Digital Native

Posted by Nishant Shah at Dec 22, 2013 06:00 PM |
The end of the year is supposed to be a happy, feel-good space for families, friends, societies and communities to come together and count our blessings. It is the time to look at things that have gone by and look forward to what the New Year will bring.

The article was originally published in the Indian Express on December 22, 2013.

And yet, when I started writing this piece, my horizons seemed to be eclipsed by the amount of violence we have witnessed in the last year, and the inability of our governance systems to deal with them.

Around this time last year, the nation had woken up to the horrors a young woman suffered as a group of men raped her in a moving bus in Delhi. The inhumanity of the crime, her tragic death, and the fact that despite our collective anger and grief, the year has been dotted with violence of a gendered and sexual nature, should be enough to quell any celebrations. What happened to her and then to many other reported and invisible survivors of sexual violence in the country has seen a dramatic transformation of the digital public sphere.

Spurred by anger, frustration and the realisation that we are often the agents of change, people have taken to the streets and the information highway in unprecedented forms. Every reported incident of sexual violence — from the young intern who was molested by a former Supreme Court judge to the now infamous Tehelka case — sparked great ire on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and collaborative user-generated content sites. Hashtags have trended, videos have gone viral. Men and women have bonded together to speak against the increasingly unsafe spaces we seem to inhabit.

Responding to this public demonstration and outrage, we have seen some positive developments from the governments and judiciary systems which are morally, legally and constitutionally bound to look after us. And yet, we are quickly realising that much of this is not enough. While the law takes its course and tries to craft and enforce more efficient regulation to prevent and protect victims of such violent crimes, we have despaired at how it doesn't seem to change things materially.

The digital spaces that we have used to fight, to protest and to call for action, are also where we have shared the frustration at how little material reality has changed. Hashtags on Twitter have gone through life cycles of anger, protest and despair, as the complex structures of archaic laws, slow judiciary processes, prejudiced judges, and a populist politics which is often superficial, take their toll on processes to establish justice, equality and freedom for our societies.

As tweets and Facebook updates have now clearly told us, through testimonies and witness accounts, these questions cannot be understood in isolation. The social media has consistently reminded us that the December 16 gang rape was not just about one woman. It was about the misogynist societies that we are constructing and the fundamental flaws in systems which encourage the idea that men have ownership of the bodies and lives of women in our country. Across the year, through campaigns by online intervention groups like the Blank Noise Project or through note-card viral memes like "I need feminism" have emphasised the need to acknowledge these not as "women's problems" or "exceptional" problems. These are problems that need to be understood in the larger context of human rights, and our rights to life, dignity, equality and freedom enshrined in our Constitution.

And yet, as another year comes to an end, the social media is ablaze at a decision that has marked one of the darkest days in recent judicial history. On December 11, the Supreme Court of India repealed the landmark historical judgement issued by the Delhi High Court that read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises same-sex relationships. Finding this in defiance of our constitutional rights, the well-weighed judgment was celebrated across social media — nationally and globally — for its recognition that the problem of discrimination is never just about one demography or section of the society. As the LGBTQ communities stood in shock, there was something else that happened on social media.

For once, the comments of disbelief, anger and surprise turned into a roar for correcting such a verdict. And it is not only the LGBTQ identified people and activists who are joining this clamour. Straight people, people with families, families with LGBTQ children, are all coming out and finding a common bond of solidarity that works around hashtags and viral sharing of messages. The world of social media has shown how we have learned, that we cannot leave the underprivileged to fight for themselves. Because, if we ignore the discrimination against them, we will have nobody to support us when we are being treated as sub-human and irrelevant in a country that has often done poetic interpretations of what constitutional rights mean.

I started writing this piece with despair. But I slowly realise that maybe there is something to be thankful about this year. That even when our archaic systems of justice are catching up with the accelerated transformations in our lives, the social media does act as a public space where those bound together in their belief for equality and justice can act in solidarity. On Twitter, this fateful day, everybody was queer. And they did not have to identify themselves as men or women, straight, gay or lesbian. Despite our bodies, our differences, our status and practices, we can claim to fight for those whose voices, bodies, lives and loves are being negated in our country. And if you cannot take to the streets to make your support felt, remember that the digital public sphere is active and buzzing. Those in power have no choice but to take into account the collective voice on the internet, which demands and shall build open, fair and equal societies.