As more and more of our lives, aspirations and identities play out on the internet, a cross-section of marginalised voices is turning to the social media to assert their identities, seeking to be heard. They include participatory projects like Dalit History Month and online networks like The Queer Muslim Project. The second session of the IE Thinc edition on ‘Empowering the Marginalised’, discussed the various ways digitisation has proved to be a boon for marginalised sections. Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder, Queer Muslim Project; Asha Kowtal, general secretary, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch; Ravichandran Bathran, founder, Dalit Camera; Divya Dureja, co-founder, Performers’ Consortium were the panel members at the discussion, moderated by Dipti Nagpaul, Assistant Editor, The Indian Express.
How has digital media helped you in empowering yourself?
Asha Kowtal: Women in my community are trying to get our voices to the centre of feminism and activism. The Dalit movement has had a very vibrant history of resilience. And we are where we are today because of this. The movement has used various media in the past to bring our community together. So, I think, it is important to recognise all those artists, poets, writers, etc. before coming to the advent of digital media. All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch works across seven different states in north India, organises various programmes, tracks caste atrocities, particularly on women, and monitors why a person is trying to access justice in a system that is designed to almost fail. This led us to the social media platforms. It was 20 of us initially. We were the first or second generation of learners, in terms of technology, access, hashtags and even English. So, we had to go step by step. Dalit women had always been portrayed in the negative light; we wanted to put forward our work to change people’s mindset about us. So, we chose to form the group and fight online. Of course, it aligned with what we were campaigning offline. We did have training on how to deal with technology and social media. We did not have a road map; we still don’t have it. We are learning as we are moving ahead.
Rafiul Alom Rahman: Before I talk about my work, I want to share an anecdote. In 2016, I had applied for a passport as I had to write GRE and apply for PhD in the US. When the police came to my door to verify my address, my landlord, who had agreed to be my local witness when I had applied for the passport, refused to identify me. It put me in a spot; it was betrayal. The police asked me to visit the police station the next day. Meanwhile, I spoke to a lawyer friend, arranged for another local guardian. The next day, I went to the police station with the authorisation letter, documents and the local friend. I went out to get some document photocopied and when I came back, the policeman suddenly appeared to be very polite to me. It was surprising. On the way back home, my friend said, “The policeman asked me about your orientation and, after knowing it, he changed.” So, somewhere I feel, if my Muslim identity can be a threat to people, my being queer changes that thought.
With time, I found out there are so many stereotypes we fight everyday that it leads to mental breakdown. I think my journey began in search of some of these narratives: finding voices who are neither this nor that. There’s an assumption that you cannot be gay and Muslim. But I have known so many people. I started the Queer Muslim Project in March 2017 as an online platform. In the western context, a lot of interesting concepts were being discussed around faith. But it was not that popular in the South Asian context. A lot of people did not even have that information. When I went to the US for my PhD, I was a part of such movements. I remember a beautiful gathering at a Church where there were people of different faiths. There were people from LGBTQ community. It was a very emotionally charged event. There’s this belief that Queer Muslim is ‘unIslamic’. But in the queer spaces, in a way, you have to completely denounce your faith. In the context of India, we know that Muslims — the religious minority — have been going through a very rough time. Any movement around Muslim minority rights is seen as politically too sensitive. So, basically my work online is formed by my own struggles and what we try to do is get more of these narratives. And I say this with happiness that we have put forward many such narratives around the world.
Ravichandran Bathran: Dalit Camera is not my name at all; it is a collective effort. I started that in 2008. I started it out of frustration with various newspapers, where they would remember caste only when it’s about reservations, violence and poverty. At that time, a Dalit woman was attacked in Tamil Nadu. She was the Dalit panchayat president. I felt I should be by her side and give her the support that I never got. So, I went there, took a video and thought of archiving. I uploaded it and many people watched it. The number of viewers was low, but even 200 hits was great then. My intention was to archive the Dalit movement that has always been missing. And this is how Dalit camera emerged. The online space is a weird space for us. For example, eight years ago, I did not know what caste is. With time, I grew my knowledge and understanding of what caste is.
Divya Dureja: I am a ’90s kid. I grew up with certain privileges, like access to phones. With time, Facebook and Instagram rolled out. I had to learn how much to navigate and how much not to. As I struggled with my identity of being queer, I feared whether I am giving away too much. At that moment, when you are closeted in your room and looking for someone who shares similar thoughts like you, you access internet and all of them are on social media. But Facebook has open groups, closed groups and secret groups. Section 377 was re-criminalised then. Every news or coverage spoke of our need to protest, raise our voices and show people that we were visible. So, the re-criminalisation actually prompted a lot of people to come out. My journey with digital media began when I started visiting those protests. I found there were a lot of people with agony and felt that they needed another space that was safe and had lighter and different kind of environment. I was in New York for a short while working with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and my work was very intense there. But, other than that, I used to go to queer events, queer pubs and meet people: it was all possible because of the events on Facebook groups that were public. I noticed that in Delhi and other urban cities, there were no public groups or events created on Facebook. When I returned, I decided that’s what I am going to focus upon because that was also essential for somebody’s mental health. I understood the problems on these Instagram, Facebook pages and tried to eliminate those problems to make the space safer.
What kind of challenges does social media throw up?
Asha Kowtal: To be active on social media is taking a huge toll on us because a large part of our work is on the ground — with survivors, organising communities, fighting with the authorities, etc. After doing this all day long, we come back and put up an update on the social media. We used to keep questioning ourselves: what is the purpose of doing this? We understood that it is not our responsibility to educate the world about how atrocious the caste system is. But we felt that for strengthening the campaign, both online and offline, visibility was needed: we needed to get in touch with the right persons to make the campaign a success. Being on social media with limited human resource was a challenge by itself. But now things are changing. Now, more and more activists are coming up on social media and the mode of spreading the campaign has also got digitised.
How important does it become to ally with people who are working on the ground?
Rafiul Alom Rahman: We started online, but we actually built an offline movement through our online space. By the end of 2017, I realised that our Facebook page was catching up, with a lot of people liking and sharing our posts. There were a couple of young people from Bengaluru who reached out to me because I was the only person at that time handling the page; it was not a community. He asked to have a chapter in Bengaluru. It made me feel great that people felt there was a need of such a space. For me, the experience is different on Facebook and Instagram. They have affected my mental health. Social media has worldwide presence. So, the question arises: how can I lead a movement globally? We have started doing Facebook Lives, where activists from other countries, too, participate. We have made a good network in South Asian countries. We are planning to go out of the country for seminars under the page.
Ravichandran Bathran: I learnt a lot working on ground. It’s then I learnt how Indian academicians lie about caste, how they do not bring out important issues like manual scavenging as a part of their discussion.
How difficult is it to get your voice heard on the digital platform?
Divya Dureja: There’s enough space for everyone. We are not fighting against anyone. If a person needs a space, he/she will find you. If anyone wants to do anything on queer space, I would support them.
Asha Kowtal: I agree that there’s space for everyone. Also, there’s a need to consider who has controlled that space, who has had that space. And, speaking about liberty of accessing social media, I think we need to twist it a bit — there’s nothing like ‘that is intersectional’ and ‘this is not intersectional’. Actually, everything is intersectional. If we see it this way, then we can make space for everyone.