Bringing Up the Bodies
The Visceral, the Virtual, and the Visible
Padmini Ray Murray
As digital participation and engagement come of age in India, it was inevitable that they would be used increasingly as a platform for protest and activism. While the World Wide Web has long allowed for spaces of alterity and otherness to flourish, these spaces have enabled the disenfranchised to find community and ways in which to make their voices heard. Despite the strong visual primacy of the virtual medium, those voices are always destined to be disembodied, mediated by technology rather than flesh. Disembodiment has significant ramifications for feminist protest, given that one of the historical matrices of feminist thought is its avowal and reclamation of corporeal materiality. This challenged the Cartesian mind-body binary used to demonstrate the inferiority of women to men, as well as to undermine the subjecthood of colonized and indigenous peoples and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. The virtual thus disrupts the phenomenological position; “to be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of view towards the world” (De Beauvoir, 39). These developments led to Donna Haraway’s articulation of the “cyborg,” a strategy of queering the received categories of male and female by way of creating a “confusion of boundaries” (150). But the tension set up between the phenomenological position of being-in-the-world and Haraway’s “cyborg” figure complicates questions regarding the constitution of the category of “woman,” especially as it moves from the offline into the online space, and more specifically, in the context of Indian sexual politics as well as violence enacted on bodies marginalized—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes not—by gender, caste, and religion.
Radhika Gajjala’s seminal work in the field, pointing out the overlap between gender, South Asian identity, and online spaces, articulated in her significant 2004 book Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women, marks her as an important and early voice. In this work, Gajjala signposts how such studies must “inevitably negotiate diasporic and nationalist gender, caste, religious and caste identity formations as well as corporate and academic cultures situated in an increasingly global economy” (2). In her more recent work, titled Cyberculture and the Subaltern, Gajjala attempts to map “how voice and silence shape online space in relation to offline actualities [and] how offline actualities and online cultures are in turn shaped by online hierarchies as well as different kinds of local access to global contexts” (3). Through this nuanced reading, Gajjala attempts to redefine what “subaltern” might mean when the current condition that allows users to inhabit online networks is “also [simultaneously] networked into processes of globalization through interplays of online global audiences and offline located/situated producers and consumers” (3). Gajjala and her colleagues define the subaltern body in the context of the digital as one that is in/visible, existing “simultaneously with the hypervisibility of particular images and constructs of ‘the subaltern,’” and asks, “Does the mere act of claiming/naming of erasure and the noting of invisibility and absence in itself produce the possibility of a subaltern subject?” (4).
In this essay, I will be exploring how as feminist protest comes of age in India, most visibly through digital media, a clear distinction has emerged between embodied, or as I am describing it, “visceral,” strategies of activism—where the body itself is used as an instrument and a site of dissent, especially against sexual violence—and virtual protest, via social and participatory media. Taking Gajjala’s reading as a point of reference, I will argue that the visibility and representation (or lack thereof) of the protesting/resisting body in the online space and the digital archive define what might constitute subaltern subjectivity.
In order to provide a context for this more specific conversation, this article will open with a consideration of how violence upon the body is enacted, documented, circulated, and represented using technology. I will then examine the rupture between the representation of visceral and the virtual body, especially in the South Asian context, by considering how the different registers of visibility, as Gajjala has described it, are rendered by these modes, the hierarchies of access that each mode assumes, as well as how the “local” is located (or might be differentiated) in each. These considerations will be informed by examples of both modes, such as the naked protest staged by Manipuri women against the sexual violence of the Indian army; digital initiatives to raise awareness, especially in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case; the ubiquitous violence against women; and the rise of websites and online spaces for feminist activism. These disparate modes have serious implications for the possibilities of intersectionality in South Asia, and this article will attempt, in its final section, to consider whether it is possible to reconcile the virtual and the visceral without reciprocally undermining the other, and whether it is possible to conceive of strategies (and a new politics) that might complement and extend the remit of both.
These considerations are of particular relevance to this volume, as they act as a corrective to the notion that conceptions of digital humanities as a discipline are universal. The originary narrative underpinning its emergence in Anglo-American academic discourse necessarily diverges in India and other countries in the Global South, due to differences in access, language, sociocultural mores, and infrastructure. As the work of Sukanta Chaudhuri, Radhika Gajjala, Lawrence Liang, Nishant Shah, Ravi Sundaram, and others have shown, there is a distinct need for digital humanities scholarship in India to incorporate its own histories of computing and internet use, while always remaining alert to its own exigencies of cultural and linguistic difference and political histories, which inevitably inflect outcomes such as who is empowered to build digital resources, archives, who is empowered to access and use such resources, and consequently who is represented online and how.
The relatively recent rise of digital humanities in Anglo-American institutions in a postcritique moment has, as Alan Liu has pointed out, posed a challenge to the understanding of the limits of the field. He writes,
At core, the debate is not really about theorized critique versus something other than such critique. Instead, the debate situates the digital humanities at a fork between two branches of late humanities critique. One, a hack branch (sometimes referred to as “critical making”), affiliates with, but is often more concretely pragmatic, than “thing theory,” the new materialism, actor-network theory, assemblage theory, and similar late poststructuralist theories. The other, a yack branch, descends from the not unrelated critical traditions of Frankfurt School “critical theory,” deconstruction, Foucauldian “archaeology,” cultural materialism, postcolonial theory, and gender and race theory–especially as all these have now been inflected by media studies. (“Drafts”)
While academics and thinkers in India are well aware of these developments, the development of digital humanities in India coincides with a key intellectual moment: of challenging the hegemony of English literary studies in the university space, and more generally of the humanities university curriculum, both of which are persistent remnants of a colonial legacy. The emergent sites of digital humanities scholarship in India are found not only in the formal university space (an excellent example being the School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University) but also in the work of such research institutions such as
- the Centre for Internet and Society that works toward “digital accessibility for persons with disabilities, access to knowledge, intellectual property rights, openness . . . internet governance, telecommunication reform, digital privacy, and cyber-security”
- Sarai, which for the past fifteen years has been working with academics as well as in collaboration with artistic practitioners, focusing on “the interface between cities, information, society, technology, and culture,” and whose ongoing projects include “Information Infrastructures: Histories and Contemporary Practices” and “Social Media: Contemporary Histories and Archaeologies”
- my own work at Srishti, a design school that places an emphasis on making as a mode of thinking through humanities concepts while privileging historical, sociocultural, and political contextual understandings of local use and the creation of indigenous technologies, both within and without the realm of the digital.
As digital humanities work advances in the region, there is an essential need to address representation within the archive, especially given the particular nature of digital adoption by Indian users—the rapid rise of usage has coincided with the increasing centralization of the web created by technology behemoths such as Google and Facebook. The bulk of internet activity in India which occurs on social networking sites, search, and mobile apps is therefore funneled through proprietary algorithms which legislate the visibility of content and can be challenged only by the active creation of archives, a still nascent undertaking in India, due to lack of expertise, training, and interest.
There is a tendency to perceive manifestations of technology as well as of the archive in metaphorical terms, which often results in an erasure of embodied materiality of the bodies who perform, create, and populate those archives. As we continue our work in the digital humanities here in India, it is crucially important that we constantly remind ourselves that the threats of erasure that endanger corporeal bodies are readily reproduced in the digital archive unless every effort is made to guard against this infrastructural violence.
The Off-stage, Ob/scene
Technology is increasingly used by protestors to virtually represent the body and the traumas enacted on it. In early 2015, No Red Tape, a group of student activists at Columbia University, used the opportunity presented by an open day for prospective students to reiterate the neglect and callousness shown by the campus administration toward rape culture and sexual violence by projecting the message “Rape Happens Here” (Merlan) across the lintel of Columbia’s iconic Butler Library. The protest embodied the obscene nature of both sexual violence and mishandling of such cases by gesturing toward the offscene, often characterized in Greek tragedy as a site of incommensurable violence. This form of protest resonates with other examples, also from 2015, of protests that represent the corporeal body with virtual projections: Spanish activists Hologramas por la Libertad (2015) countered the country’s new draconian Citizen Safety Law that subverted its diktats that prevented people from gathering in public places, and artists’ collective The Illuminator used a holographic image (Fishbein) to hold space for an illegal bust of Edward Snowden that was removed by police from a Brooklyn park.
All of these examples aim to highlight the violated body by its very absence, or by gesturing to its absent presence. Another example that we might consider is Bengaluru-based feminist activist collective Blank Noise’s “I Never Ask for It” campaign that uses “testimonials of clothing” (Patheja) to universalize the experience of sexual violence, by underlining that clothes and appearance are not responsible for inducing such acts, and that the onus of blame should always be on the attacker, not on the victim.
These absent presences staged through the presentation of absence find resonance in digital ways of being, the visceral body forever destined to be mediated via code and pixel, where technology itself stands in for the body on which violence is enacted. In the context of protest, how does the gap between these modes of embodiment enact itself in order to make change?
Much of the appeal of the web in its earliest incarnations was characterized by the euphoric possibilities of escaping “meatspace,” that is, the physical world, as well as transcending embodiment. Some of this radical potential was realized by spaces for online community called MOOs (short for Multi-User Domain Object-Oriented), but the promise of transcendence was short lived, and one of the web’s earliest examples of sexual violence online took place as early as 1993. Journalist Julian Dibbell’s chronicles of this unregulated space are now key documents to understanding the dynamics that came to characterize online interactions, and he documented the first witnessed incident of a violent cyber-rape that leaves the victim crying “posttraumatic tears” (Dibbell). Dibbell’s account presciently exhorts the reader to “shut our ears momentarily to the techno-utopian ecstasies of West Coast cyberhippies and look without illusion upon the present possibilities for building, in the on-line spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital.” In an intensely evocative paragraph that details the grossly violent sexual violence enacted by a “Mr Bungle” against a number of users of the LambdaMOO, readers momentarily forget that there was
indeed no rape at all as any RL [real life] court of law has yet defined it. The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia. (Dibbell)
As the web evolved, such encounters grew only more ubiquitous, and incidents accrued as a consequence of #gamergate, a hate-fueled vendetta undertaken by communities of male gamers against female game designers and commentators in 2014–2015 (Stuart). This served to bring such horrors full circle, as perpetrators practiced “doxing,” revealing the addresses of their targets in order to underline that threats to their personal safety no longer resided in the virtual realm, but would and could result in horrifying physical bodily harm, to them and their loved ones. Much of this violence took place on Twitter, the social networking site, which as the work of Matias and colleagues (“Reporting, Reviewing”) has shown, responded to approximately half of the reports of harassment with action of suspending, deleting, or warning accounts—but the site itself does not have checks and balances in place to ensure that such harassment does not occur.
The absence of an ethics of infrastructural care by technology corporations such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google diminishes the agency of personhood to a spectral presence. Namrata Gaikwad has eloquently argued that a theory of haunting is an effective methodology to “understand the complexity of postcolonial modernity and its silences” (299), and these “silences of postcolonial modernity” can be transposed to the key of neoliberal neglect, as practiced by these hegemonic technology corporations, which regulate our actions and activities in virtual spaces demonstrating that hegemony, as Derrida says, “still organizes the repression and thus the confirmation of a haunting. Haunting belongs to every hegemony” (quoted by Gaikwad, 307). Gaikwad in her discussion of the actions of the violent, repressive Indian nation-state, with reference to their actions in Manipur (events that will be described below), writes, “We are haunted today by the violence and/or the silence of the past, the past that was forcefully; the past that was forcefully excised from public memory” (307). While digital space allows for this public memory to be restored, gaps intentionally made or otherwise to be filled, the specters of the victims of enacted violence are the ghosts in the machine, especially when relegated to the margins by the proprietary algorithms that now shape the terrain of the World Wide Web.
The Mothers of Manorama
The sustained protest of Manipuri women against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), known as AFSPA—originally instituted by the British to curb nationalist activity, enforced on several occasions by the Indian state to repress anti-national activity in “disturbed areas”—might serve as an instructive object lesson to help think through the slippage between the categories of the visible, visceral, and virtual. Manipur, a northeastern state of India that was annexed forcefully by the Indian government in 1949, has been struggling for its right to self-determination for the last fifty years, with insurgencies dating to 1964 and continuing to the present day.
The enforcement of AFSPA in order to tame anti-Indian activity has been accompanied by gross military brutality in Manipur, and its enactment has been characteristically violent of the procedures followed by the Indian army in states struggling to secede: a grotesque litany of mass massacres and horrific examples of sexual violence against women that have often ended in death. The fury and grief triggered by the particular incident of the rape and custodial death of Thangiam Manorama in 2004 found expression in the protest of a group of prominent Manipuri women activists who staged a naked protest in front of the gates of the Assam Rifles, covered only by a white sheet emblazoned with “Indian Army Rape Us,” a declaration that served as both damning indictment and taunt, as they shouted “Rape us, kill us, take our flesh” (Laul).
This challenge is foretold by the raped tribal revolutionary Draupadi, in Mahashweta Devi’s eponymous short story, who refuses to put on her clothes after she has been raped by armed forces, thus “refusing the disciplining power of shame scripted into the act of rape [becoming] in the words of Mahasweta’s translator Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, a ‘terrifying superobject’” (Misri, 603). Judith Butler, by way of Banu Bargu, speaks of how protest in an age of seemingly decorporealized warfare (think of drones, for example) is being performed by voluntary human shields, who sacrifice, or at the very least calculate “consequences with their own bodies . . . reckoning on themselves as embodied human capital” (Butler). All of these strategies—those of the Manipuri protestors and Draupadi, and those described by Butler and Bargu—use the body to push the limits of visceral spectacle, instrumentalizing themselves in order to retaliate, and doing so by splitting the “binary of victim and agent.”
Deepti Misri studies these forms of embodied protest, placing them in a tradition of feminist protest in India, and while sharing Sharon Marcus’s faith in “a politics of fantasy and representation” (622), Misra is careful to acknowledge the limits of such drastic maneuvers. She echoes Butler’s note of concern with regard to queer activism and resignifications: “How and where does discourse reiterate injury, such that the various efforts to recontextualise and resignify . . . meet their limit in this other, more brutal and relentless form of repetition?” (622). As Misra points out, the spectacular nature of the protest ensured media coverage, and I would add that the continued online circulation and availability of the images might after a point be seen as enacting a sort of sensationalist violence that could possibly border on fetishization.
The anxieties incumbent upon representing traumatized bodies as outlined in the examples above are provoked by questions of representation and who has the right to represent any category or movement. This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the history of the postcolonial Indian women’s movement (IWM) that battled for legitimacy in a climate that considered “feminism” as “Western and elite.” Consequently, as Trishima Mitra-Kahn has described it,
The urban IWM’s feminism as a politics of representation was thus envisioned quite similarly to an anthropological endeavour to push against its middle-class leadership and composition. This phenomenon has been termed by Mary E. John as Indian feminism’s “split subject” (ibid.: 128), with the activist/theorist middle-class feminist self and the socio-economically underprivileged other women as the objects of activism and enquiry. The split subjectivity of feminist politics was “precisely the way” by which the IWM could “proclaim its Indianness” (ibid., emphasis in the original), thereby claiming its legitimacy for Indian women and simultaneously negotiating the “anxieties” around its privileged composition. (110)
The optimized conditions required for using the internet as a platform for activism, such as devices for access, sufficient bandwidth, literacy, and proficiency in English, have meant that inevitably the early incarnations of feminist activism online in India were enacted by (younger) women from the urban and affluent Indian middle class. Two campaigns in particular have been highly visible in the online sphere, garnering recognition and press coverage at both national and international levels: Blank Noise and Why Loiter. Blank Noise was started in 2003 by artist Jasmeen Patheja to record testimonies of sexual assault and harassment, to create a space for conversation around sexual violence, and to mobilize young women to participate in campaigns designed by Patheja, such as the call for “Action Heroes,” which calls upon women to contribute their testimonials of street sexual harassment as a mode of resistance, challenging the conspiracies of silence that traditionally characterize such events in Indian discourse. The site and its satellites encourage conversations about sexual violence as well as providing a platform for images, tweets, and status updates about ways in which women are challenging the ownership of public space. The “Meet to Sleep” initiative, for example, encourages women to nap or sleep in parks as an act of reclamation. The lived experience of most women in India is that of being made to feel unwelcome in public space, while commuting and moving around the city, through modes of both subtle and aggressive harassment, which are also used as tactics for shaming women from “loitering” or spending time idly in outdoor spaces—the basis of the work of another activist group, Why Loiter, based on the ideas articulated by Shilpa Phadke, a feminist academic based at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Mumbai, in her volume of the same name. Why Loiter (both book and movement) is invested in altering the relationship of women to the cities they live in, shifting the lens from the (lack of) women’s safety to that of prioritizing women’s right to pleasure in experiencing, exploring, and wandering the city on their own terms. Why Loiter served as inspiration for a group of young women across the border in Pakistan to start a Tumblr blog called Girls at Dhabas, who started to document instances of women frequenting roadside teastalls and cafes, which are usually overwhelmingly male spaces (Sheikh).
While the spectacularization of these achievements via social media and the virtual record is hugely encouraging to women from similar backgrounds to be more confident in their ownership of public space, its iconography is largely exclusionary of women for whom such confidence is an even more distant and impossible prospect. The archive overwhelmingly features women from dominant upper-caste and upper-class backgrounds, who at least have the luxury and leisure time to loiter, or to return to their homes, as their socioeconomic class does not force them to sleep in parks or outdoor spaces without access to safe sanitation. The hashtags around the movements are predominantly English language, which could be considered exclusionary, and the founders of the movements are well aware of the paradoxes that lie at the heart of such initiatives. Indeed, Phadke and colleagues (the founders of Why Loiter) position themselves explicitly as educated, employed, middle-class urban Indian women to whom the perceived threat of sexual violence is often imagined to reside in the bodies of the lower-class male. Phadke in her later writing does reflect upon the fact that
when we engage with violence in relation to claims on the city, it is important to see violence against women in public as being located alongside violence against the poor, Muslims, dalits, hawkers, sex workers and bar dancers. Addressing the question of women’s access to public space then means engaging with realities of layered exclusion and multiple marginalisations: the exclusion of the poor, dalits, Muslims, or indeed hawkers and sex workers are not acts of benevolence towards women but part of larger more complex processes where one group of the marginalised is set against another. (Phadke, Khan, and Ranade, “Unfriendly Bodies,” 52)
Despite these acknowledgments, the majority of the virtual archive is composed of a certain exclusionary narrative, which challenges the conception of an intersectional feminism that considers such struggles as interconnected. Such modes of online protest are destined to be complicit with existing corporate frameworks. Especially when relying on third-party operations such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, their message is destined to be diluted by the whims of the algorithmically inflated filter bubble, but at a more crucial and vital level, failing to represent or amplify groups other than themselves. However, as conversations around intersectionality and the digital humanities become more visible and regarded as important corollaries to those conversations around feminism and diversity in the Anglo-American academy, it might be worth considering whether the same paradigm can be usefully deployed in activism in India, especially in the digital sphere.
Nivedita Menon suggests “that the tendency when studying the ‘non-West,’ is to test the applicability of theory developed through ‘western’ experience, rather than entering into the unfamiliar conceptual field opened up by thinkers and activists in the former” (Menon). For most academics working in South Asia whose humanities training was the legacy of colonial education, this tendency will seem very familiar, and part of the work that needs to be done in South Asian/Indian digital humanities is to ensure our work is relevant to our local communities, while pursuing intellectual exchange with global communities, that is, a conversation rather than flowing only in one direction. As Menon puts it, “theory must be located” by addressing its necessarily different, difficult, and contextually specific questions.
Menon sounds a note of caution against mapping intersectionality directly onto the Indian context as, especially in the postcolonial moment, new identities emerged from different contexts forced recognition among South Asian feminists “that all political solidarities are conjunctural and historically contingent.” The very specific vectors that shape the category of the Indian woman are caste, religious community, and sexuality, and definite fault lines exist between all of these, their contradictions sometimes enshrined by the Indian constitution itself. As Menon puts it, “Equal rights for women as individuals come into conflict with religious personal laws, all of which discriminate against women. Similarly, the demand for reservations in representative institutions on the basis of group identity—women, castes or religious communities—fundamentally challenges the individualist conception of political representation at the core of liberal democracy” (“Is Feminism”).
Menon demonstrates these contradictions framed by the Women’s Reservation Bill, for example, which while enacted as affirmative action to ensure 33 percent representation in the houses of Parliament and state legislative assemblies would in reality probably result in the presence of more elite women rather than nondominant caste (Dalit) men. Menon continues: “The challenge of course, for both feminist and Dalit politics, is to recognise that in different contexts the salience of gender and caste will vary, requiring both to proceed tentatively, each prepared to be destabilised by the other.”
Dalit Women Fight
The domination of the conversation about feminist online activism from India by dominant caste groups such as Blank Noise and Why Loiter, in coverage by academics and media outlets alike, precisely highlights the intersectional gap in the IWM—and uncovers a deep irony, as there is little doubt that the figure of the Dalit woman is statistically the most likely to encounter sexual violence, and the least likely to have recourse to justice. There has been little curiosity as to where and how to discover and recover voices of Dalit women in the online sphere, possibly because of the continuing struggle of the Dalit community for a life of dignity and “bare life,” education and employment, where access to the digital seems like a relatively less urgent need.
Pramod Nayar in his 2011 essay on the digital Dalit is probably the first scholar to make a concerted effort to redress this gap in the archive, by describing Dalit websites from the last ten years, and the important purpose of sites such as Dalitistan served in the documentation of caste-based violence drawn from newspaper and television reports. I agree with Nayar’s assertion that these examples of documentation are important and necessary modes of reconstructing cultural memory, especially in the face of the right-wing Indian government’s attempts to sanitize national history and silence disruptive narratives.
A particularly salient point that Nayar makes is the potential of the digital Dalit to connect with communities of interest that posit an alternative history of India as the history of discrimination, but one that intersects with global concerns about race and race-based discrimination. Therefore, one needs to see the self-representation and presence of Dalits in such websites as a force that enables transnationalization “by appealing to and fitting themselves into a global historical narrative of oppression, torture and trauma” (4, emphasis in original). This visibility has allowed for the forging of new alliances: “Dalit activism when it goes online enables a transnational subaltern project, seeking and establishing links with sympathizers, activists, NGOs, [and] transnational organizations as well as with other histories of oppression—the blacks, mainly, but also African Americans” (4). The surfacing of the hashtag #Dalitlivesmatter soon after the #BlackLivesMatter and the increasingly vocal rallying behind both causes online allowed allies in both communities to find each other and develop structures of mutual support.
One of the best examples of this transnational friendship found expression in the collaborative events organized by Dalit Women Fight (DWF) with grassroots #BlackLivesMatter activists in 2016. DWF, founded by Thenmozhi Soundarajan, is a visual chronicle of the activities of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), an association of Dalit women activists, who organized a month-long yatra or campaign, traveling through India, visiting every state, and holding public meetings where they undertook the Ambedkarite tenets of “educate—organize—agitate” (a phrase coined by economist and reformer B. R. Ambedkar, one of India’s most influential Dalit thinkers). They worked in collaboration with local groups to publicize the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, and to help provide recourse to justice for caste-based violence, as well as support for survivors. The Manch organized events to take these claims to institutional authorities, in the face of opposition and aggression, lending solidarity and knowledge to communities who might have not felt empowered enough to assert themselves without the support of this larger network.
DWF presents an alternative visual narrative to one that has historically accrued to that of the Dalit female body, one of abjection and victimhood, and the digital archive has been considerably altered by the efforts of Soundarajan and others to document the Dalit women’s movement. Dalit grassroots activist Manisha Mashaal, who has been active in the movement since 2005, describes how significant the ownership and representation of Dalit identity online have been:
When the group was started, we were not avid users of Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. It was in 2013 that we first used the hashtag #DalitWomenFight. We took the Yatra to USA as well. We spoke in about 22 universities about our struggles. We talked about how Dalit women are suffering and being discriminated against. . . . Yes, definitely there has been some transformation. Earlier the media used to remain totally mute on our issues. In all these years, we took workshops trying to educate people on how social media and mainstream media is not benefiting us. It was not helping our cause, our struggle. So we endorsed the idea of creating and furthering our own voice through the same media, but by creating our own counter media platforms. We always knew that unless we do not get that space, our problems will not be known to the wider public. So the Dalit movement that was taking shape then has benefited a lot from social media, because Dalit students have started using these platforms for themselves and their community. That way, we can find out what is happening in Uttar Pradesh, in Haryana, in Bihar and other states. The Dalit movement is shaped by this transformation. The women’s struggle in Dalit movement is only beginning to find its space, and we are working on that. Dalit Women Fight is one such step towards the liberation of Dalit women. (Alok)
The impact of how the increasing presence of Dalit voices in the online sphere has changed conversations about caste has been the basis of the work currently being done by Anushka Shah and her colleagues at the Center for Civic Media at MIT. Shah’s work examines the period between July 2015 and August 2016, looking primarily at Indian English-language news media, which historically have seen a dearth of reporting around Dalit and nondominant case issues, due to both their target audience (urban, middle- to upper-class or caste) and the inadequate representation of Dalits in newsrooms. Using the Center for Civic Media’s MediaCloud to search across 677 English-language sources, Shah utilized a specific citation metric to measure impact: “The final metric used is not the total number of times a story or source got linked to, but from how many unique media it got linked to, i.e. if a Times of India story was cited by five different publications while a Scroll.in was cited five times by one publication, the Times of India story will be given a measure of 5 while the Scroll.in story will remain at a measure of 1” (“MIT MediaCloud”).
Shah found that the data skewed interestingly from expectations: the three major newspapers by subscription figures featured in the list of the top ten, but surprisingly, Indian Express, which does not feature in the top ten according to subscription figures, was the most cited paper online. The other significant finding was the presence of Roundtableindia.co.in, a Dalit-issue blog that was hitherto not at all part of mainstream media discourse.
Despite these encouraging shifts, sites like Roundtable, while including women on their roster of writers, do not focus exclusively on gender issues, and the presence of patriarchal attitudes even within the community has persuaded women to create their own resources such as Savari, a site that provides a platform for Adivasi, Bahujan, and Dalit women and encourages cross-border conversations with women from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Dalit Women Fight undertook a tour in the United States visiting college campuses and other venues over the last year, where they explained how the practice of untouchability circumscribed the Dalit experience, and the harrowing incidents of violence experienced by members of the community, especially and overwhelmingly by women. Members of Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name who lent support and shared strategies with DWF were struck by the similarities between the two movements. Brianna Gibson, a Black Lives Matter movement leader in the Bay Area, remarked, “So, someone saying you know, ‘We’re post-caste,’ versus ‘post-racial.’ It’s like ‘Wow, that’s exactly the same thing.’ Or they’ll tell you, ‘You’re being divisive’” (Paul).
The assumptions that underpin “postracial” thinking are challenged in Alexander Weheliye’s radical rereading of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of “bare life,” addressing how the latter’s scholarship fails to theorize race and racism as part of that conceptual framework, and the role played by embodiment in that framework. As Weheliye puts it, “How is a category such as bare life embodied and lived?” Weheliye takes issue with the notion that we are now “posthuman” and urges for a reconsideration of what it means to be human from the vantage point of the slave body, the colonized body, and I would add to this, the indigenous or marginalized body which for our particular context is more often than not the caste-ridden body. This sort of biopolitical racism is destined to embed and repeat itself time and again in the face of, as Nancy Fraser puts it, “a cruel twist of fate” that has led to “the movement for women’s liberation [that] has (to) become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society.” The “racial innocence,” to use Weheliye’s words, is uncomfortably present in our digital efforts at feminist activism that by and large exclude Dalit and other disadvantaged, marginalized bodies.
In her important work on the Mothers of Manorama, Paromita Chakravarti articulates how the neoliberal state directly colludes in violence unleashed against women, which, as she says,
is intimately connected to the contemporary development policies of the Indian state. Following the liberalisation and globalisation of the economy, the Indian state is withdrawing from public sector spending. Abdicating its developmental responsibilities it is emerging as a broker for multinational corporations, securing them cheap land, offering business concessions and setting up low-tax Special Economic Zones. . . . There is a new legitimisation of state violence in the name of development and progress that gathers strength from the rhetoric deployed in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, justifying violence as a legitimate means of ensuring democracy, even peace and development. (53)
Chakravarti’s concerns find deep resonance in the digital space, especially after Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014, accomplished in some part by the “Make in India” and “Digital India” initiatives that formed the cornerstone of his prime ministerial campaign. However, while the ambitious promises of the Digital India initiative to empower rural and poorer communities are languishing, Modi has been keenly courting tech superpowers in Silicon Valley, ensuring that venture capital, which largely benefits the Indian middle class, continues to flow into the country (Goel).
This position, coupled with the government’s actions that demonstrate increased intolerance toward marginalized groups on the basis of religion and caste, creates a climate where protest needs must be acknowledged not as the necessary recourse of those who do not have access to other means. As Chakravarti puts it, “a form of protest that is rooted in local movements, rituals and experiences, [which] opens up the possibility of going beyond . . . global paradigms, which fall back on the structures of law and the state for delivery” (51). The Mothers of Manorama deployed a new political language of mockery and subversion which undermined the rhetoric of a protective nation or a welfarist state, which deployed the body as a technology, a way of producing knowledge that could even be considered posthuman in its demand to reconsider the body on its own terms as something other than the meaning foisted upon it by the patriarchal nation-state. Dalit feminist activism seeks to bridge the divide between offline and online worlds by using its representation and archiving of the embodied movement to redress gaps in the digital archive as well as that of national historical narrative.
It is essential that those of us working in the digital humanities are always alert to the ways in which regimes of knowledge and representation are reproduced in the online sphere. As Jasbir Puar puts it, there is much more here at stake than personal politics: “limitations of intersectional frameworks go far beyond rethinking its contextual specificity—this is not only about epistemological incongruency but more importantly, ontological irreducibility” (“I Would Rather Be”). In order to enact a more heterotopic reality, it is the responsibility of digital humanists to build tools and strategies to transform the bodies of the machines that watch over us with loving grace to meaningfully counter the violence being done to our own.
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