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Can the mouse be a tool of revolution in India?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 01, 2011 04:26 PM
Do you consider yourself a ‘slacktivist’?” Vikram Sengupta considers the question for a couple of seconds, and then excuses himself. “I’ll call you back. I’m in the middle of something right now,” he says, and hangs up. Being called a ‘slacktivist’ is probably not very flattering, first thing in the morning or at any other time of the day. But this writer has been at the receiving end of endless mails from him, mails which sought to impose a burning moral imperative to sign up instantly and save the grand Canadian Musk Ox or the Mexican Dumpy Frog. The question, therefore, is not unjustified.

Activists vs slacktivists

The slick application of the word ‘slacktivist’ is the work of eminent scholar and author of The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov. Rather stinging in its import, it refers to people who, while campaigning for social causes, limit their action to the click of a mouse. In an earlier interview with DNA Sunday, Morozov was quick to clarify that he had nothing against online activism (activism through social-networking sites, websites, blogs and online petitions), “but I’d rather see the people signing (petitions) also join some offline political movements and campaign for change in the real world as much as they do in the virtual world,” he had said.

Sengupta does call back. And when the question is put to him again, he says, “People can call me a ‘slacktivist’ if they want. Look, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to activism and I don’t even know if signing petitions actually works. But when I see that a simple click of mine might possibly help save a rainforest or rid the world of its nuclear arsenal, I can’t just cynically turn away. I don’t know… I feel uncomfortable doing it.” 

The phenomenon of ‘slacktivism’ elicits quite strong responses from the Indian activist community. People who grapple with the hard-knock realities of activism are not amused by the casual, momentary concern of the ‘slacktivist’. 

Ashley Tellis is a freelance journalist, academic and gay rights activist. “The central limitation here is that one-click activism [slacktivism] becomes a substitute for sustained campaigns and engagement with persistent inequalities. The Indian middle-class, notorious for its apolitical and consumerist selfishness, can now feel smug and assuage its rotten conscience by thinking it has taken action on the net,” says Tellis, with some emotion.

While Tellis castigates, in no uncertain terms, the seeming apathy of the middle-class, he also acknowledges its prodigious influence on the Indian socio-political mind space. “The middle-class is an important segment. It has power, it has English, and it has the ability to be heard,” he admits. 

Middle class audience

While this helps when it is mobilised for a good cause, many find it problematic that so much influence is concentrated in the hands of a single segment of society. In fact, if you take online activism, the number of people who can be reached through the internet is staggeringly low.

In a country of approximately 120 crore people, only about 5 crore [as per Indiastats.com] have access to the internet. Compare this to Tunisia, where the figure is an impressive 27%, or Egypt, where internet penetration is 16% [World Bank figures]. Given this lack of net access, more than 95% of Indians are taken out of consideration, in one fell swoop, when it comes to internet-specific activism strategies.

Anja Kovacs, a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society says, “Most of these online campaigns are aligned to the profile of its audience.” She argues, in her essay ‘Inquilab 2.0?’ that if the audience is mostly urban and middle-class, it stands to reason that a majority of online campaigns would deal with issues that are relevant to this particular segment. 

Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a lawyer and human rights activist, disagrees with this assessment. “Okay, the audience may be middle class, but the issues aren’t all middle class at all,” she counters indignantly. “Look at the ‘Say No to UID’ campaign — there is no debate or dialogue that has been initiated by Nandan Nilekani, the chairperson of UIDAI [Unique ID Authority of India], and this online campaign has created a platform where people’s issues and concerns can be clarified. Many believe that the UID will have a negative impact on the poor and the migrants; this campaign has gotten people to come together to discuss, debate and strategise as well,” she says.

But Kovacs insists, “The fact remains that it is people from the middle-class who represent the voices of a largely silent majority. I find this model of activism questionable.” The accuracy of how the voiceless are being represented is a cause of concern for her, as is the very idea of a platform that denies a large section of a vibrant social democracy the chance to express themselves directly. 

The whole situation, Kovacs seems to indicate, is like Chinese whispers, where information might get altered in the retelling. “There are some innovative enterprises like CGNet Swara that tackle this problem. It’s a citizen journalism service, where ordinary citizens can both call in to record news as well as listen to the recorded messages. And they do put some selected messages online, but such enterprises are few and far between.” she says ruefully.

An aid to offline activism

So as things stand, the internet is an indispensable tool to reach out to the influential Indian middle-class. Yet, given India’s socio-economic reality, it’s also a problematic and, in some cases, ineffective medium. Bali Mahabal, when asked how she reconciles these contradictions, says, “I am an offline as well as an online activist. These are not mutually exclusive roles. I straddle both worlds and I can multi-task!” 

In fact, this is a strategy that a lot of offline activists are warming up to now. In 2010, Himanshu Kumar put up a video in which he said, 

“To the people in the cities, I want to say that… you write something on the internet, it doesn’t make any difference to the government. Neither do people read the internet, nor does the government.” Coming from one of the leading advocates of tribal rights in the Chhattisgarh area, this video was a scathing indictment of online activists. 

Kumar, however, seems to have softened his stance on the issue since then. He still maintains that online activism by itself is not sufficient to bring about substantial change, but he speaks of how the internet helped him in his campaign in Dantewada.

“When we were in Dantewada, it was almost like a different planet. We had no connection to the outside world except through the internet. It annoyed the police quite a bit because they knew that if they tried anything untoward, we could get the word out. So the internet is definitely a value addition to on-the-ground activism, but by itself, it has its limitations.” 

It is clear that the internet as a platform for social activism is here to stay. As access to the net increases among Indians, so will its effectiveness. Kovacs, in her essay writes of a person who says, rather movingly, “I believe that… ordinary people can use this medium [internet] to actually make a difference, you know…to change the world.” 

But if activists want to live up to this unnamed person’s lofty expectations, they also need to be fully conscious of the limitations of the internet as a medium for social change.

Read the original in DNA here

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