Hashtags generally come with shelf lives and expiry dates. They come to life in a moment of public excitement and then slowly peter out as the attention shifts to something else. Even the most viral hashtags, which contain all the visceral power of explosive emotion, quickly get replaced by the next big thing. Hashtags have been critiqued as inefficient tools for activism. Because they absorb so much energy and attention, only to fade.
While it is true that in the rapidly overloaded information cycles of social media, hashtags might disappear in due time, maybe we need to think of their disappearance as hibernation rather than forgetting, being archived to memory rather than being lost to recall. Perhaps, it is not yet time to wash our hands of hashtag-based activism, because they do not stay in continued attention. Maybe, it is possible that even when hashtags might not be trending and garnering eyeballs, in their very presence and emergence, they transform something and catalyse actions that take incubation cycles longer than the accelerated digitalisation allows for.
Recently, this reminder came when I saw #NotGoingBack trending on Twitter. In 2013, when the Supreme Court of India overturned the Delhi High Court’s judgment reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, it was a moment of despair for human rights and queer communities that fight for their right to life and love. The judgment reinforced shame, persecution and pain that the queer community in India faced because of an arcane law that punished consenting same-sex love.
In that moment of despair, fighting against the oppression by law and in validation of #queerlivesmatter, a hashtag was born: #NotGoingBack. The hashtag referred both to the metaphorical closet that this judgement would force queer people back into, and also to a political determination of not accepting this verdict — of not going back on our commitments to build diverse, inclusive, and safe societies for all our people. #NotGoingBack captured the narratives of despair, but also the collective resolve to continue fighting for a nation that is for everyone, in 2013.
Since then, it has resurfaced at different points during moments of hope — like the NALSA judgement that legalised the rights of trans-gender people to be identified as the third gender, or, in moments of pain — when we heard of queer people killing themselves, unable to bear the social stigma of being criminalised for their right to love. The hashtag has continued to come up, when legal fights to protect queer rights and lives have proceeded, or when attention had to be drawn to the inhumane reports of murder, torture, rape and imprisonment that followed.
In July 2018, when the new bench constituted by the Supreme Court agreed to question the re-criminalisation verdict, and started hearings about the constitutional validity of this judgment, the hashtag returned in full force — and unlike the other times, it was also suffused with love, hope, and solidarity of a large community of queer, queer-allied, and queer-friendly people who supported this revision. It has been extraordinary to see how public support has changed in the five years since the hashtag made its first appearance. More and more people have realised that while this is a question of queer rights, it is also a question of human rights, and how we live and love. The 2013 verdict suggested that the people were not ready to accept queer lives. The 2018 bench has clearly opined that the role of the court is to protect the people based on constitutional rights, not to pander to populism.
And yet, what has been inspiring is that the popular response to decriminalisation has been overwhelmingly positive. To the extent that even the conservative government at the centre has indicated that it will not challenge the wisdom of the court if it decides to read down Section 377. As we await the final judgment that promises to be historic and hopeful, we cannot deny the indefatigable commitment, movement and protest that the lawyers, activists, and queer community leaders have invested in making this happen. At the same time, it is also a good indicator of how hashtags live, morph, and re-emerge across longer timelines. We need to start recognising them not only in their fruit-fly like presence but as catalysts for longer movements.