Maria Montero

Have digital media helped create, spread alternative narratives?

(From left to right) Dipti Nagpaul moderates the conversation between Asha Kowtal, Rafiul Alom Rahman, Ravichandran Bathran and Divya Dureja. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

As more and more of our lives, aspirations and identities manifest on the Internet, a cross section of marginalized voices turns to 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 issue on “Empowering the Marginalized” discussed the various ways in which digitization has proven to be a boon for marginalized sections. Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder, Queer Muslim Project; Asha Kowtal, Secretary General, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch; Ravichandran Bathran, founder, Dalit Camera; Divya Dureja, Co-Founder, Performers’ Consortium were panel members in the discussion, moderated by Dipti Nagpaul, Assistant Editor, The TecNoticias.

How have digital media helped you to empower yourself?

Asha Kowtal: Women in my community are trying to bring our voices to the center 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 means in the past to bring our community together. So I think it’s important to acknowledge all those artists, poets, writers, etc. before the advent of digital media. All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch works in seven different states in North India, organizes various programs, tracks caste atrocities, especially women, and controls why a person is trying to access justice in a system which is designed to fail. This led us to social media platforms. At the beginning there were 20. We were the first or second generation of students, in terms of technology, access, hashtags and even English. So we had to go step by step. Dalit women had always been portrayed in a negative light; We wanted to present our work to change people’s minds about us. So we decided to form the group and fight online. Of course, it aligned with what we were campaigning for offline. We had 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 go.

Rafiul Alom Rahman: Before talking about my work, I want to share an anecdote. In 2016, I applied for a passport as I had to write GRE and apply for a PhD in the United States. When the police came to my door to verify my address, my landlord, who had agreed to be my local witness when I applied for my passport, refused to identify me. It put me in a place; It was treason. The police asked me to visit the police station the next day. Meanwhile, I spoke with a friend friend, arranged for another local guardian. The next day, I went to the police station with the authorization letter, the documents, and the local friend. I went out to get a photocopied document and when I returned the policeman suddenly seemed to be very polite to me. It was amazing. On the way back home, my friend said, “The policeman asked me about his orientation and after he found out, he changed.” So somewhere I feel, if my Muslim identity can be a threat to people, my strangest self changes that thought.

Over time, I discovered that there are so many stereotypes that we wrestle with every day that it leads to a mental breakdown. I think my journey began in search of some of these narratives: finding voices that are neither this nor that. There is an assumption that you cannot be gay and Muslim. But I have met so many people. I started the Queer Muslim Project in March 2017 as an online platform. In the Western context, many interesting concepts about faith were discussed. But it wasn’t that popular in the South Asian context. Many people did not even have that information. When I went to the United States for my PhD, I was part of such movements. I remember a beautiful meeting in a church where there were people of different faiths. There were people from the LGBTQ community. It was a very emotional event. There is a belief that Queer Muslim is “un-Islamic”. But in queer spaces, in a way, you have to completely expose your faith. In the context of India, we know that Muslims, the religious minority, have been going through a very difficult time. Any movement around the rights of Muslim minorities is considered politically too sensitive. So basically my work online is shaped by my own struggles and what we are trying to do is get more of these narratives. And I say this with joy that we have presented many of these stories around the world.

Ravichandran Bathran: The Dalit camera is not my name at all; It is a collective effort. I started that in 2008. I started out of frustration with various newspapers, where they only remembered castes when it comes to reservations, violence and poverty. At that time, a Dalit woman was attacked in Tamil Nadu. She was the president of Dalit Panchayat. I felt that I should be by his side and give him the support that I never received. So, I went there, took a video, and thought about archiving. I uploaded it and a lot of people saw it. The number of viewers was low, but even 200 views were excellent. My intention was to archive the Dalit movement that has always been lacking. And this is how the Dalit camera came about. The online space is a strange space for us. For example, eight years ago, I didn’t know what caste is. Over time, I grew my knowledge and understanding of what caste is.

Divya Dureja: I’m a kid from the 90’s. I grew up with certain privileges, like access to phones. Over time, Facebook and Instagram launched. I had to learn how much to navigate and how much not. As I struggled with my identity of being weird, I was afraid I was giving away too much. At that moment, when you are locked in your room and looking for someone who shares similar thoughts to you, you access the internet and everyone is on social networks. But Facebook has open groups, closed groups, and secret groups. Section 377 was re-criminalized then. Every news or coverage spoke of our need to protest, raise our voice and show people that we were visible. So the re-criminalization actually got a lot of people out. My journey with digital media began when I started visiting those protests. I discovered that there were many people in agony and I felt that they needed another space that was safe and had a lighter and different environment. I was in New York for a short time 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 – everything was possible because of the events on Facebook groups that were public. I noticed that in Delhi and other urban cities, no public groups or Facebook events were created. When I got back, I decided that was what I was going to focus on because that was also essential to someone’s mental health. I understood the problems on these Instagram, Facebook pages and tried to eliminate them to make the space more secure.

What kinds of challenges does social media present?

Asha Kowtal: Being active on social media is affecting us enormously because much of our work is on the ground: with survivors, organizing communities, fighting with the authorities, etc. After doing this all day, we go back and put an update on social media. We used to ask 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 to strengthen the campaign, both online and offline, visibility was needed – we needed to get in touch with the right people to make the campaign a success. Being on social media with limited human resources was a challenge in itself. But now things are changing. Now more and more activists are appearing on social media and the way the campaign is spread has also been digitized.

How important does it become to partner with the people who work in the field?

Rafiul Alom Rahman: We started online, but actually created an offline movement through our online space. At the end of 2017, I realized that our Facebook page was catching up, and that many people liked and shared our posts. There were a couple of young people from Bengaluru who approached me because I was the only person running the page at the time; It was not a community. He asked to have a chapter in Bengaluru. It made me feel very good that people felt that such a space was needed. For me, the experience is different on Facebook and Instagram. They have affected my mental health. Social networks have a global presence. So the question arises: how can I lead a movement globally? We started making lives on Facebook, where activists from other countries also participate. We have made a good network in South Asian countries. We are planning to leave the country for seminars below the page.

Ravichandran Bathran: I learned a lot working on land. So, I learned how Indian scholars lie about caste, how they don’t bring up important issues like hand-collecting as part of their discussion.

How difficult is it to make your voice heard on the digital platform?

Divya Dureja: There is enough space for everyone. We are not fighting anyone. If a person needs a space, he / she will find it. If anyone wants to do something in the queer space, I would support them.

Asha Kowtal: I agree that there is room for everyone. In addition, it is necessary to consider who has controlled that space, who has had that space. And, speaking of freedom of access to social networks, I think we should twist it a bit, there is nothing like “this is intersectional” and “this is not intersectional”. In reality, everything is intersectional. If we see it this way, then we can make room for everyone.