Issue 8

Headliner: A Chilling View of How Hate Sells

Headliner is an indie game developed by Jakub Kasztalski, where players are tasked with being the editor of a fictional magazine in a fictional town. Their responsibilities are primarily concerned with choosing which stories get reported in the next day’s news cycle. As the editor, players need to prioritize the news stories that they believe best contributes to the social cohesion of the town, while at the same time ensuring that their newspaper remains profitable. 

The game soon evolves into a test of character, as all the choices that players make directly affect their in-game family and society. Kasztalski effectively establishes conflicts that are hard to navigate – with players’ job security, familial interests and general social atmosphere often placed at odds with one another. Ranging from issues of sensationalism and hateful narratives, to personal biases and ambitions, the game provides its players with an understanding of the complexities within the operation of news media. In an ecosystem where stories that sell better outshine those more worthy of telling, Headliner proves to be an inexplicably valuable tool for highlighting the processes and dilemmas underlying contemporary reportage.

Issue 8

Racy Raj Tales: Miscegenation in British India

Despite all romantic notions about love and desire, the choice of a sexual partner has seldom remained just a matter of mutual agreement between two partners. Governments and regimes have, through different time-periods, attempted to control, and channelize people’s sexualities, in the name of ‘social order’. Relationships that do not subscribe to the cultural codes of behaviour, and threaten the patrilineal descent of the race or community, are regarded as aberrations. Such relations do not receive social sanction, as they challenge socially constructed rules, and are thereby labelled as forbidden or ‘illicit’. 

The British Raj in India witnessed several such ‘forbidden liaisons’. The British East Indian Company was particularly preoccupied with the issues of love, sex, and marriage with regard to the sexual health of the sahibs and memsahibs, because of various ‘risks’ that were associated with uncontrolled space of the ‘exotic east’. Victorian codes of conduct were directly antithetical to the unrestricted native morality, and the Indian society was understood to have a more relaxed notion of bodily shame (reflected in the traditional gossamer cotton clothing that barely seemed to cover their bodies), which the British believed indicated at the absence of moral order. According to them, this could lead to the breakdown of the British society stationed in India by encouraging similar patterns of behaviour amongst the sahibs and memsahibs. Moreover, the tropical climate could lead to moral laxity, and ultimately jeopardise the imperial enterprise.  

Before the arrival of the memsahibs in the nineteenth century, the ICS officers of the Company married catholic women of the Portuguese descent. The sahibs also kept bibis, and maintained zenanas, which was far more economical than taking on the expenses of maintaining a European wife. Such arrangements could end if the officer left a particular regiment. If there were children, the sahib was not bound to provide for them. However, even though such alliances were not binding because they were interracial in nature, they had the same status as that of a legally formalised matrimony. Moreover, Bibis were not simply for utilitarian purposes, and the officers often praised the tender and loyal bibis they consorted with. Moreover, such forms of cohabitations were not known as ‘forbidden liaisons’ until the nineteenth century, when they became stigmatised due to the increasing concerns over miscegenation in the Raj. 

Sexual practices in the Raj were quite lenient up until the rise of venereal disease outbreaks amongst British officers, after which the Company was forced to amend the rules regarding sexual health of the white officers. Prostitution was widespread at the time, and while the Company understood the importance of brothels for maintaining order amongst the often-lonely ranks of sahibs, they understood the need to curb infections. Brothel houses came to be closely monitored and regulated to prevent diseases, as the idea of contagion came to be linked with anything related to the ‘Other’, or native. Prostitution was not banned because an active sexual life could ensure the physical robustness of the sahibs and prevent pent up desires and frustrations that could possibly result in under-productiveness. Regiments even had European madams manage brothel houses for their officers. With the nineteenth century, when batches of young women called the ‘fishing fleet’ came in looking for husbands in the Raj, interracial couplings gradually became condemnable, as the Company wanted to prevent the dilution of the white race in India. 

Due to the expansionist nature of the empire, British women’s sexuality was closely governed. Memsahibs were understood to be vulnerable in the native space, due to their susceptibility to tropical illnesses, and due to the added fear of sexual violation. Racist stereotypes surrounding the native man’s carnality buttressed such suspicions, especially in light of the accounts of abuse and violence against British women during the revolt of 1857. Recent feminist historiography has revealed that such rumours stemmed from biases and prejudices rather than actual realities, and were meant to perpetuate the fear of the ‘Other’ among the British officers/community/etc. in India. However, such notions served to deepen the prejudice against interracial marriages. The issue of miscegenation deeply concerned the British administration also because the children of mixed couplings came to be tabooed. The presence of the Anglo-Indian race was a rude reminder of the racial crossings, and the resultant dilution of the white race in India. 

Nonetheless, a number of interracial relationships were borne out of the Raj. Not only did sahibs have children with native women, there are several cases of European women falling in love with and marrying Indian men. Unlike popular perception, the men who courted and wed white women were not licentious natives who fetishized white skin, but devoted husbands who deeply cared for the women they married. Some of the stories of such unlikely matches are extremely tender and romantic, and allow us an insight into fulfilling mixed unions that dispel stereotypes. Yet, the postcolonial imagination continues to fetishize such relationships. A good example is Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard. 

It must be said that during the colonial period, the so-called ‘transgressive’ marriages and subversive liaisons occurred despite the political and social repercussions. Such instances become testament to the fragility of social conventions and orthodox belief systems that attempt to negate sexual agency of the people. While it is difficult to draw direct parallels between the ‘forbidden liaisons’ of the Raj, and what constitutes as forbidden today, in the current political climate, it is not altogether impossible to locate similarity in the regimentalisation of love and desire in contemporary times. The idea of ‘forbidden’ remains rooted in the social divisions, be it class, caste, race, cultures, etc. and relationships that attempt to transcend these boundaries automatically are labelled as taboo or criminal. Interracial marriages during the Raj provoked as much backlash as inter-caste and interfaith marriages do today. 

Indeed, governments since time immemorial have attempted to curtail sexual and romantic desires, to maintain ‘social order’. However, history and literature demonstrate the sheer subversive quality of love as transgressive amours not only take place in spite of societal and political restrictions, but also are also consistently idealised and romanticised. The ultimate ineffectuality of the State or governments in the matters of the heart and soul can serve as a heady reminder of the potency of love and desire across time and culture.

Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. She is currently a doctoral candidate with Jamia Millia Islamia, and wrote her thesis on postcolonial representations of memsahibs in Indian literature. Her book of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published by Simon & Schuster India, in March 2020.

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

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). 


The Most Powerful Response to Any Situation: Love

By Raja Rosenhagen

The topic of love seemed like an obvious choice. I just taught two classes on it over the summer—one for graduate level students,one as part of the summer semester offerings for our undergraduates. It was deeply rewarding to be with these students, to reflect with them on what love and friendship are (or should be), on how various kinds of love relate to our reasons, and on how the quality of our attention profoundly shapes our everyday ways of interacting with others. Many students took these reflections as invitations to self-examine, to apply the conceptual tools they had acquired throughout the course to their lives and ask: How doI relate to others? Can I live up to the various ideals we had tried to articulate? In what ways am I falling short, and why? Some students wrote to me afterwards and said that for them, the class had served as a safe space in which to reflect upon things that matter, on issues, moreover, that do come to the fore even more forcefully than otherwise now, i.e. in a time in which humans across the globe are going through a pandemic and are thus either confined to being with their loved ones a lot more than usual or are separated from or even at the risk of losing them. 

Not every philosophy class is or must be an exercise of earnest self-examination. However, a class that stimulates one to reflect upon how to live well can be a source of personal growth, and serve to sow, one hopes, the seeds for a better society. That we need one is obvious to everyone who looks—and opportunities abound—at the suffering of the diseased, the poor, the marginalized, and all those who have nobody to lobby for them. Many of us prefer to look away or focus on issues we can manage, things we feel we can cope with. This can be healthy. After all, our capacity to look at the various kinds of suffering that our ways of life create or help sustain is limited. There may only be so much we can take, of the sadness, the anger, and the despair that looking outward empathetically must reveal, and of the emotional exhaustion that ensues. 

But we must look somewhere. And even if we can’t, given the pandemic, go out, travel, and explore it, the world doesn’t halt at our doorstep. Numerous media outlets and social media platforms provide a permanent influx of news and entertainment that vie for our attention, approval, or emotional responses. Of course, the virtual world allows us to be selective. We can choose where we look and can easily look away if things get under our skins. But the satisfaction virtual escapism provides is short-lived. After hours of watching Netflix or chasing down various debates on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, most of us are left exhausted, left with a stale aftertaste, the feeling that real life is shallow, too complicated or burdensome, or with the nagging thought that a lot of precious time was just wasted. Even if after spending time on consuming various news items, one may well be in a better position to understand certain issues, through such consumption, nothing of substance changes. More distracted, more polarized, or overwhelmed, we find ourselves where we left as we begin to direct our selective gaze into the virtual outward. We remain saddled with the real pain around us, confronted with those who have legitimate demands on us, with urgent emails to respond to and many other tasks to complete. It is a change for the better that we vaguely imagine and strongly desire. But as we resurface from the virtual, we must concede that nothing has changed, nothing has been achieved.

Ultimately, trying to mask out the real world is futile. For the pain and suffering we try to escape, are anyway, not just out there. They live in our own homes and families (think of the uncle, cousin, or unresolved conflict that everyone knows but nobody talks about), in our relationships, in how we handle ourselves in them. So we cannot escape, or not for long. So where should we look? How can we deal? What must happen for things to become better?

Once we raise these questions and make time to be with them, we realize that the most powerful responses turn on love. Giving time and attention to others, Simone Weil thinks, is not just a way of showing empathy, it is a way to love. Iris Murdoch concurs, adding that love is a quality of attachment, that directing our attention at what is good and valuable in the world and in others is a source of tremendous energy, and that love, construed as just attention, enables us to act well. 

So we can ask: whom or what do I love? Do I pay attention to it? Do I love what I pay attention to? How do I nourish my love, how can I refine it? What have I done today to expand it? Is there someone who needs my compassionate kindness? How is my neighbour, my grandmother, a friend that I haven’t heard from in a long time, how are things for the istrivala, the kachravala, or the shopkeeper of the corner store? What would happen if I asked them?

It is an old mistake to think that we cannot solve large or systemic societal problems by making small steps. Everyone can make small steps and many such steps jointly give rise to powerful movements. We must not think that believing this, and acting on it, is naïve, or that it can’t be that simple. Such a response-apart from being one of the biggest obstacles to change—is itself naïve. For how can it be reasonable to hope that things will change for the better while we do not? Surely, changing our ways by seeking to expand our ability to love nudges us out of our comfort zone. We may be afraid as such expansion it may seem to make us vulnerable. But it makes us stronger. It helps us turn into the best version of who we are. It serves to build community, to create structures of responsibility, compassion, and human connection, it implements life-affirming values and thus strengthens the various connections we form with those around us. This, I believe, is by far the best response to the pain we face. And it is available to us always. We need not wait. We can start today, and it barely costs anything. Love NOW!

Rosenhagen is the Associate Professor Philosophy and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University. He specializes in Philosophy of Perception, Science, Mind, & Epistemology.

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).