When in 2015, with the WhatsApp-like messaging services surging high, the Indian Tricolour emoji was released, there was a lot of scoffing about it. To reduce the national flag to a cartoonish icon was a mockery. The lofty flag, it was felt, should not just be a symbol so lightly thrown around, with the possibility that you were using it while sitting on the toilet seat, phone in your hands. In the five years since it has been released, we have seen the flag emoji proliferate in different forms – generally trending around Independence and Republic Days, when patriotism becomes fashionable online, showing up when Indian athletes and sportspersons win important accolades, and also in those bizarre forwards where we keep on claiming that we got certified by international institutions as having best anthems, cities, plans, and culture. The Indian flag emoji, in our digital conversations, has come to stand in for national pride and celebration of our people. However, in the last few months, since the extraordinary demonstrations against the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, have taken the country by storm, you see a strange shift in how the Indian flag emoji has been used. Once a casual hashtag for visually demonstrating pride, it has suddenly become a space for contestation – a struggle for belonging and ownership. In these times, when a large number of people are experiencing precariousness at the hands of the state and the normalisation of violence in everyday space, the flag emoji has started showing up not in the unquestioned performance of nationalism but a fierce, critical, and impassioned protection and championing of the fundamental and foundational civil liberties, enshrined by the progressive and poignant preamble to our Constitution.
Even as vested powers clamp down on free speech, encourage troll farms towards hateful online behaviour, create polarised rhetoric about certain populations, and try and deploy the power of social web to demonise the protesters who have taken to the streets, the flag emoji stands as a proud icon of resistance and support. The people at protests use the flag to find shelter from those who are letting down the Constitutional promises that they were elected to uphold. The flag comes up as a reminder of their right to protest and critique in a democratic nation state. The youth of India, in particular, who have been a little shy of jingoistic patriotism, have taken to the emoji as a way of establishing their power in shaping the politics of the country.
In the current debates about preserving the multicultural and diverse integrity of the country, no other emoji has shown the capacity for resistance as much as the flag emoji. In his poem Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge, the unofficial anthem for the movement, Varun Grover writes with the conviction that comes from trust in the flag and laws of social justice – we will unfurl the Tricolour, but we will not show our papers. As people double down – the women at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, the students at JNU, the protesters at YMCA, Mumbai, the assemblies at the Town Hall in Bengaluru – the Tricolour flutters with triumph, as a reminder that the voice of the people will not be squashed. The Indian flag emoji also accompanies the tweets, videos on Instagram, stories on Facebook, blogs, comments, discussions, and comments about the critique of the government – reminding us that the nation is larger than those elected to power. The flag emoji is, perhaps, an incredible demonstration of what hashtag activism 3.0 looks like. This is no longer the first wave of armchair activism where people perched on trending topics and moved on as internet timelines made other things viral. This is not the moment of web 2.0 where performance of politics and wearing of badges and putting visuals to identify oneself was considered a political act. The flag emoji, and how it accompanies the current debates, is digital activism of a new wave – where the digital symbols become a way of questioning, countering, and critiquing the monolithic narratives produced by those in institutional powers.
This new hashtag activism 3.0 recognises that the digital has become a space where the new meanings and narratives are formed. In the age of context-collapsed misinformation, the ironical and questioning use of the flag emoji recaptures the narrative of happy patriotism and instead shows the immense labour that goes into the making, and defending the idea, of a nation. The emoji makes us pause and reflect on the politics of our lives, reminding us that our allegiance to the constitutional nation state and responsibilities as citizens will have to supersede the narratives we produce and endorse in our social media feeds.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.
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