Issue 20

Copy & Paste: Originality and Plagiarism in Popular Culture

Artists are often inspired by life and take inspiration from creative people around them. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Margeret Atwood’s Penelopiad are based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Taylor Swift wrote Tolerate It after reading Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca, and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles was inspired by Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Whether in art, literature, or popular culture, there are elements of the past that amalgamate with the ideas of the present. 

Taking ideas from existing pieces of work and creating something new can be done through adaptation, sampling and spin-offs. An adaptation is when a play or a movie is based on a novel or short story. The film Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong, is based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning. Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay was inspired by The Magnificent Seven, which was based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Sampling is when a portion of a sound recording is reused in another recording. The catchy instrumental in Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja by Parvati Khan and Bappi Lahiri was inspired by T’es OK by Ottawan, and was later sampled in M.I.A.’s Jimmy. A spin-off is when a TV show, film, or any other popular entertainment focuses on a few characters or ideas from an already existing work. In 2022, the popular game Wordle inspired many spin-offs such as Nerdle, which had the same rules as the original but was slightly modified. Bollywood uses spin-offs as its “golden goose” and has produced an innumerable number of them, such as Naam Shabana and Bob Biswa. Through these mediums, one can see that it is indisputable that art is not stagnant, and popular culture runs on the creativity of the past. 

Popular culture is known for its “popularity”, and therefore, it’s no surprise that when something gains the attention of many, other artists instantly look towards it for inspiration. The media and art are meant to be provocative and evocative, and it is clear that art influences art. However, when influence merges with copying, the word plagiarism becomes operative. In March, Tiger Shroff was accused of plagiarism when his latest single Poori Gal Baat’s lyrics and style held a striking resemblance to K-pop star Kai’s Peaches. Shroff has stated that he appreciates Kai as an artist, however, people were quick to call him out for not giving due credit. In 2021, Olivia Rodrigo was accused of copying various artists when her debut album Sour garnered global success. She was blamed for plagiarising Taylor Swift and Paramore– even though her album cites credits to Taylor Swift and later, to members of Paramore too. Elvis Costello, while responding to claims that Rodrigo had borrowed from his track Pump It Up, stated, “It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did”. If everyone is making a brand new toy with existing work, where does originality lie? People are quick to judge whenever one piece of work remotely resembles another, and the question arises: are we imposing originality on popular culture?

The latest trend of TikTok (or reels) is one of the mediums where originality both flourishes and perishes. Various audios, dance moves, and jokes become “trends” that everyone on the platform copies. Some put their own twist on it, whereas some directly imitate. It is in this wildly popular phenomenon that the mark of originality and plagiarism gets even more confusing. Is it fair to “cancel” every TikTok that may resemble another? In January, “you’ve gotta put ME first” audio from the television show Empire became a viral trend on TikTok. Who owns this trend? Does it belong to the creators of the show, the creator of the meme, TikTok, or no one at all? Some may view this situation as a plagiarism or copyright issue. However, it also shows the inherent beauty in popular culture. Someone has taken a sample from an existing work and has created something new that has not only influenced many but has also made them laugh. 

The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Lee Chang-dong, Greta Gerwig, Ramesh Sippy are few among many who have taken inspiration and have created something that has lasted in time. It has made a mark, and perhaps years from now, someone might even see the everlasting impact of the trends on TikTok. In a day and age where attention is few and fleeting, art and popular culture remains that which unites and creates. So, perhaps, there is no need to impose originality on popular culture. However, it is important to note that this is in no way an argument for a lack of copyright protection or not safeguarding artist’s rights. Plagiarism is still extremely wrong and those who have worked hard and authentically should always be given credit for their artistic expression. Rather, this is a call for not being so harsh on those who create content that may resemble or be inspired by previous work. As long as the artists are respectful and acknowledging, they should be appreciated and not incessantly compared. The consumers of popular culture need to remember the nature of art is to influence and inspire – not stifle. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Shree Bhattacharyya

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Issue 15 Issue 7

Connecting culture to climate change: The many WIPs of Vinod Nambiar

The 2nd Edition of the Nila International Folklore Film Festival of India (NIFFFI 2021) is on. Hosted by Vinod Nambiar and his folk culturist group, Vayali, you can join a conversation with culture revivalists from across the globe and see documentaries on vanishing cultures. These films are made by, among others, India’s own adivasi filmmakers.

Vinod, for the past eighteen years, has been exploring every medium that gets youth up close with folk art, tradition and a knowledge system in touch with nature. A software engineer by training, he grew up by the river Nila in Kerala and saw first-hand how a living culture can begin to end, if another generation does not connect with its land. A creative response was an all bamboo instrument music band who engage the young to play, perform and experiment away.   Another is to have an ongoing cultural calendar, where the local flavour of dance and pottery, weaving and drama, bring a once dying river’s bedside, alive. Determined to be creative in tackling the cultural loss caused by climate change and migration, he shares the challenges in a video chat with Anushree Pratap.

Part of  Open Axis, Issue 15 focuses on interviews with path-breaking Indians, responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min.

Cover image is taken from Vinod Nambiar’s Facebook page.

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

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 12

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Stolen cars, dirty cops, a body dumped in a creek, and India’s richest family. These may sound like the elements of a thrilling Bollywood movie, but actually form the basis of a case that gripped Mumbai earlier this year. On 25th February, a Scorpio SUV containing 20 gelatin sticks (low intensity explosives normally used for construction) was found outside Mukesh Ambani’s 26 story residence in South Mumbai. A few weeks later, the owner of the car, Mansukh Hiren, was found dead in a creek. The high ranking police officer who had been leading the case, Sachin Vaze, was arrested by India’s main counter-terrorism body (the National Investigative Agency) for his involvement in the case. Vaze, a member of the famous ‘encounter squad’ of the Mumbai police, active in the 90s and early 2000s, has been suspended from his role as Assistant Police Inspector and is currently in custody of the NIA. Once revered by the media as a top cop, every facet of his life is now under scrutiny. As things got even murkier, warring political parties BJP and Shiv Sena quickly co-opted the story to hurl accusations at the other. News media were equally fascinated, and every new twist in the tale dominated headlines and primetime debates. 

Bombay is no stranger to twisted crimes and long drawn out investigations. Nor is the involvement of police and rapid politicisation of the case a new phenomenon. The city of dreams has had its fair share of nightmares, with three horrific terror attacks that killed hundreds of people in the past thirty years. One of the main accused in the first of those attacks was Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious gang-leader and designated global terrorist. The underworld of Mumbai was his playground in the 70s and 80s, but he fled to Dubai in 1986. The pervasive presence of these gangs and the bureaucratic roadblocks surrounding legal procedures led the city police to take matters into their own hands.

In the 90s Mumbai police formed an encounter squad to deal with growing gang violence and extortion cases. The judicial process was lengthy and it could take several years for a case to even reach the court, and ‘encounters’ were seen as an effective, if slightly controversial solution. An encounter generally involved the police cornering a gangster who would then attack or try to escape, and the police would use the opportunity to shoot him dead. Sachin Vaze was one of the original members of the squad and is alleged to have been involved in the encounter killings of around 63 gangsters. However while some appreciated this quick and brutal method of delivering justice, others were horrified and questioned the legitimacy of some of these encounters. There were also rumours that the cops were trying to outshine each other, and getting involved in gang rivalries in the process. Many members of the squad were dismissed from the force but later reinstated. In 2004, Vaze was suspended and charged with murder for the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus. In 2007, he resigned when his request for reinstatement was denied by the Maharashtra government. He then joined the Shiv Sena, and was later reinstated as a cop in 2020. But things quickly went wrong just a year later, when he was named the prime suspect in the murder of Mansukh Hiren. On 11th May, Vaze was dismissed from the Mumbai Police.

The tale kept many readers hooked for months, reminiscent as it was of a good Bollywood gangster film. In fact, many famous entries in that genre were based on the lives and cases of the encounter squad. That our desire for these fast-paced and intriguing stories is now being fulfilled by the news is a worrying trend, but in a year unprecedentedly low on movie releases it perhaps makes sense. Journalist Suketu Mehta has spoken about the curiously close relationship between Hindi cinema and the underworld gangsters: “The Hindi filmmakers are fascinated by the lives of the gangsters, and draw upon them for material. The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground, to the don-in-exile at the top watch Hindi movies keenly, and model themselves, their dialogue, the way they carry themselves- on their on-screen equivalents.” 

The connection between the two worlds runs deeper still, as gangsters used to finance major Bollywood projects, and actors like Sanjay Dutt have been arrested for ties to the underworld and terrorist groups. In 2000, an assassination attempt was made on the producer Rakesh Roshan, allegedly in relation to an extortion threat made earlier. The shooting followed a string of attacks on Bollywood actors and producers. In 2001, Nazim Rizvi and Bharat Shah, producer and financier of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, respectively, were arrested for aiding and abetting the don Chhota Shakeel’s activities. Preity Zinta, who starred in the film, later testified against him, saying that she had received threatening calls from the underworld. Mumbai’s underworld turned to the film industry as a target for extortion when the property business dried up in the nineties. 

If this was a mainstream movie all the loose ends would have been tied up and the good guys would emerge victorious. Unfortunately, life isn’t a movie and the difference between good and evil isn’t always clear, especially when politics enters the mix. News readers eventually moved on from the case, distracted by the ongoing pandemic and newer scandals. Sachin Vaze has been in jail since March 13, potentially wondering how he fell from grace. If we’re lucky, a biopic is already in the works.

Photo courtesy: Shambhavi Thakur, Newslaundry

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

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 8

Can Banksy Bring Dadaism Back To Life?

The explosion of different street art movements comes from the combined effort of various artists who practise hybrid forms of graffiti to make a mark by any means possible. But if there is one player who grabs the spotlight beyond the art world, it’s Banksy. 

A professional prankster, Banksy is a street graffiti artist and a global sensation. Banksy’s flair for street art combined with the proclivity for mystery, drama and danger ensures that every new Banksy piece ends up making headlines. Banksy’s work, ranging from Kissing Coppers and Unwelcome Intervention to Hammer Boy and Girl with a Balloon, embraces social commentary through provocative visual depictions. But the true essence, the philosophy behind his art is often related to the 20th-century art movement, dadaism. 

Dadaism or the Dada art movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in the mid-1910s. In pre-war Europe, the movement emerged as a form of protest art with congregations of artists, intellectuals and writers expressing different forms of subversion in the wake of World War I. The European avant-garde movement aimed to ridicule modern life, apply absurdity to art and question the values held by the bourgeois. 

The movement was based on some key ideas. Elaborately explained by thoughtco., three ideas were basic to the Dada movement—spontaneity, negation, and absurdity—and those three ideas were expressed in a vast array of creative chaos.

Spontaneity was an appeal to individuality and a violent cry against the system. Even the best art is an imitation; even the best artists are dependent on others, they said. Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) wrote that literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.

To a Dadaist, negation meant sweeping and cleaning away the art establishment by spreading demoralization. Morality, they said, has given us charity and pity; morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all. Good is no better than bad; a cigarette butt and an umbrella are as exalted as God. Everything has illusory importance; man is nothing, everything is of equal unimportance; everything is irrelevant, nothing is relevant. 

And in the end, everything is absurd. Everything is paradoxical; everything opposes harmony.

A pioneer of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp, incorporated these ideas of the movement to critique establishments that decided what art ought to be and how it ought to be created. In doing so, he combined spontaneity, negation and absurdity and came up with what some consider the first piece of conceptual art ever created, Fountain

Fountain is a standard white urinal that was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’ in black. It is a part of Duchamp’s series of work called readymades where ordinary objects would be designated as works of art. Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and a classic example of dada. By submitting an object like a urinal that is bought in the plumber’s shop as an entry for an art exhibition, he intended to test what people thought of as art. He wanted to change the idea of what was conventionally considered art and assert that the artistic expression was of greater significance than the object of art created. Thus, the dada movement was one of the first art movements that challenged the foundations of art. 

Although the movement did not represent particular styles of art, it favoured collaboration, spontaneity and chance in the process of creation. As traditional dadaists intended to reject traditional forms of artistic expression like painting and sculpting, they worked on ready-made objects, created photomontage and made use of non-conventional mediums. 

While the lifespan of the dada movement was known to be short-lived, Banksy’s creations and artistic stunts have brought this movement back to life. In one particular stunt, Banksy made use of an invention of the dada movement, auto-destructive art. The dada notion behind auto-destructive art comes from the idea that it aims to either redefine art or ridicule it.

In a 2018 Sotheby’s art auction in London, Banksy’s famous image Girl with a Balloon, which depicts the image of a girl reaching out for a red, heart-shaped balloon, was sold for $1.4 million. A few moments later, the picture started shredding and sliding down in strips. Sotheby’s claimed that it had been “Banksy’d” through the use of a hidden shredder in the photo frame. The act is viewed as a dada act because it was an attempt to critique the pretentiousness of the art world and show how easy it was to transform what people considered precious art into strips of paper. 

From critiquing consumerism and capitalism to calling out social absurdities, the elusive graffiti artist is often critiqued for falling prey to the cultural system. The stunt of shredding the image Girl with a Balloon led to its increase in value in the art market. Thus, a stunt of provocation ended up being co-opted into an exhibition. While past movements have influenced the future trajectory of art, it is important to remember that cultural sensibilities and audience interaction with art are as important as the art itself. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

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 7

Museums of Democracy: How the Central Vista Project highlights the Importance of Curating History

This is primarily because any history we read, hear, or watch, is refracted, it is shaped by the person or thought process that is engaged in the exercise of compiling it. The difference between History with the capital ‘H’ and history as everything that happened in the past is crucial. The former is carefully picked out from the latter – a series of events  and artefacts chosen to tell a story. The historian then carefully selects these ‘chosen ones’ to help shape the narrative they wish to see furthered; a narrative that is intrinsically based on the politics of the day.

The question raised then is why should someone care about this act of selection now? The answer is simple, everyday instances like the renaming of roads, the demolition of buildings and the rebuilding of common spaces reinforce this act of selection. One such undertaking that makes one stop and think about this is the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

The project aims to renovate 86 acres of land in New Delhi, including historical buildings like the Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and the India Gate. Moreover, the National Museum is also set to be taken down and rebuilt where the current North and South Blocks stand in the Central Secretariat. The area, associated with affluence and political power is commonly called Lutyens Delhi after the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed it when the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1911 under the British rule.

Ever since its announcement in September 2019 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the project has come under scrutiny for violations of municipal and environmental law as well as change in land use. Following this, the Supreme Court gave it the green light in January 2021. Close to a month prior to January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation of a new Parliament building under a Hindu ceremony. The ceremony itself was allowed when the government reassured the court that no demolition or construction would begin until the final decision had been received. 

The focus of this article, however, is to draw attention to something that seems fairly inconspicuous at first but can have lasting impacts on how we associate our present with our past. The act of demolition and consequently rebuilding employs the historical process mentioned earlier – that of selection and by extension erasure of what gets chosen to be rebuilt and featured. With the National Museum for instance, the idea is that North and South Blocks will be able to house more historical artefacts. However, which artefacts are highlighted and how are questions that remain to be answered. 

The entire episode reminds me of something Susan Sontag said in relation to photography – “[To photograph] means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” While she was talking about the act of framing something within photographic borders, the idea at its crux seems especially relevant here – when somebody controls the framing of the past, they wield power. Perhaps, therefore, the same self-reflectivity is required for the curation of renovated spaces.

While the words ‘heritage’, ‘redevelopment’ and ‘conservation’ paint rosy pictures in one’s mind about the building of new spaces, they actually point to the larger question of historical knowledge production. Buildings and architecture has always been used to assert power, symbolise progress and display grandeur. The act of rebuilding is not unique either, as history is replete with examples of the same. That being said, the question, especially with an edifice like the National Museum is its current housing of historical artefacts, and the process of curation that will go into the remade property. 

While the aforementioned already acts as a repository of history, the other buildings like the current Parliament House are receptacles of public memory of post-colonial India while themselves being colonial products. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is a prime example of a building set to be taken down which is associated with the memory of a former Prime Minister. Founded by Kapila Vatsyayan, it is a space where art has found expression during nationally significant events. Keeping the relevance of these in mind therefore becomes important as contemporary history may be memory for now, but it will not remain so for the coming decades. This highlights the importance of preserving not just historical remains but also elements of post-independence public memory that have not become canonical History yet.

Preserving public memory, if nothing else, can create context. They point to the uncomfortable understanding that even if features do not fit proposed narratives, they cannot be razed. For instance, the reason behind the decision to withdraw the candidature of colonial Delhi and Shahjahanabad as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2014 has been traced by some to their legacies rooted in the Mughal period and the colonial era. While the legacies may cause discomfort to some, their significance cannot be dismissed.

The Central Vista Project sheds light on the importance of history and public memory. The fact is that the past cannot speak for itself. Whatever the past says, it does through the actors who consolidate it. The thing to keep in mind then in light of the project is this – demolishing heritage buildings should not open up the passageway to raze history.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations 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 5

Dosa: A Culinary Marvel

The Dosa is a culinary gift from South Indian cuisine that has become a popular breakfast snack all across India. Although the dish has been gaining global popularity for a while, when a video of Kamala Harris (before she became the Vice President of the United States) and American actress Mindy Kaling making Masala Dosa emerged on social media, the dish received a lot of attention. The desi roots of the two women have now put the Dosa under a much deserved global spotlight. 

Across the planet, the origin of traditional dishes is often contested. The Dosa too faces a similar dilemma. While some believe the version presented by historian P. Thankappan Nair, who claims that the Dosa originated from the town of Udupi located in the Indian state of Karnataka, there are others who believe the claims made by food historian K.T. Achaya. According to him, Tamil Nadu was the birthplace of Dosai because instances of the dish were found in Sangam literature (ancient Tamil literature) dating back to 1st century AD. 

Although debates about the origin continue to persist, what most can agree upon is that the Dosa is not similar to a pancake or crepe. Many have tried to explain the dish by claiming it to be a type of “South Indian” pancake or crepe but true Dosa enthusiasts know that it is one of those dishes that can’t be compared to an existing one. Only once you devour a Dosa will you realise that it has a unique description of its own. 

In India, there are many varieties of the Dosa: Ghee Dosa, Rava Dosa, Benne Dosa, Mysore Masala Dosa, Ragi Dosa, Neer Dosa, Plain Dosa, and the list goes on. But the most popular of them all is the Masala Dosa. In the traditional process of making this Dosa, a fermented batter, made of rice, dal and fenugreek seeds, is scooped with a deep bowl ladle and is poured on a hot plate. Before pouring, the hot plate is sprinkled with water. Once the water sizzles off, the batter is spread on the hot plate spiralling outwards in a circular motion. Oil is then drizzled on the Dosa. Many people prefer smearing the Dosa with a spicy red chutney before topping it with the Masala, which is made of semi-mashed potatoes sauteed with several herbs and spices. The Dosa is ready once it turns golden-brown and the edges start to lift off. It is served with Sambar and Coconut Chutney. 

In Southern India, although you can find the Masala Dosa in almost any Dosa joint, each state enjoys its own set of Dosa hotspots that have a unique version of the Masala Dosa. In Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka, one such hotspot is Shri Sagar, popularly known as Central Tiffin Room (CTR). Located in the corner of a street in Malleshwaram, CTR was founded in the 1920s and has been feeding the souls of generations of Bangaloreans. Their in-house special Benne Masala Dosa is a butter-laden Masala Dosa that is served with coconut and mint chutney. While the place would earlier be crowded with waiting-lines extending across the road, the sales have now been severely impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to 25-year old Ganesh Sanjeeva Poojara, who manages the place with his elder brother Sandesh, “Since people have stopped coming out due to the pandemic, we have seen a decrease in footfall by around 60-65 per cent during the initial days of the lockdown. Although we do have orders coming in from Zomato (a food delivery service), even now, footfall has increased only by around 5-8 per cent. Comparing it to a time before the pandemic, we are currently running just at 30 per cent.”

Ganesh Poojara standing at the entrance of Shri Sagar – Central Tiffin Roon (CTR), Malleshwaram, Bengaluru, Karnataka.

Reception desk where Zomato delivery men come to pick up food orders.

Menu of CTR, written in Kannada, hanging on a wall.

Two staff members standing by the railing, waiting for orders to come in.

Two plates of Benne Masala Dosa making their way out of the kitchen.

“After the Coronavirus outbreak in March, this is the first time we have come. We came to Bangalore in 2001, since then we have been coming here every month. We get our guests here too”, said Dinesh and Shantini Rao. 

A man enjoying his Dosa on a Monday morning by the window.

A table with two plates of Benne Masala Dosa and a plate of Idli-Vada.
The Dosas at CTR are thick and fluffy, yet crispy. An epitome of golden brown achieved by their special benne butter. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

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 2

Culture Wars: When Private Goes Public

India and China have been engaged in a military standoff in eastern Ladakh for over 150 days now, with the worst cross-border violence since the 1962 war between the two nations. There is a heightened sentiment of nationalism in the country, which has made its way into the digital lives of several students of Ashoka University. On 24th September, two right-wing social media accounts, one on Twitter and the other on Instagram, publicly shared screenshots from a closed Facebook group of Ashoka’s undergraduate students. The screenshots were of comments made by Ashokans on a months-old post in the private group. Some of the comments in the screenshots, which were not blurred to hide the names and profile pictures of the students, were critical of “Indian culture” and the “armed forces.” 

Those who posted the screenshots claim that these comments amount to cyberbullying and point to the “anti-national” and “vile mindset” of the “activist lobby and left-wing students” of Ashoka, who “celebrated the death of Indian Army.” The comments on these posts include the use of misogynistic slurs, a call for “public execution”, and even one threat of worse-than-Hitler treatment. As of now, the Facebook group has been disbanded by Ashoka’s Student Government out of fear of other students being doxxed for their older posts. Deliberations are underway as to what should be the way forward, bearing in mind the safety and privacy of all members of the student community. 

Since the accounts are public, and the posts continue to remain online, many of the students whose identities were revealed have had to temporarily, or in some cases permanently, deactivate their social media handles. There are credible accounts of some of these students being flooded with unknown friend requests and receiving threatening messages in their inbox. While such an incident may be a first in the history of the student body, many Ashokans have individually had prior encounters with such hate and vitriol online. 

There is a sense of deep division and distrust within the student community, as comments made in a closed group with the pretext of privacy have somehow been “leaked” and put on public display. This polarisation over social media is certainly not unique to Ashoka, and it has largely characterized political discourse on social media over the past few years. Several hot-button political issues have emerged in India in the recent past. This has sharply divided many Indians. 

While there are commercial antecedents to this phenomenon (i.e. confrontational posts on social media get more engagement and therefore increase ad revenue of these platforms), there is also a sociological angle. American sociologist James Davison Hunter provided the framework of “culture wars” in 1991, through which this polarisation can be analysed. While the phrase “culture wars” has mainly been used in the context of the US polity, it can resonate greatly in the Indian context. A culture war can be understood as a power struggle between social groups with competing ideological worldviews that clash over values, moral codes, and lifestyles. Although the conflict may be fundamentally underpinned by genuine disagreement over what is good for the public, instead of positive tactics of constructively reasoning about one’s ideology with others, a negative strategy of systematically discrediting one’s opponents increasingly becomes the go-to one. 

The addition of technology only serves to vitiate this concoction further. The advent of mass media like print and television, for example, in the context of culture wars, meant that public engagement amongst opposing groups over their political differences was increasingly antagonistic and asinine. Likewise, the frontier of social media is historically unique in this regard and much more conducive to the negative strategy, according to research by Samatha R. Holley on social media’s effect on the culture war. Echo chambers and disinformation campaigns cause one’s existing convictions to be reinforced, leading in some cases to cognitive dissonance when confronted with alternative viewpoints. The algorithms that run our social media feeds are meant to psychologically manipulate us into staying on these platforms. 

As the world’s second largest social media market with 35 crore users, India is undoubtedly affected by these phenomena. In attempting to draw a picture of the warring groups on Indian social media, one may reduce it to two sides: the religious/orthodox right-wing and the secular/progressive left-wing. The right would consist of the conservative and Hindutva ideologies and the left would consist of the liberal and socialist ideologies. However, it must be noted that this crude oversimplification of the political spectrum must not obfuscate the fact that the groups are in no way homogenous or equivalent. It would be simply dishonest to deny that the balance of power tilts in favor of the right-wing in India today, in terms of finances, institutions, and human resources.

Both the warring groups claim that their “way of life”, or in some cases, their very lives, are under attack from the other side. The negative tactics manifest themselves in the form of “trolling” on part of the right, and “cancel culture” on part of the left. Many diverse incidents tend to be smoothed over and bracketed under the umbrella term of cancel culture. It refers to vitriolic behavior that is just as harmful as trolling, but justified, not by traditional value systems in society, but by misplaced ideals of social justice and political correctness. The use of the term here is not intended to repudiate the democratising effect of social media, that has led to traditional elites like politicians, authors, and artists, being held accountable for their words and actions. 

The revolution of social media in culture wars has been likened to that of industrial weapons technology in conventional warfare. Some of the strategies deployed on these platforms are dangerously harmful, and in some cases, also fatal. On other occasions, such as the incident involving Ashokans, the boundaries between the public and the private are seriously impinged. These tactics are justified by inflating the political stakes to such an extent that no means seem morally unjustified. 

Granted, in the present political climate, the stakes for minority groups and marginalized folks are indeed unimaginably high. However, many of those indulging in trolling or cancelling are doing so with a sense of speaking and fighting on behalf of the subaltern. One is being naive if they believe that fighting such online battles alone leads to anything but momentary self-gratification. Grassroots change has not been achieved when the privileged abdicate this most basic social imperative by saying “I do not owe it to educate you”. It has been achieved when students and activists heed the Ambedkarite call to “educate, agitate, organize,” with emphasis on the first step.

Deep Vakil is a student of Political Science and Sociology 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). 


Bringing The Boys to Life in Trump’s America

Image credits: SKetch (Instagram: @sketchbysk)

“With great power comes great responsibility”, these words, said by Uncle Ben in the Spiderman comics and movies, became Peter Parker’s guiding principles in his pursuit against crime. The same principles apply to most mainstream superheroes that choose to use their powers for the benefit of humanity and often seem to only do the “rightthing. Amazon Prime Video’s hit show ‘The Boys’ takes a more realistic view of superheroes, where these super-powered individuals are employed by a powerful corporation Vought International, which markets and monetizes them. Most of these heroes are arrogant and corrupt outside of the public eye. While the show is meant to be extremely weird and unrealistic, something about it makes it seem very real…

“Sounds like the American thing to do, sounds like the right thing to do” while this may sound like a line from President Trump’s rally speeches, and in all probability is – it was actually said by Homelander, the American flag-cape-wearing leader of the Seven (Vought’s strongest superhero team) during a believe expo for “honest Christians”.

The most powerful superhero has much more in common with Donald Trump than you might think. Both Homelander and Trump are in positions of extreme power and seem to want to use their powers to protect the American citizens from the evils the rest of the world hurls at their country. While American presidents through the 21st century have championed globalization and have actively tried to create a global community, we have witnessed a globalization backlash under Trump’s presidency with the intention of protecting American interests. Similarly, Homelander is different from the traditional superhero who wants to protect the world and chooses to project himself as America’s savior. We see clear instances of this when the Corporate executives of Vought tell Homelander his brand is “America, baseball and sunshine”. When after a focus group comes up with the tagline of “Saving The World”, Homelander bulldozes his way through corporate to make it “Saving America”. Trump speaks about the Chinese stealing American jobs and Mexicans raping American women and Homelander is on a mission to protect Americans from “foreign” extremists. While Trump uses isolated incidents and stereotypes around non-white demographics being involved in criminal activities or stealing jobs to build hype for his immigration policies and the border wall, Homelander uses a plane highjacking as an opportunity to make a case for superheroes in the military. Both Trump and Homelander hence seem to strive in situations of chaos, choosing to add to the chaos in order to further their personal agendas.

Gökarıksel et al in their work categorize this ability to amass a following by propagating fear through partly rooted facts as “demographic fever dreams”. The nightmarish “dream” implies an orientation toward the future, that is demographically apocalyptic for the dominating population hence calling for active, often violent intervention. While we have seen politicians use rhetoric about the class divide to appeal to sections of the masses, the fever dream created by Trump is quite different as it manages to break class barriers by uniting white Americans across class divisions through an embodied fear of the toxic other. The same demographic fever dream is quite openly displayed in the setting of ‘The Boys’. Eric Kripke the creator of the television series quite explicitly stated that he tried to bring out “the worst of politics”. The show as he states is very reflective of the world we are currently living in – “a blurred line between authoritarianism, fascism, and celebrity.” While ‘The Boys’ captures these themes it also shows how Homelander (just like Trump) projects himself as the hero who is going to protect “his people” from these external threats. 

Not only do Homelander and Trump have the same rhetoric and use demographic differences as a political tool but they also have very similar personality traits. Homelander is self-centered, craves public approval, and is highly concerned about his ratings. He has a team of PR specialists running his social media accounts to make sure his public image remains untainted and constantly keeps a check on his public rating. A superpowered being that has the ability to destroy anyone or anything seems more affected by his public reputation than terrorists and supervillains. Homelander in one instance lets a plane filled with passengers crash so that his inability to save all passengers doesn’t impact his and his team’s image. The most panic you see on the face of this superhero is when he finds out his approval ratings fell by 9 points.

Blonde hair, white male, cheeky smile, self-obsessed, xenophobic, erratic, and a public image built over love for his country. Is Homelander Donald Trump in a cape? 

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

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).