Two years ago, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, US-based Dalit rights activist and artist, designed a poster of a Dalit woman holding up a placard that read “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” as part of her work on caste, gender and religious intolerance.
That set off a storm on social media Tuesday with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey being accused of “Hinduphobia” and “inciting violence and hate” for a picture that showed him holding the poster. Just days ago, Dorsey had got the red carpet Left and Right including a meeting with the PM.
After all, Soundararajan said, with the #MeTooIndia movement, the country should have been more ready than ever to discuss how “caste impunity perpetuates gender-based violence”. “I have nothing but empathy for Jack. For one day, simply for carrying a piece of Dalit feminist art, he got a taste of violence that Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) women and gender non-binary folks face on a daily basis,” Thenmozhi told The Indian Express.
Soundararajan was aware that Sanghapali Aruna of Project Mukti, who works on digital literacy among the DBA and Muslim communities, was set to meet the Twitter CEO during his recent India visit and gift him two of her posters (the second reads ‘End Caste Apartheid’).
But she says she never anticipated the online backlash that led Twitter to quickly clarify: “It is not a statement from Twitter or our CEO, but a tangible reflection of our company’s efforts to see, hear, and understand all sides of important public conversations that happen on our service around the world.”
Twitter’s legal head Vijaya Gadde apologised. “I’m very sorry for this. It’s not reflective of our views. We took a private photo with a gift just given to us — we should have been more thoughtful. Twitter strives to be an impartial platform for all. We failed to do that here & we must do better to serve our customers in India,” she tweeted.
Twitter’s regret came after a flood of messages that slammed the poster as “Brahminophobic.” Serving IPS officer Sandeep Mittal, Joint Secretary (Parliament), tweeted from his verified handle that the picture has “potential of causing communal riots”…and is a “fit case for registering a criminal case for attempt to destabilise the nation.”
Aruna, who had a conversation with Dorsey on the links between caste and gender, said she failed to understand why Twitter needed to apologise when it would never be an apologist for white supremacy. The posters, she said, were meant to call out the institutionalised oppression, both on ground and online.
“Caste system doesn’t operate only on ground but also on these platforms. Our communities are new to this platform, especially since many are not familiar with English as a medium. Now, when we have found a voice on Twitter to mobilise and organise, Twitter has a responsibility to create safe spaces for communities that are more vulnerable,” said Aruna.
Soundararajan said this online violence is one of the reasons why many, especially women and minority communities, leave the social media platform. “In India, online violence easily jumps to the real world, as we saw in the case of the WhatsApp lynchings,” she said. She said the phrase ‘Brahminical Patriarchy’ is nothing new; it simply gives an insight into how intersectionality works in the Indian context.
“What changed here is that there was a potential global spotlight on the root causes of gender and caste-based violence in India because Jack, the CEO of Twitter, was holding the poster. For Savarnas with caste privilege, caste equity feels like oppression. And this incident is a great example of that,” said Soundararajan.
She said handing over the poster was not meant to be any sort of subversive process. “The act of giving this art was an act of sharing our struggles and the urgency of gender-based violence against Dalit women in India. We have just opened the conversation with #MetooIndia and yet no one is talking about Tamil Nadu’s Raja Lakshmi, the 13-year-old who was decapitated by her perpetrator for speaking out about her harassment. How many Raja Lakshmis must die before our cries are heard,” she said.
Soundararajan is the Executive Director of the Equality Lab, which in October 2018 became the only South Asian organisation in the US to be chosen, in consultation with #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, for the #MeToo Fund meant for working with marginalised groups. She described #MeTooIndia as “a moment of reckoning that brings with it the incredible potential for a transformative survivor-centred path to ending gender-based violence”.
However, she stressed that the movement is incomplete as long as it merely focuses on individual acts instead of a structural oppression. “#MeTooIndia needs to re-envision itself as one that moves beyond individual encounters and instead looks at the root causes of sexual violence which is caste apartheid,” she said.