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What's in a Name? Or Why Clicktivism May Not Be Ruining Left Activism in India, At Least For Now

Posted by Anja Kovacs at Sep 10, 2010 08:15 AM |
In a recent piece in the Guardian titled “Clicktivism Is Ruining Leftist Activism”, Micah White expressed severe concern that, in drawing on tactics of advertising and marketing research, digital activism is undermining “the passionate, ideological and total critique of consumer society”. His concerns are certainly shared by some in India: White's piece has been circulating on activist email lists where people noted with concern that e-activism may be replacing “the real thing” even in this country. But is the situation in India really this dire?

Among those who consider themselves activists in a more traditional fashion, critical debates on what it means to be an activist certainly remain alive and well. Among India's social movements, perhaps most prominent, over the past decade, have been those that protest against large-scale “development” projects and the displacement they tend to cause – projects of which especially India's tribal people, or adivasis, often are the victims. In these circles, arguments against the use of the Internet for activism often focus on the elitist character of this tool: in a country where Internet penetration rates continue to hover around a meagre five percent, frequently neither the people affected nor the wider groups that need to be mobilised have access to this resource. Clearly then, organising online is never sufficient and, perhaps not surprisingly, debates about what is called “armchair activism” consequently are both common and intense. In a recent video posted on YouTube, for example, the respected Himanshu Kumar – who everyone will recognise as a grassroots activist – called on the nation to support the adivasis and their causes. In the same video, he also explicitly requested people to get off the Internet:

Is me jo shehero me rehne wale log hai, mujhe unse khas tor se kehna hai ki aap sheher me baithe rahenge, net par thoda sa likh denge – usse sarkar ko koi farak padne wala nahi hai. Na janta Internet padthi hai na sarkar Internet padthi hai. Hum jo activist hai wohi aapas mein Internet par pad lethe hai. Usse sarkar ki koi policiyan nahi badal payenge, sarkar par pressure nahi create kar payenge. Jab tak ham aam janta ke beech mein nahi jayenge, na to hame desh ki problems pata challenge, na ham desh ke logon ko jaga payenge.

[To the people in the cities, I want to especially say that, you keep sitting in the cities, 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 read the Internet. Only activists like you and me read on the Internet. Through that, we cannot change the policies of the government, we cannot create pressure on the government. As long as we don't go among/approach the common people, neither will we come to know the country's problems, nor will we be able to awaken the people].

Not everybody I spoke to would have agreed with Kumar's argument. The importance of mass mobilisation and the need to be in touch with grassroots realities are recognised by all movement activists, as is consequently the requirement to get active offline as much as online. But whether mass mobilisation at the grassroots is the only way forward is not something that everyone is convinced of. In the context of the Free Binayak Sen campaign, for example, there is considerable recognition that the website was a vital complement to a well-organised offline campaign to free Dr. Binayak Sen from jail, which kicked off in the spring of 2008. Sen is a community health doctor and civil liberties activist who had worked for more than twenty five years among the adivasis of Chhattisgarh, the heart of the current Maoist conflict, when he was arrested on the basis of what many considered completely baseless, yet non-bailable charges of being a Maoist himself, and left to languish in jail for two years. A regularly updated website, and related Facebook group and email list, soon became the focal point for a massive outpouring of support for Sen from different parts of the world, including in the form of a letter from twenty Nobel Prize winners, as well as an important source of information on the campaign for activists within the country. In May 2009, the Indian Supreme Court finally released granted bail to Dr. Binayak Sen. The Doctor's trial is currently ongoing.

In this context of critical debates, how do those who do see themselves as activists, yet draw on the Internet as a significant tool to publicise struggles, justify themselves? If the Internet can play a role in changing matters at the grassroots, and has proven to do so in the past, does it become possible to intensely use this tool and still be recognised as an activist in a more traditional reading of this word? The fact that most middle-class English speaking cadres of movements are online, despite their protestations against online activism for being elitist, may well play in the favour of advocates of online protest: it does open up a space to argue for the relevance of this medium, even if for a limited group, and for the importance of its responsible use. Indeed, it may well be for this reason that it is possible to watch on YouTube a number of videos in which Himanshu Kumar shares his experiences at the grassroots, his own discomfort with the medium notwithstanding. But it is not this ambiguity that is at the heart of the claims to credibility of advocates of online activism. Rather, as has always been the case, it is their continued connectedness to the grassroots. How much you are in the know of what happens at the grassroots; whether you have physically joined struggles; to what extent you get your hands dirty offline and show up for meetings, rallies, poster pasting, rather than limiting your engagement to the online route – these are the kind of elements that determine whether you are an online activist. What you do offline remains as important as ever. To only work online is not sufficient.

Importantly, such readings are frequently mirrored by those who do not have such connections to the grassroots. In my research, I have more than once come across “online activists” who started their conversation with me by stating that they were not, in fact, activists at all. Interestingly, Maesy Angelina has observed a similar reluctance to identify as an activist among participants in the Blank Noise project (personal communication and Angelina, forthcoming), a campaign to combat street sexual harassment and, with its extensive use of online tools over the seven years of its existence, one of the paragons of online activism in India. While Maesy herself will blog more about how Blank Noise participants understand activism later on here, (earlier posts are available as well) at least in my research, the reason why people refused the “activist” label was generally not because they disapproved of what it might stand for. Rather, they saw a clear difference between their own contribution and that of the full-time activists who ceaselessly mobilise and organise people on the ground, those who in many cases draw on a distinct and easily-recognisable language of protest that infuses everything from the shape protests take to activists' dressing sense in the process – the “jholawallahs”, as one person I follow on Twitter calls them, after the trademark cotton bag that they often carry around. Those who refused the namecard of an “activist” were clear that they would never have chosen such a full-time activist's life; what new technology allowed them to do, however, was to nevertheless make a contribution, even if often on a smaller scale, of their own. As one person put it quite movingly:

I believe that, I think that ordinary people, and I am convinced, that they can do, can use this medium to actually make a difference, you know or bring about change, to change the world. You know, these dreams that you have sometimes, “I want to change the world in some way” [laughs]. You know? I do believe that... it's possible. And you don't have to be an activist or working in an NGO. You can be working anywhere, you can be doing anything as your day job, you know, or your regular job. But, you can contribute.

Clearly, then, critical readings of what it means to be an activist are common not only among those who are activists in a more traditional sense, but among those who focus on exploring the use of new tools for social change as well: the kind of credibility, based on offline experience, that attaches to more traditional activists is not something they claim for themselves. But what they understand is that new technologies have facilitated a qualitatively new kind of engagement with movements, with activism, with social change. And what such “not-activists” do claim is that this has made it possible for ordinary people to now also make a difference, even though small that difference often may be.

In many ways this type of involvement is actually not new, as contributions of non-activists have always played an important role in the survival and evolutions of movements, especially at times of great urgency: doctors who are ready to treat patients for free; lawyers who supply legal advice without expecting anything in return; people with comfortable jobs in the private sector who one knows one can rely on for donations when required (most movements in India survive financially by relying solely or mostly on donations by private persons). What is new with the introduction of the Internet is that the possibility of contributions by people who are not activists are now extended into new areas, as it has become much easier to contribute to publicising and building community around issues that are close to movements' heart as well.

So how to evaluate White's claim that clicktivism is ruining Left activism in the Indian context then? For one thing, it is important to remember that we simply do not – or not yet at least – have platforms such as MoveOn or Avaaz, that draw, as White explains, on market ideology to conveniently break down a seemingly endless number of political campaigns into little bites for easy individual consumption with the click of a mouse button. Left activism in India, even online, remains firmly embedded in communities of engagement. Surely e-petitions, for example, are popular here as much as elsewhere. But the point to remember is that they rarely circulate in isolation. Instead, they emerge from the email lists, from the postings and repostings as well as conversations on Facebook, from the blogs around which much Left activism online revolves. And crucial to these uses of the Internet as a tool for social change is not clicking, but engagement and conversation. Perhaps it is for this reason that even a landmark campaign such as Free Binayak Sen has hardly received any attention in the international online activists' arena: campaigns such as this do not revolve around the number of clicks they get, nor around flash-points or events shaped to satisfy the hunger of the international media, valuable as some may argue these can be; rather, they are intended for the long haul, as they attempt to build on existing collectives to extend the communities of solidarity around issues that move and drive the Left in this neoliberal age. Even online, the politics can and does infuse the method, at least for now.

This, then, gives something to ponder over. It is true that working among people, offline, remains of crucial importance if Left movements in the country are to achieve their goals. But perhaps it is worth considering more seriously the value and role of this pool of people willing and available to help building such communities in a more or less sustained fashion online (I am not talking about the accidental activist here), without necessarily wanting to take on a core “activist”'s role. Yes, perhaps their work does not amount to activism as we know it. But nevertheless, it may well be that in many cases the efforts of these committed individuals do not amount to distractions, but to gravy: extras that help ensuring that more and more people start to care as the message of social movements is amplified to a much larger audience than might have otherwise been the case, perhaps even getting many more people involved, while also acutely aware of their own limitations when it comes to achieving fundamental, lasting social change. In fact, perhaps the Left would also do well to wonder whether it can afford to lose this valuable support: as I will document in a future blog post, with the rise of the Internet in India, online initiatives have also emerged that take neither of the stances described above, but that instead explicitly, and at times aggressively, seek to present themselves as a forward-looking alternative to the existing progressive politics in this country. A lack of engagement on the part of the Left with supporters online would effectively entail a ceding of the space to such challengers.

The point to remember for now, however, is that many of those active in online campaigns are acutely aware themselves not only of the potential of their work, but also of its limitations. What we do need to do, however, is to keep firmly alive this tension and debate surrounding what it means to be an activist, as well as to remain vigilant that the dazzling charms of the tools do not, in the long term, blind us to our politics. At the moment, it seems to be the continuing vibrancy of the Left in India that makes it difficult for anyone who wants to get seriously involved with movement politics to consider online activism a sufficient replacement. It is the endurance of these attitudes of continuous critical inquiry that will ensure that, clicktivism or not, Left activism will remain firmly alive in this country in the future as well – in the hearts and minds of activists and non-activists alike.

With thanks to Prasad Krishna for assistance with the translation.



Angelina, M. (forthcoming). 'Beyond the Digital: Understanding Contemporary Youth Activism in Urban India' (working title). MA thesis. The Hague, International Institute of Social Studies – Erasmus University of Rotterdam.





Anja Kovacs