aradhya Sharma and Sanya Chandra

“File:Kunming Yunnan China Monument-to-Policemen-01.jpg” by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0