Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.16: Dyotana Banerjee, Reading a Dalit Movement through Social Media: Limits and Possibilities

“Aap mera Facebook mein dekho na, kitne photos aur post dala maine, andolan ke bare mein  toh wahi pata chal jayega aapko” (“Please check out my Facebook, I put so many photos and posts, you will have an idea about the movement from them”), said Rajiv, a twenty-nine year old member of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (The National Dalit Rights Forum, RDAM). We were sitting in a tea stall near his office in Una, Gujarat, where he works as a part-time real estate broker.  RDAM was formed in response to a violent incident in July 2016, when several young tanners were flogged in Una. The convener of this political organization is Jignesh Mevani, who was elected to the Gujarat State Assembly in 2017, representing Vadgam constituency in north Gujarat. RDAM  includes  Dalit members from all Dalit sub-castes. For example, Jignesh Mevani is from the tanner sub-caste but Rajiv identifies as part of the Vankar (weavers) sub-caste.

RDAM has a strong social media presence and hundreds of followers. As we talked, Rajiv opened the Facebook app on his smartphone and showed me photos of his August 15, 2016 walk from Ahmedabad to Una, a distance of 337 kilometers, with hundreds of RDAM youth. When I asked Rajiv about what he discusses with his friends in RDAM who have no experience in politics, he shared with me Facebook posts by him and some of his friends, as well as comments. This was my introduction to social media ethnography. The social media presence of RDAM and its followers constitutes a crucial source of information about the reach and work of RDAM. 

Social media ethnography involves observing, reading, and analyzing participants’ social media behavior through their shared content on public social media platforms.  This approach has challenges. First, there are problems in the way that content is presented on social media to trigger specific reactions in specific audiences. How does a researcher make sense of a personalized narrative of participation in a movement through social media? With regard to my study of Dalit youth participants in the mobilization led by Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, one may wonder whether a RDAM participant would post specific content to make their individual online presence match RDAM’s public appearance. Moreover, how to address the distinctions in online and offline practices? For example, a participant in RDAM would not post a personal photo in front of a Hindu temple or under the banner of a political party that RDAM opposes; even if they had done so in the past, they may have deleted those kinds of photos from their social media profile when they became a member of the RDAM.  Does a social media ethnographer then capture a selective self of the participant, one which reflects the purpose of the political organization and not the self?  Is it really possible to capture the political journey of an individual on the basis of the content they make visible online?

My understanding about incorporating the various versions of participants’ selves in my research draws on Erving Goffman’s conceptualization of social performance and identity that understands presentation of the self in a process of managing impression.[1] This often involves physical displays and practices to communicate the desired self. [2] The self may maneuver signs and symbols available for consumption and present an embodied experience to display his or her identity.[3] For example, a photo posted by Rajiv of himself and the convener of RDAM with the organization’s flag in the background during one of the community meetings in the slum Rajiv lives in symbolizes Rajiv’s engagement and importance in the local collective.

Socially and culturally marginalized and economically disadvantaged citizens such as Dalits can strengthen their struggle for visibility and recognition through the democratizing power of the Internet in situations in which  mainstream media is  dominated by  upper castes and classes. The presentation of the Dalit self through social media is crucial in the fight against caste domination.[4]  Print media tends to highlight how road blocks or demonstrations organized by RDAM are inconvenient to citizens in general. In many instances I have had to look at the social media page of RDAM to learn about the specificities and details of an event at which lower castes were discriminated.

J.G. Kruijf argues that the online political presence of Dalits has ushered in an era of new politics that consolidates collective and connective action. [5]  According to P. K. Nayar, the Internet has provided an online space for the expression and negotiation of a subaltern identity. [6] The non-political components of activists’ subjectivity is crucially important to understanding the connections between an individual participant and how “personal biographies play out in a “collective emancipatory project.”[7]  Rajiv told me that his posted photo of himself and his desk in his office is one of his personal favorites. He explained he felt good when people liked the photo and congratulated him on his job. He also was proud to post his selfie with the RDAM banner, which showed his involvement with a group working for Dalits and fighting caste oppression. This Internet-driven individualization of Dalit politics is crucial to a self-reflexive project in which Dalit youth embrace their Dalit identities with pride, in contrast to instances of Dalits in Ahmedabad hiding their caste identity by changing their surnames, a common practice.[8] Hence the individualized digital practices of a Dalit self is integral to understanding how a Dalit movement is building networks that validate and generate confidence among its followers to communicate their identity to a greater audience.

However, not all can afford to access digital platforms.[9] A digital presence can reproduce existing hierarchies of power on the basis of language, connectivity, access to a smart phone, and the number of friends and supporters a person has in her social media network. Another RDAM member, Suryakant Vaghela, a veteran Dalit activist, does not have access to social media and regular Internet connectivity. Vaghela is a retired Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) agent. He does not own a smart phone and does not want to waste money on something that he thinks young people use for building social connections.  His involvement in Dalit politics in Ahmedabad is extensive and his oral account of various moments of Dalit political action since the 1980s and opinions on RDAM are central to the understanding of the current Dalit mobilizations in the city.

In summary, a multipronged approach to collect, trace, record, and document both the online and offline political engagements of RDAM participants has helped me to better map the reach of this movement.  Excluding either would limit our understanding of the transformative potential and agency of individual Dalit selves shaped by various collective platforms. 

Dyotana Banerjee is a doctoral researcher in politics in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. Her doctoral research focuses on caste-based spatial segregation and Dalit politics in Ahmedabad. She holds an M.A in International Relations from Jadavpur University and an M.Sc in International Development from The University of Edinburgh.

[1] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

[2]  Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body.” Economy and Society, 2 (1973), 70–88.

[3] Wiley, Norbert, The Semiotic Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994; Bill Brewer, Bill, “Bodily Awareness and the Self” in The Body and the Self, edited by Jose Luis Bermudez, Anthony Marcel, and Naomi Eilan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998, 291–309.

[4]  P. Thirumal and G.M. Tartakov, “India’s Dalits Search for a Democratic Opening in the Digital Divide,” in P.R. Leigh (editor) International Exploration of Technological Equity and the Digital Divide: Critical and Social Perspectives, 2011, 20-39.

[5] J. G. de Kruijf, “The Dalit I Define: Social Media and Individualized Activism in Subaltern Spheres.” Pacific Asia Journal of the Association for Information Systems 7 (4), 2015.

[6] P.K. Nayar, “The Digital Dalit: Subalternity and Cyberspace.” The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities XXXVII: 1&2 (2011). 69-74.

[7] J.G. de Kruijf 2015, 12.

[8] D. Banerjee and M.G. Mehta, “Caste and Capital in the Remaking of Ahmedabad.” Contemporary South Asia 25:2 (2017), 182-195.

[9] C.S. Kumar, C. S. and R. Subramani, R. “Internet as an Alternative Media for Dalits in India: Prospects and Challenges.” IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science 19:2 (2014), 125-129.

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