The Internet Belongs to Dalit-Bahujan People Too

‘Jai Bhim’ is this year’s buzz word. This slogan has normally been associated with the aspirations of the Dalit community, however, with the release of superstar Suriya’s Jai Bhim, this slogan has begun to be heralded as a synonym for justice and solidarity. This has demonstrated the possibility of a Dalit symbol also becoming a popular national identity.

In post-Independence India, there has been visible improvement in the social and class status of Dalit people. In contemporary times, members of the Dalit community have emerged as crucial players in politics. A small but powerful section of the Dalit middle-class is now a part of urban centres.

Members of the Dalit community aspire to escape precarious social and class conditions and to participate in civic and political life as respected members.

At odds with their modern ambitions and also at odds with claims that Dalit people are equal and can participate with dignity, public spaces have remained overtly dominated by the symbols and values of social elites. Dalit-Bahujan cultural values and symbols are either neglected or hover in the social periphery.

Their cultural ideas and political claims are also often relegated as detrimental towards national unity and Hindu communal identity.

Conventional media, cinema and literature are visible examples of the method of domination that social elites have perpetuated.

Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (and earlier, TikTok) have allowed a larger section of the population to participate, making these platforms more democratic and inclusive. Though members of Dalit-Bahujan communities are participating on these platforms overwhelmingly, they are yet to leverage it to advance their political, social and cultural interests in a large manner.

This is because social network platforms too are overtly hegemonised by the cultural and political interests of the social elites. Political ideas, social symbols and methods of entertainment for and by Dalit-Bahujans have found few takers. 

Social media platforms invite users with promises of privacy, free access and fairness. Users can freely discuss, post opinions, share experiences and communicate their views there. However, it is also well known that often these applications are committed to supply data to governments and also collaborate with big corporate enterprises. 

The corporates utilise the data to enhance their business. Data also helps political elites spread their political and ideological agenda. For example, a study by researchers from Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrated how nationwide Twitter trends during the 2019 general election were manipulated in favour of the right-wing party.

Often, a platform will reprimand, censure or ban a user for hurting social sentiment or for nor following media regulations. Importantly, the dominant culture on these platforms often devalues, humiliates and spreads prejudices against Dalit-Bahujan participants and trolls them with belittling gestures.

The trolling trend also discourages many users from availing themselves of these platforms freely and fearlessly. Such restrictions and offensive cultural trends discourage Dalit-Bahujan social activists from participating on these platforms with equal freedom.

Though social network platforms appear free and fair, for the marginalised communities it is unwelcoming. 

Against these odds, there are small but influential Dalit-Bahujan groups on the internet that spread ideological and political content. Dalit-Bahujan groups, have on occasion, tried to break prevalent hegemony and have floated their own newspapers (Bahujan Nayak and Samrat, for instance) channels (‘Lord Buddha’, ‘Awaaz’ and ‘Kanshi’), portals (Roundtable India, Dalit Camera, Velivada, Ambedkar Caravan) and news sites (Dalik Dastak, Bahujan Nayak, Ambedkar.org).

Some online news sites have also provided visible space to views and issues of Dalit-Bahujans. However, these initiatives are mostly related to political news and social education have not emerged mainstream and trustworthy platforms for exclusive Dalit-Bahujan voices. Further, independent online news sites also lack the entertainment quotient that often draws a large number of users to social network sites. Importantly, there is no exclusive media channel, portal or app that seeks to serve the Dalit-Bahujans when it comes to entertainment.

The digital divide is reduced significantly in India as families with low-income groups can also afford cheaper smartphones and internet plans. With their participation, social network platforms like TikTok had become hugely popular and generated more than 200 million subscriptions. It led to tie-ups with thousands of brands and generated hopes for a revenue of Rs 100 crore per year in India. 

Interestingly, TikTok had also ruptured the hegemony of the social elites over the social media platforms, as many participants on it belonged to the small cities or rural areas. Many TikTok influencers and viral video makers belonged to the poor strata, and were low-income migrant workers, school dropouts, homemakers or unemployed men. It became a source of entertainment to the wide subaltern and Dalit-Bahujan mass, for whom there was no exclusive content created by the mainstream entertainment industry. 

Participants also found TikTok more accessible and egalitarian compared to other applications. Dalit-Bahujan groups utilised it to promote local talents, creative ideas and other social and cultural issues. They frequently attracted many viewers. Many of these young talents became national influencers.

However, amidst clashes with China and because it was owned by a Chinese company, TikTok was suddenly banned by the government. It disarrayed users and influencers. Indian alternatives to TikTok (like Takatak, Mauj, Chingari, etc.) entered into the market with a loud noise but are yet to match the groundbreaking impact on viewers and users. 

Entertainment-based short-video formats attract a huge viewership. The participation of Dalit-Bahujan artists and creators have connected apps which offer such formats to the common pedestrian mass and distance them from elite-centric platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

However, the participants, especially from socially marginalised groups often feel alienated here as their content and creativity often been relegated, invisibilised or deleted as they promote ideas that challenge the hegemonic cultural values of social elites. Dalit-Bahujan artists have to operate with the fear of backlash, offensive trolls and casteist slurs.

There is an absence of a national or global internet platform that can propagate the political issues and aid the cultural quests of the marginalised communities. The conventional platforms in India, though connected with diverse people, operate under the hegemonic cultural values of social elites and devalue the intellectual and creative content produced by Dalit-Bahujans. The need to develop alternative media portals or infotainment apps thus emerges from such facts. 

More Dalit-Bahujan interventions on social network platforms will democratise netizens and would bring the digital world closer to idea of social justice.

The recent announcement that a new short-video app named ‘Jai Bheem’ will be available for users supplements the growing claims of Dalit-Bahujans on social network. An app that os mandated to serve their communitarian values and socio-political interests may reduce the anxiety of Dalit-Bahujan artists and provide them with a platform. It will also help them showcase their artistic talent and creativity without fear and discomfort. It will also connect them with other social groups that struggle to find a comfortable space in the digital world.

It is an apt time for Dalit-Bahujan and other marginalised groups to stake claim on the internet and utilise it for their social emancipation and economic prosperity. 

Dr. Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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