Inquilab 2.0? Reflections on Online Activism in India*

Research and activism on the Internet in India remain fledgling in spite the media hype, says Anja Kovacs in her blog post that charts online activism in India as it has emerged.

Since the late 1990s when protesters against the WTO in Seattle used a variety of new technologies to revolutionize their ways of protesting so as to further their old goals in the information age, much has been made of the possibilities that new technologies seem to offer social movements. The emergence of Web 2.0 seems to have only multiplied the possibilities of building on the Internet's democratising potentials, so widely heralded since the rise of the commercial Internet in the 1990s, and since then, the use of social media for social change has received widespread media attention worldwide. From Spain to Mexico, activists used the Internet as a central tool in their efforts to organise and mobilise – be it to express their stand against a war in Iraq, against a Costa Rican Free Trade Agreement with the United States, to mobilise support for the Zapatistas of Chiapas, or more recently, to push for a change of guard in Iran.

 

In 2009, when Nisha Susan launched the Pink Chaddi campaign, the 'ICT for Revolution' buzz finally seemed to have reached India as well. Phenomenally successful in terms of the attention it generated for the issue it sought to address, the campaign sought to protest in a humorous fashion against attacks on women pub-goers in Karnataka by Hindu right wing elements. In only a matter of weeks, Facebook associated with the campaign – 'The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women', which gathered tens of thousands of members. It was ultimately killed off when Susan's Facebook account was cracked by rivals. The campaign was perhaps the singular most successful account of ‘digital activism’ in India so far, and an impressive one by all measures.

The creativity of the campaign should not come as a surprise to those familiar with the long and rich history of activism for social change in India. Organised social actors have been critical influences in the emergence of new social identities as well as on critical policy junctures from colonial times onwards, developing a fascinating and unmistakably Indian language of protest in the process (see Kumar 1997 and Zubaan 2006 for examples from feminist movement).

 

As Raka Ray and Mary Faizod Katzenstein (2006) have pointed out, in the post-independence period, such organised activism for long was connected by at least verbal – if not actual – commitment to the common master frame of poverty alleviation and the ending of inequality and injustice, and this irrespective of the particular issues groups were working on. Since the late 1980s, however, a number of far-reaching changes have taken place in India. This period has been marked by the definite demise of secular democratic socialism as the dominant script of the Indian state and its simultaneous replacement by neo-liberalism. Moreover, in the same period, Hindu nationalism as an ideology too has gone from strength to strength, with only in the last five years a slowdown in its ascendancy. While for many traditional social movements of the Left the commitment to social justice remains, in this context a space has undeniably been created for groups with a very different agenda. The considerable popularity of organisations such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, both Hindu nationalist organisations, are prime indications of these transformations. However, the fragmentation of the activist space did not only benefit reactionary elements of society. The final emergence into visibility of a well-articulated middle class queer politics, for example, too, may well in many ways have been facilitated by the evolutions of the past 20 years. Although this point has been mostly elaborated in the context of the US (Hennessey 2000), in India, too, this seems to ring true at least in some senses.

 

The general shape-shifting of activism in India since the 1990s is not the only contextual factor that deserves obvious consideration in a study like this. In addition, since independence a close link has been forged in policy and people's imagination alike between science and technology on the one hand and development paradigms in India on the other. Not everyone agrees on the benefits of this association: all too frequently, the struggles of grassroots social movements are directed precisely against the outcomes or consequences of a supposedly 'scientifically' inspired development policy. The neo-liberal era is no exception to this: as Carol Upadhya (2004) has shown quite convincingly, the economic reform policies that are at the heart of neo-liberalism have been inspired first and foremost by the information technology sector in India, which has also in turn been their first beneficiary. And today as earlier, Asha Achuthan (2009) has pointed out, in the resistance to these policies, the subaltern who is the agent of grassroots social movements is frequently associated with a pre-technological purity that needs to be maintained in order to resist discourses and material consequences of technological change themselves. In popular discourses, at least, attitudes towards technology inevitably come in a binary mode.

 

Seeing the context in which digital activism in India has emerged, a number of pressing questions regarding the new forms that even progressive activism takes as it adopts new tools and methods, then, immediately offer themselves. Leaving aside the activities of right wing groups in India, who are the actors that occupy this space for activism and what are their relationship with offline activists groups? Which are the issues online activism seeks to address, and what are its master narratives, goals and audiences? Where does it locate problems in today's society, and what kind of solutions does it propose? How does it posit its relation to the global/international and to the offline-local; to dominant understandings of science and technology, development, or desirable social change? How are these understandings reflected in online activism, including in the choice and use of technologies but also in the discourses that are deployed and the audiences that are targeted? What are its methods, its strategies, its ways of organising? What role is played by organisations, collectives, networks, individuals? In what ways is the field marked by the conjuncture at which it emerged? Do those who first occupy (most of) it also set the parameters? Or do its tools fashion online activism's very conditions of existence?

The value of greater insight into these issues is not immediately apparent to all. For one thing, some would argue that, as connectivity in the emerging IT superpower remains limited, the importance of these questions to those concerned with social justice in India is really marginal. It is true that while commercial Internet services have been available in the country since 1995, for long the number of connections remained abysmally low. Even today, the number of subscriptions has only just crossed the 14 million mark, and barely half of these are broadband subscriptions, severely limiting the usefulness of a wide range of potential online activism tools (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India 2009 – figures are for the second quarter of 2009). According to I-Cube 2008 report (IMRB and Internet and Mobile Association of India 2008), there were an estimated 57 million claimed urban Internet users in the country in September 2008 and an estimated 42 million active urban Internet users. Corresponding figures for Internet users in rural areas in March 2008 were 5.5 million and 3.3 million respectively. Almost 88 million Indians were believed to be computer-literate at the time. Clearly, then, online activists are a tiny section of an already fairly small, privileged group, and at least in a direct sense, the availability of new tools is thus indeed unlikely to affect all activists or activism in the country.

 

Some of my own starting points while embarking on this study may seem to further give fuel to arguments against the value of this research. The idea of investigating online activism in India as it emerges followed from my observation – and a troubling one at that for me – that so far, and despite all the hype internationally, more traditional grassroots movements in India seem to have been slow to embrace the Internet as an integral part of their awareness raising and mobilisation strategies. Although they may attract the largest numbers of activists offline, the many so-called 'new' social movements that have emerged since the 1970s and that remain important actors pushing for social change seem most conspicuous by their relative absence online. This is especially true of those critical of current development paradigms and practices: movements fighting against dams, special economic zones or land acquisitions for “development” purposes seem visible only in relatively fragmented and generally marginal ways. Instead, middle-class actors addressing middle class audiences on middle class issues seem to be the flag bearers of Internet activism in India – the Pink Chaddi campaign or VoteReport India, a “collaborative citizen-driven election monitoring platform for the 2009 Indian general elections” (see votereport.in/blog/about) perhaps among the most well-known illustrations of this argument.

 

Both points are valid, and yet, while inquilab it may not be, to conclude from this that the study of online activism automatically is of only very limited value would be short-sighted. Indeed, even if the hypothesis that Internet activism is dominated by middle class actors who address middle class concerns is validated (note that in any case considerable segments of the leadership and cadre of grassroots movements, too, tend to come from middle class backgrounds), this is likely to affect all those interested in affecting social change, even if perhaps in varying degrees. For one thing, it would mean that as the public sphere is reshaped, important new quarters of its landscape are inhabited only be the elite, contradicting the still widely popular and even cherished belief (at least among those who are familiar with the Internet) that the Internet is a democratising force. Instead, the proportional visibility in the public sphere of dissenting viewpoints on development, science, neo-liberalism, progress, the state will only decrease. In addition, then, it may also indicate a further refracting of the activism landscape and its master narratives and methods, where different segments of activists increasingly need to vie with each other for recognition and validation of their respective understandings of political processes and of appropriate forms of engaging with these. As such battles intensify it is not too risky to make a prognosis on who will be the main losers. If, in an era in which the old activist master narrative of justice for all remains under strident attack, civil society has come to occupy at the expense of political society (a useful distinction first made by Parth Chatterjee in Chatterjee 2004) a whole arena of activism, this would indeed need to be a cause of concern for all. In order to gauge its ramifications, it is however, crucial to first of all understand in which ways and to what extent this statement rings true.

 

The current study may well not be able to fully develop all the above and other theoretical strands as they emerge in the course of this research. But what it does promise to do is to outline the breaks and continuities that mark the make-up, strategies, audiences and goals of those who embrace the new possibilities that the Internet provides at the same time as the information age so fundamentally reconstitutes our society. As a starting point for the analysis, this research will therefore, attempt to map the online activism that has taken place in India so far, focusing more specifically on the forms of activism that leave a public record on the Internet (a more extensive debate of various definitional issues is in order – I will take this up in a separate blog post, to follow later, however). At the core of the research will be the construction of a database pertaining to online activism in India with links to email lists, blogs, Facebook groups, popular hash tags and the like. Although much of the activism I will be looking at will be centred around what has come to be known as 'social media', my focus is thus broader than that, as older tools such as e-petitions, discussion boards and list servs, too, will be included in this study. The aim is to be as comprehensive as possible, although for the database to ever be complete will, of course, be an impossibility. Moreover, since only data available in the English language will be collected, the database will automatically have its limitations. The database will be further complemented by interviews with activists who have been involved in key online campaigns and, where appropriate, case studies. It is the data thus gathered that will form the basis of our analysis.

 

While the scope of the study is thus admittedly ambitious, the fact that online activism in India is a fairly recent affair – little happened before 2002, and it has only really taken off in the past three years or so – makes this venture not an impossible one. The contribution I hope to make through this research is not simply to work on the Indian context, however. Despite the media hype surrounding the possibilities of the Internet for social change, research on the Internet and activism more generally remains limited so far. The paucity is perhaps particularly acute where activism and social media are concerned (Postill 2009). Moreover, the work that does exist, I argue, tends to look mostly at activists' use of one particular tool, for example YouTube, or Facebook. Sight is thus generally lost of the larger cyberecology of communication in which this use must be located, preventing an opportunity for genuine insight into the ways in which activism is reconfigured from materialising. By using a much wider lens, this research hopes to make a beginning to correcting this lacuna. It is in this way that the importance of the changes that are underway in the Indian activist landscape as elsewhere can be appropriately assessed.

 

* Inquilab means revolution

 

References

 

Achuthan, Asha (2009). Re-Wiring Bodies. Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. http://www.cis-india.org/research/cis-raw/histories/rewiring/review, last accessed on 15 January 2010.

 

Chatterjee, Partha (2004). The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Delhi: Permanent Black.

 

Hennessy, Rosemary (2000). Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. London: Routledge.

 

IMRB and Internet and Mobile Association of India (2008). I-Cube 2008: Facilitating Citins, Altins, Fortins (Faster, Higher, Stronger) Internet in India. IMRB and Internet and Mobile Association of India, Mumbai. www.iamai.in/, last accessed on 15 January 2010.

 

Kumar, Radha (1997). The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990. New Delhi: Zubaan.

 

Postill, John (2009). Thoughts on Anthropology and Social Media Activism. Media/Anthropology, http://johnpostill.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/thoughts-on-anthropology-and-social-media-activism/, last accessed on 15 January 2010.

 

Ray, Raka and Mary Fainsod Katzenstein (2006). Introduction: In the Beginning, There Was the Nehruvian State. In Raka Ray and Mary Fainsod Katzenstein (eds.). Social Movements in India: Poverty, Power, and Politics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (2009). The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators, April-June 2009. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, New Delhi. www.trai.gov.in, last accessed on 15 January 2010.

 

Upadhya, Carol (2004). A New Transnational Capitalist Class: Capital Flows, Business Networks and Entrepreneurs in the Indian Software Industry. Economic and Political Weekly, 39(48): 5141-5151.

 

Zubaan (2006). Poster Women: A Visual History of the Women's Movement in India. New Delhi: Zubaan.

 

 

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Author

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.