Chintan Chauhan, an aerospace engineering graduate from IIT Bombay, picked up his brush during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The 28-year-old teacher, whose parents changed his last name to help him assimilate into a casteist society, refers to his ancestry as leather-craftsmen and artisans instead of the Brahminic term imposed on his community.
The 2020 custodial torture and subsequent murder of P Jeyaraj and his son J Beniks (Fennix) in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, lead Chintan (@cheekychatterbox) to assert his caste identity and share anti-caste content on social media. "I started painting mainly to raise awareness on caste issues," he said. A few months later Chintan's work started getting noticed as artists from the community shared his work. Soon, Chintan began receiving a barrage of abusive comments like his fellow anti-caste activists.
"Initially, I tried to explain things rationally or get back at them [savarnas] with logic. Later, I realised this was leading nowhere; only using up my time and burning me out. Like other artists on the platform, I tried to report the abusers, but Instagram has always been too busy to review any requests. Finally, I started ignoring and let the comments exist for the world to see," he tells DECODE.
Chintan is one of the several vocal activists belonging to marginalised caste communities, who are at the receiving end of hate comments and more often than not, Instagram refuses to block or penalise the abusers. It fails to recognise casteist comments as abuse that violates community guidelines.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, pushes content creation as a massive money-making opportunity. However, its reluctance to take a stance on casteism makes it difficult for people from marginalised castes to make a livelihood, raise money for important and emergency causes, and sell creative work on the platform.
With close to 2,500 followers, Chintan's work has been consistently shared and the number of likes and shares on his posts has gone up. But the 'reach' of his account has been steadily declining. "I can't say why this is happening. It could be because of mass reporting or perhaps because the company wants us to pay to increase our reach," sighs Chintan.
For Abhishek Hadimani, an IT professional, it wasn't hard to find out that his anti-caste artwork was being mass reported. The artist from Solapur, Maharashtra, who goes by the handle @yoabhish came across a post where a person shared his artwork using a casteist slur for Ambedkarites - bh**ta - and invited people to report it.
With a barrage of casteist comments, Abhishek had to limit his notifications. On a friend's advice, he started to report and delete the comments, but the hateful, threatening messages didn't stop. Although he admits to being scared initially, he says he has now started ignoring it.
The mass reporting of his artwork affected the reach, and therefore likes and shares of all his other posts on Instagram. However, that hasn't stopped Abhishek from making art that continues to attack the Brahmanical system. "What do I have to lose?" he quips.
In the savarna-dominated world of social media, the trauma that Dalit people face is mostly overlooked, but it's a part of their everyday life.
Siddhesh Gautam says that the hate he faces on social media has increased his epileptic episodes. "I am epileptic and stress triggers my convulsion episodes. I've had numerous convulsions due to the hate from social media," Siddhesh, who goes by the handle @bakeryprasad on Instagram, with over 50,000 followers, said.
On social media platforms, Dalit people get pigeon-holed under the category of 'Dalitness' where they are expected to speak solely about their trauma arising from casteism. They are seen as individuals not capable of having expertise and interests away from their caste identity.
Siddhesh says that his work on social media has made an impact on his career where he feels limited to just being a 'Dalit artist'. "Most of the work that I get is around the caste issue," he says, adding that he doesn't despise talking being termed as a Dalit artist under the larger banner of being an artist and creative soul. "But it does not expand my professional possibilities," he says.
The Business And The Activism
RV Purusothaman, 30 (@purushuarie on Instagram) launched India's first exclusively ungendered fashion label called Purushu Arie in 2017 in Chennai. Purushothaman's blog, which they launched in 2009, documented their creative journey- it was rated as the most influential one in New Delhi by Hindustan Times in 2011. However, the challenges of the blogosphere and social media, namely Instagram, are different, according to them, and they weren't able to publish their first article on casteism in fashion until 2021.
"Despite being among the earliest Indian fashion bloggers, I had a rather late-pick-up on social media. Abusive comments are common in the Internet ecosystem and I was used to it right from my blogging days. But I wasn't prepared for the ostracism or censorship from media and fashion organisations when I started writing about casteism in the Indian fashion industry," says Purusothaman.
Within the intersections of marginalisation, caste is often the most overlooked factor, despite being the most important one because of its pervasive nature among class, gender, sexuality, disability, and/or neurodivergence identities.
Purusothaman had launched their fashion line in 2017 in the industry that marketed and commercialised the dialogues of inclusive fashion at least from the mid-2010s. While giving interviews to media outlets, he realised that the fashion media likes to discuss marginalisation but not Brahminical hegemony.
"There are many instances where my views on ungendered fashion were published with ease, whereas my quotes on casteism and Brahminical hegemony were omitted, and censored. One editor openly told me that she agrees with what I have to say but they're a right-leaning paper and have been told 'not to cut the hand that feeds them' — those were the exact words!"
"Why do you bring caste into everything?' Purusothaman remembers being asked by their followers after the launch of their ungendered fashion line.
"It was acceptable to talk about gender disparities, norms, and roles in fashion and clothing but 'controversial' to discuss casteist norms in fashion, clothing, and disparities in the industry. I realised that fashion's 'woke' people love personal liberties. They want to wear what they want to wear, they want to look however they want to look, they want to do what they want to do. But they aren't up for equality, fraternity, and social justice," he says.
Talking about casteist disparities, he says, cost him 1500-2000 followers. "That's 1/3rd of my total Instagram following over the years," he says.
Purusothaman's experience in the fashion industry is a common yet unspoken example of the queer, trans-nb culture in India, which is deeply casteist.
Despite all the prejudices, Purusothaman considers social media as an important place, personally and for the community.
"The narratives in the Indian fashion industry have largely come from the savarna gaze. Fashion editorials, runways, academia, styling-designer-modelling fraternity are all primarily savarna-dominated," he says. This is why, he explains, social media became the democratic platform for all.
"I owe a lot to social media for providing me with a platform for self-expression and networking with many DBA artists and content creators. But, everything comes with its share of pros and cons. In social media, the cons are the frequent abuses, harassment, bullying, and doxing. DBA artists, lacking socio-economic capital, are the most vulnerable targets of abuse. DBA persons face the wrath of casteism in all walks of life and social media is one of the many spaces where casteism is rampant.
Social media influence and content creation is an important tool to educate people and it's important to have DBA voices in its discourse. The Indian TV and print media continue to ostracise DBA voices. When newsrooms and newspaper columns are presented through the savarna gaze, social media remains the only democratic platform for DBA persons to put forward their viewpoint."
Instagram's updated policy from February 2021 does not mention caste. Instead, it says, "Instagram does not tolerate attacks on people based on their protected characteristics, including race or religion. We strengthened these rules last year, banning more implicit forms of hate speech, like content depicting Blackface and common antisemitic tropes."
The platform recently announced its new feature, 'Limits', which allows long-standing followers to interact with the account, limiting troll accounts who incite hate. But, this may be an exclusive feature and might not make any difference in an upper caste-dominated casteist social media.
According to a CSDS report, Instagram is used by 15% of India's population and has the highest educated (college education) users compared to any other social media platform. College-educated voters are four times more likely to use Instagram than voters with matriculation-level education -— the percentage gap is 28% to 7%. However, the report says that despite having the most educated Indians, Instagram is one of the most difficult social media platforms to navigate for Dalit people because of its lax policies on casteist hate speech. The myth of higher education or knowledge leading to caste eradication is merely a hope, not an actuality.
Meanwhile, Instagram's algorithm has also come under criticism for being discriminatory against marginalised people, including marginalised caste people. Instagram, however, has stated that it doesn't use a single algorithm. But, the set of criteria for posts used by their algorithm can make anti-caste content less visible. For example, one of the criteria for post visibility includes the number of people viewing, liking, commenting, and saving the post. The savarna-dominated social media does not actively engage with anti-caste posts. Their only engagement with such content is substantial enough to make a difference because they mass report Ambedkarite and anti-caste posts.
Anurag, (@anuragminusverma on Instagram (with 23.5k followers), started asserting his SC identity online in 2020 (something, he says, he tried not to reveal for most of his life) by making satirical and short documentaries addressing caste. After a short period of the work, he says, "I received many messages where I was mocked with extremely disgusting caste-based slurs and regular savarna cliche lines such as "quota and talentless'."
An article Anurag wrote on the caste bias of Instagram reels, which was shared by OpIndia, increased the number of hate comments and abuses towards him. He explains, "I tried to register a complaint with Instagram but it doesn't have a filter where one can report casteist comments. Instagram recognises racial hate crimes but not caste-based ones. This is the biggest failure of its team in India, which most probably consists of employees belonging to dominant caste locations who are willfully ignorant about casteism. Almost every DBA* individual, who unapologetically takes an anti-caste stand, are similarly targeted by dominant castes."
Talking about the challenges in the savarna social media influencer culture, Anurag says, "An influencer is someone who earns money from the brand deals on Instagram. I don't personally earn anything from any brand deal neither do any of my Dalit friends The reason is that no brand wants to get associated with anti-caste content on Instagram. Their conventional guidelines fit only savarna creators and content. This is why there is no 'Dalit influencer' or 'anti-caste influencer' in the literal sense of the word. Social media remains a platform dominated by savarnas. The nature of the audience (even progressive ones) is that they can take a joke on Modi but if you joke about caste privilege or take a pro-reservation stance, the dominant castes don't take it well. Many start leaving/unfollowing. This is also the reason why Dalit creators' reach and audience don't go beyond a certain point.".
Selective Policy Protection
Siddhesh became active on social media in 2016 but received attention two years after he started to work on social and political issues. He gained more attention after working on Ambedkarite and anti-caste work, which, by 2019, became the bulk of his work.
He has been doxed, received abusive comments, and been threatened due to his political artwork.
But, when he started addressing caste, the abuses became more virulent. He says, "From being asked to clean sewage to skin dead animals, to being called a pig to an insect in the gutter, life threats to me and my family — I've read and experienced extremely nasty things in the past. I am not sure if they are going to stop anytime soon but I have to live with it."
Siddhesh feels Instagram hasn't really helped artists like him professionally and has no faith in it.
He explains, "Instagram has mostly proved to be an untrustworthy platform for independent dissent and protest artists like me. Its algorithm doesn't help designers like me to expand our horizons ; instead, we feel unsafe and feel like we are under surveillance. Visual artists and designers need to have their presence on Instagram because it is the biggest platform for them the large number of active users. Art is not always bound to galleries and platforms. Dissent and protest art are not dependent on such platforms, but it's easier to mark our presence here for greater reach. I don't trust this platform as it might get closed or the owners may decide to use it for some other commercial and capitalistic purpose. These platforms are helpful to boost your number of viewers, but to expand professional possibilities, it does not do much- at least not for artists/designers like me."
Why Don't Social Media Giants Include Anti-Discrimination Policies?
Clubhouse, started by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, is one of the newest entrants to the social media sphere. The iOs version was launched in March 2020 and android in May 2021. Clubhouse, India had 1.26 million active users daily on Android devices, each week in August 2021. Despite being a new entrant, they still shamefully fail to address casteism in their policies, similar to older social media platforms. For example, their blog explaining people's experience on Clubhouse mentions important political and cultural issues like the murder of George Floyd and U.S Supreme Court decisions. Even though Clubhouse is US-based, it has a considerable user base in India.
Rohan Seth, one of its founders studied in India before leaving to pursue his bachelor's degree in the U.S at 18 (2002-2006). He's from Patna but grew up in New Delhi. His surname is a caste marker, which his partner and daughter have included as part of their names, as well. It's revolting to see a number of Indians benefit from diversity policies to occupy global leadership positions in companies while doing nothing to extend the same to their fellow countrymen.
In fact, Clubhouse has followed India's recently introduced Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021 by appointing a grievance officer and has reports from Sep 2021 to Nov 2021 on their website adhering to the guidelines. This, is not merely a problem of execution but a willful ignorance to not include caste in a policy that mentions every other form of discrimination. It is more a question of 'if' they are interested to recognise caste as discriminatory more than the ignorance/lack of awareness, which is clubbed under savarna statements such as "honest mistake" for such occurrences.
One of the earliest Dalit voices online, Pardeep Attri, who started Velivada and Ambedkar Caravan (@AmbedkarCaravan), has faced casteist abuses almost every day. Ambedkar Caravan received public attention in 2003 and his Twitter handle, with 80k followers, started gaining traction from 2014-2015.
In spite of its large reach, the 36-year-old activist says, "I am quite sceptical of the digital space. I have been using social media since the days of MySpace. I have not seen much of a difference in the last 20 years, especially if one considers activism or raising your voice for the marginalised. From MySpace to Orkut to Facebook to Twitter, Dalits have always raised their voices for justice, no matter how low or inaudible they were for the dominant castes."
"I don't believe social media is social. It propagates certain ideas and dominant castes control the narrative while marginalised people are suppressed. Navigating social media accounts is challenging, especially if you want to speak or write about caste because dominant groups are not ready to accept or address their casteism," he added.
Pradeep feels social media is not supportive enough as an avenue for getting work.
"There remains a mark on people who talk about caste, even if they are sympathetic to the cause. Job collaboration opportunities, among other things, go massively down as many do not want to be associated with you even when they say they are sympathetic to the cause. People don't want to collaborate with you because they don't want to get marked. Most Indians have friends and relatives within their castes; opportunities and collaboration follows the same thread. It becomes challenging for lower castes for multiple reasons in the first place, Dalits do not have contacts. Research has shown that lower castes have 1-2 social connections compared to upper castes with 4-5 social connections."
According to Pradeep, most researchers do not like to discuss about caste even though it could add extensive value to their research. "Caste is considered taboo. If my research focuses on caste, others do not want to be associated or collaborate on such projects, especially Indian researchers. In terms of employment, social media is a hindrance. These days, it is common for organisations to check/evaluate one's social media before hiring. Although there is no conclusive research onlower castes specifically, research on Afro-Americans has shown that those active on social media for social justice are denied job opportunities and are less liked, among other things. I believe the same is true for the lower castes of India," he says.
Facebook has recently included caste under its hate speech policy in 2021. An earlier version of the policy (2020 and earlier) did not mention caste. This change was made because multiple Dalit people, as noted in the Equality labs study, criticised Facebook for overlooking casteistem.
However, it still falls short in addressing casteism on social media. If you have to report a group or content displaying casteism, like this group called 'India Against Reservations' on Facebook-, you can choose harassment or bullying which shows options of me, a friend or group member and someone else where you can write the name of friend/group member. If you have to report it under hate speech, there are no options with caste as a category. You are merely directed to a page mentioning, "does this violate community standards".
Nikita Sonavane, lawyer and co-founder of CPAProjectIndia (@gloriousgluten), says, "It's important that social media platforms have a robust and clear policy of non-tolerance to hate speech, which includes caste discrimination.
They must also proactively implement the policy and suspend accounts that resort to casteist speech. It must not be restricted to just hate speech but has to have a large scope like the atrocities act which lays down an A-B-C approach to address casteism. Social media policies must actively use the language of atrocity to see casteist slurs and abuse acts of violence."
An example of implementing such a robust policy is YouTube's stance on casteism. As with most other social media platforms, YouTube has identified casteist content as hate speech. However, if you have to report a video for casteist content, it does not have a sub-categorisation.
In fact, there is a section for reporting animal abuse but none for caste or race. A specific classification is important to statistically categorise casteist content on social media YouTube, for example, mentions that they remove content promoting Nazi ideology or content denying the Holocaust or Sandy Hook Elementary. Similarly, a robust anti-discriminatory policy can highlight caste hierarchy being the primary inspiration for Nazi Ideology as Isabel Wilkerson outlines in her book 'Caste' or acknowledging Karamchedu or more recently the 2018 Bhima Koregoan case as caste violence.
The Caste Of YouTube
How To Tackle Casteism On Social Media
It's apalling to watch savarnas benefit socially, culturally, and economically for their social media visibility while Dalit people are shut down and threatened for the same. A Dalit person's visibility or fame is directly proportional to the number of threats and intimidation from the state apparatus, enabled by the Brahminical society. This has led to many Dalit folx exiting from social media fearing their and their families' safety, and/or fear of losing employment.
A Dalit lawyer (referred to as A), who was forced to choose anonymity due to the state's continuous intimidation of vocal Dalit activists, says, "Most of the time, caste-based verbal abuse, humiliation, and online sexual violence against DBA women go unnoticed even after reporting. Rarely, when the reported content is removed, the handle remains anonymous generating more abominable content. Unless the handle is forced to be accountable for casteism, the protection of DBA people on social media platforms cannot be ensured."
A is amongst the few people who leveraged social media early on to further their anti-caste activism. According to them, the first step by both the government and social media platforms should be considering caste-based online violence as serious as offline. They say, "As far as the government is concerned, laws prohibiting offensive and derogatory remarks such as the Indian Penal Code, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act should be invoked. The Delhi High Court, in 2017, held any offensive post on caste on social media as a punishable offence under the SC/ST act."
A asserts that the problem of legal remedy arises because the intermediaries do not care about casteism or casteist slurs appearing online as they are not often interpreted as hate speech, which can be removed for violating the community of policies.
"Although racial slurs and race-related derogatory remarks have been included in the list of content amounting to policy violation, caste has been excluded from the list. The only social media platform that has added caste to the policy is the not very-popular Mastodon. Despite repeated requests from DBA people, platforms like Twitter and Facebook are hesitant to take casteism as a serious issue. Even if the offensive content is removed, the handles are free to generate more casteist content as the policy has no say on it. Hence, to ensure the protection of DBA communities on social media, it is inevitable that caste-based online violence and casteism are included in the hate speech and offensive content so it falls under the purview of their policy. I'd like to see a policy that categorises casteist slurs and caste-based offensive content as violative of their policy. Reporting such content should result in its immediate removal along with a suspension of the handle. If the handle is incessant in hateful behaviour, it should risk losing the account. After a long struggle, accounts of DBA people are being recognised through verification, but it is not enough. Ensuring that the DBA people have a safe online space is much more important."
*DBA- Dalit, Backward and criminalised castes and groups, Adivasi (author's note)
The author is a writer-poet and independent researcher whose interests lie in the areas of intergenerational trauma and the construction of Dalit sexuality and aesthetics.
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