New Lessons in Democracy – Coming Soon to Schools Near You.

•September 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment

If you are a political party running a government in a ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ country but interested in being in power forever (some call this aspiration “fascist ” and others mild it down to “authoritarianism” but it is quite likely that this is driven by a higher order nationalist feeling of saving a poor country like ours from expensive elections), you got to do several things. Key amongst them is neutering democracy’s watchdog. Oh, I don’t mean the press. Most news shops, as we know, are happy to self-castrate with memos their corporate bosses dole out. The few “free thinkers” still holding on to journalistic ideals can be character assassinated. Or, well, be assassinated.

But then what does one do with the damn social media that, inspite of being corporations owned, allow people (yes, I know – only on the right side of the digital-divide) to show the middle finger to traditional media, create their own freaking media and speak their minds? Sure you can troll them down to pure hell and misery. But that is not without cost and consequences. Have you been seeing the number of sites dedicated to busting fake news? Gosh, they are menacing and such spoilsports.

Now, if you are a political party living on past glory of fighting for sovereign independence and past electoral conquests with no current claws to bare but only tainted fangs, you are doomed. But if you are the neo bloke on the block led by broad chest alpha who doesn’t flinch while lying and who has full grown men falling over each other to please you and take forward your mantra, then we are talking.

These full grown men come with ideas that the “lib-sec” write off with an arrogant chuckle (and in that lies their defeat) but in fact are pure genius. Check this latest one from Gujarat: It’s a pamphlet. A crappy single-color badly designed piece of art that schools all over Gujarat have received, with follow up phone calls from the Department of Education urging managers and principals to get their students to fill and return.

What does it say? Ah, now you ask.

It’s a pledge form by one Madadgaar Parivar (translates Helper Family, so sweet!) evidently run by a full grown man called Prakash Gurjar. The man’s not fake, I checked. He is, according to his own blogspot, “a young dynamic and vibrant karyakarta of BJP from Karnavati, Gujarat with a profound penchant for patriotism and philanthropy”. [For the morons who are thinking what the cow is Karnavati, it’s the Hindu way of honoring Ahmedabad]. Mr Gurjar was the vice-president of the Gujarat Youth Congress until 2012 and abandoned it when the earlier mentioned tainted-fangs party did not give him a ticket to contest elections.

Gujrat Edu Circular

I checked up on Madadgaar Parivar too. The very first couple of searches led me to a Madadgaar Foundation, an NGO based in Karachi, Pakistan! Of course I froze on my trackpad. Not in the mood to be slapped with sedition charges.

Back to the pledge form. So, it says:

Resolution for Achievement.

India Home.

My Country is My Home.

32,86,237 Sq. kms.

Resolution/Pledge Letter

  1. I will from today believe that whole of Bharat, that is 32,86,237 Sq. kms., is my home.
  2. Within the 32,86,237 Sq. kms. I will only throw trash in garbage bins, I will not dirty it nor will I let any do so.
  3. I will not prejudicially criticize [blame/disparage/dispraise] the administration that is formed of the people, by the people and for the people.

Yes, I am Madadgaar (helper). Pledger [sign].

Place: Gujarat, Bharat. Date: 16-9.2017

Madadgaar. Name:, Mobile:, Address

Come let us together create a new Bharat.

[Photo] Prakash Gurjar. Madadgaar Parivar (Helper Family)

How is this a piece of genius? Check out point #3. Look at the clever way redefining the very core essence of democracy itself. Now, childhood readings of basic civics may still remind some of you lib-secs that “in a democracy the government is formed of the people, by the people and for the people”. In fact, this “of, by and for” has become such a freaking cliché weapon. Look how cleverly this pamphlet de-teaches democracy by not even saying the word. And the “will not prejudicially criticize” is a surgical strike at the very jugular of the overrated democracy. Remember how we were taught in schools about the six basic elements of democracy? The first one about ‘elected representatives’ is still cool because it allows for the majority to rule the roost. The rest of the five are such a drag: (ii) Elections, (iii) Civil Liberties (yikees), (iv) Rule of Law (this one is cool as long as the law enforcement wears the same chaddi), (v) Independent Judiciary, and the horrible (vi) Organized Opposition. This last one is the hornet’s nest because it taught us that “the opposition keeps an eye on the policies and working of the government. By criticising the wrong policies of the government, it forces the government to make laws and frame policies for the welfare of the people. It prevents the government from being dictatorial.” Look at those harsh words like “forces” and “prevents”. Why the cow should democracy allow anyone to force or prevent a government made by the people, right?

Now, as far Organized Opposition is limited to mean other political parties, it’s a cakewalk considering all of them are pretty toothless. But when you have a situation where every goddamn “lib-sec” thinks she/he is the opposition and starts to criticize the government for it’s wheeling-dealing and high-handedness and it’s crony capitalism, things get out of hand. Not to mention their outrage on street violence and killings (pathetic, right?). And these siculars then circumvent the TRP-overdosed media and take to Twitter and FB. Damn.

So, how do you beat them? Read the pamphlet again and discover the genius. You take some toilet paper (young minds and their ignoramus teachers are not worthy of more than that in any case) and print this crap, call up the schools and squeeze their aid balls and get them to get the students to sign up. Now, when students read “I will not prejudicially criticize the administration” right alongside the “of, for and by” cliché they will surely take this to be the updated democracy mantra doled out by His Highness the Broad Chest because his photo is on the top left corner. Clearly, you don’t expect the cowardly teachers to interpret this work of art as blasphemy of true democracy. So, the students sign the pledge and then five years later, she/he joins the Neo Bhakti Movement. Bang! Score!

Now, for the final stroke of masterful genius: Noticed the date on the pamphlet? Yes, it’s post-dated. Why the 16th ? Google “modi birthday” and you will see the magic reveal itself. Yes, a day before HHBC’s birthday. Even toilet paper must be gift wrapped.

Now you know why even the RSS is envious of the right-wingers in Gujarat? They are a class apart. Accept it.

Stalin K, 12 September 2017

Full disclosure: This was written after consuming one full glass of fresh-lime-soda-sweet and two plates of beef chilly fried. No animals were harmed in the course of writing this. Some may get hurt now.

Anybody with conscience is a human rights defender

•December 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today is 10th December. [Human Rights Day]

66 years ago on this day (Dec 10, 1948), we the peoples of the nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to hold ourselves accountable to the principles of freedom, justice and peace for all.

Dec 10 is also a day of pride for citizens of India: we were not only amongst the first countries to ratify the declaration but we were also one of the 19 countries who drafted it. Hansa Mehata, a well known social activist from Gujarat, was part of the team that drafted this declaration that starts of by asserting that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. In fact, she is credited for amending the language in Article 1 of this declaration from “all men are created equal” to “all human beings are born equal”.

Having said that, the human rights record of our nation, sorry to say, remains appalling. Abuse by police and armed forces including arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and death in custody continue as I speak.

We continue to be governed by patriarchal mores and mindsets, as a result of which rape, domestic violence, dowry-related deaths, honor killings, sexual harassment, and discrimination against women remain serious problems.

Child abuse, bonded labor, forced and early marriages, trafficking of children and adults for prostitution are widespread.

Caste-based discrimination and violence, discrimination against indigenous persons, discrimination and violence based on gender identity, discrimination against persons with disabilities and HIV/AIDS remain rampant.

Many choose to look the other way even when they know of gross human rights violations. Many just don’t care enough to find out. But many, like us at VV, are committed to expose it and amplify the voices of those defending our rights.

You can be a human rights defender too. All you have to do is empathize, speak out and stand by those speaking out.

So, support the grit and determination of thousands of us social activists, lawyers, academics, journalists, filmmakers, college students, farmers and workers. Join us in our spirited fight against inhumanity and injustice. Let’s fulfill our commitment to justice, peace and democracy.

We observe the Human Rights Day today, but clearly we need to safeguard and strengthen the principles of human rights on all 365 days of the year, 24 by 7.

I am Nirbhaya

•February 18, 2014 • 1 Comment


(The script of a documentary produced by Video Volunteers. Those interested in screening this film, please write to

I will not forget what happened today one year ago. It was today, December 16, that Nirbhaya was attacked.

I will not forget the public outrage against this heinous of crimes.

I will not forget the hundreds of thousands of voices across the country and the world, crying for justice…and justice was delivered too.

However sexual assaults and rapes continue. In fact in Delhi they have nearly doubled since Nirbhaya was raped.

A new rape case is reported every 22 minutes in India.

Sexual violence is rampant because you think you can get away with it and that I will be too ashamed to report it. If I do speak up you think you can shut me up.

Intimidating me and family is a common tactic to ensure that I will not tell anyone. If I am a Dalit the intimidation is severe and will extend to my whole community.

Nirbhaya’s attackers were tried and convicted because of the public outrage. But, let’s not forget that this was the only conviction of the 706 cases reported in Delhi in that year.

Even when I, and my family, gather enough courage to file a report, the police will often refuse to register the offense.

I often worry about my safety and the patriarchal rule is quick to clamp down on my mobility as a protective measure!

Often I am told that I was assaulted because of the way I carry myself. The way I walk, the way I talk. Often I am told that ‘I asked for it’. How do you explain when a 7 year old is preyed on? Did she ‘ask for it’?

Why am I told that to be raped is to lose my dignity? Why is it that I am the one to lose face after being raped? Why is it that no rapist is ever consumed by the shame of his act?

When I threaten the male ego, if I resist, if I have an independent mind, then your manhood wants to teach me a lesson. Rape is another weapon in your armory to wage your patriarchal war

Rapes will not stop until you stop thinking of my body as an object.
It will not stop until you stop telling me what I should do and what I should think.
It will not stop until you stop transacting me for a dowry.
It will not stop until you think I should cook and clean for you just because you have married me.
It will not stop until you stop making a list of do’s and don’ts for me.
It will not stop until you consider me your equal.
And equal not just notionally but equal in rights, in opportunities, in inheritance, in property, and everything else you have kept as your privilege.

I am Nirbhaya.
I know no fear.
And I will stop you from stopping me to live my life the way I want.

Messagentities Stallinus

•February 7, 2014 • 2 Comments

Messagentities Stallinus : A neurological disorder commonly seen in compulsive texter’s where a response to one’s text messages are maniacally expected, and not getting replies to a message within 0.08 seconds of sending it can cause serious anxieties. Messagentities is known to be caused when repeated pressure on the nerves that end at the tip of the two thumbs send signals to the brain that one is the centre of all conversations in the cosmos. Messagentities is particularly aggravated in persons who constantly check if the messaged person is ‘typing’ to others (generally understood as ‘I am not the centre of cosmos because you were carrying on other parallel conversations’) while they are still awaiting a response to a text.

Common Symptoms:

  • A need to constantly check your phone for incoming messages
  • Inability to resist messaging or replying while doing other neurologically occupying things like driving or feeding your baby or shampooing
  • Mild to severe anxiety pangs when your messages are not replied back within few seconds leading you to believe that your loved ones tend to ignore you
  • Forwarding inane riddles and jokes just to keep your self in the conversation
  • Checking ‘last seen’ or ‘online’ status of your friends and picking up fights with them for not responding to you even though they were there

Messagentities can also be caused by other allied disorders, more specifically WhatsappismFBities and Tweeterautism. The symptoms are more or less the same.

The name of this disorder is suffixed by Stallinus in honor of it’s discover Stalin K., a human rights campaigner and filmmaker who also passionately indulges in community psychology. “Messagentities is a serious disorder and is on the raise at an alarming rate. The number of relationships this disorder is breaking down is high enough for us to sit up and pay attention to it”, says Stalin K

Cure: Contrary to the expectation from modern medicine there is no known drugs to cure Messagentities Stallinus. The discoverer’s research reveals that many have tried various meditation techniques and had some success in controlling this disorder. Mantra Meditation and Movement Meditation seem to be the best-suited cure. Movement Meditation, slow gentle circling of your upper body as you focus on your breath, have been reported to be effective. Stalin K believes that the relief felt by the diseased could be because people are away from their phones for at least the duration of the meditation. Those who have found some success with this have reported that they are able to have small in-person ‘real’ conversations with their friends and family.

Needless to say, the drastic method of disabling instant messaging services and apps from your phones are sure to work.


•January 28, 2014 • 1 Comment

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 1 & 2, dated 11 January 2014


The ongoing legal and media trial of Tarun Tejpal has, very unfortunately, polarized journalists, bloggers, editors, even lawyers and many others whose occupations don’t involve pens, keyboards and TV screens, into sharp pro and anti groups. Well, mostly anti: anti–Tejpal, and by extension anti–TEHELKA. While the former is understandable, the latter worries me on many levels.


Firstly, polarization disturbs me. It reminds me of the effective polarization in Gujarat where we are made to believe that anything said against Narendra Modi is necessarily anti Gujarat! This perhaps is the reason why, barring senior Supreme Court lawyer Rajiv Dhavan’s editorial plea in an article in Mail Today to “spare TEHELKA”, no one so far has dared separating Tejpal from TEHELKA.


Secondly, it is dubious and disturbing to equate one institution, irrespective of who founded it or who owns it financially, to one or two individuals.


Thirdly, the failure to resist this polarization is akin to negating the tireless and passionate work of TEHELKA’s past and current journalists, editors, marketing and admin persons.


One cause of this polarization lies in the semantics. Words chosen to express outrage on the Tejpal incident, like “TEHELKA Rape Case”, “TEHELKA’s Sex Assault Case”, TEHELKA’s moment of hubris”, force us to collapse the distinction between the person and the institution.  One wonders if writers and commentators would have equated the organization with the man if the person involved were the editor–in–chief of a Times Now or an Indian Express? Would have we seen headlines saying ‘Times Now Rape Case’ or ‘The Indian Express Sex Scandal”?


Today, in the midst of speculations of TEHELKA’s demise, we are faced with two questions. Should TEHELKA be saved? And, can it be saved? My response to the first question is clear: It should be saved. It should be saved because there is no doubt that TEHELKA journalists have, for the past 13 years, covered several issues otherwise glossed over by the ‘mainstream media’. Because, undoubtedly, these journalists raised the bar of investigative journalism in this country. Because, undoubtedly, these journalists raised some very uncomfortable questions, most noticeably around Salwa Judhum (the anti–Maoist armed militia in Chhatisgarh), Operation Green Hunt, and more broadly the phenomenon called ‘Naxalism’, which most other media houses are happy carrying the versions doled out in government press releases.  


I know this first hand because when my newly joined colleague at Video Volunteers, Aparna Marandi, was arrested in Jharkhand under the pretext of being a Maoist, TEHELKA was the first one to carry that story. It has readily featured our campaign (ARTICLE 17) against Untouchability, our campaign against forced land acquisition taking place in Odisha for POSCO’s steel plant…The list is much longer.


Video Volunteers, the media and human rights organization that I am part of, empowers communities from various marginalized groups and places in the country to create their own narratives on development and human rights. We believe that crucial voices on important issues are missing in the mainstream media largely because content creation has become a privilege of a few in the urban nerve centers.


This has led to lack of diversity in the mainstream media discourse, which usually writes off voices of protest and dissent either as disruptive or as propaganda. This reflects in policy–making as well.


But TEHELKA took a different approach. When we proposed that TEHELKA share the video stories created by our network of more than 200 Community Correspondents, it was accepted with a lot of enthusiasm. They shared our position of “voice as a human right” and the understanding that media ought to be more divergent and plural. Never once did it try to editoralise the voices and perspective of our community stories.


There is a growing community media movement in India and many organizations and projects besides Video Volunteers are creating relevant and important content. They all need media platforms like TEHELKA to further amplify these voices.


Having said this, whether TEHELKA can be saved and whether it will be able to retain its journalistic credibility will depend on its ability to remodel itself. Drastic steps will need to be taken: devolving family ownership model and exploring out–of–the–box models of ownership is one such step.


There are several sharp and valid criticisms coming out of the current discussions particularly around ownership, financing, conflict of interest (arising out of accepting sponsorship from companies who are known to violate rights that TEHELKA has stood up for) etc. Those who are at the helm of affairs currently in TEHELKA, staff and financiers included, have the humbling task ahead of acknowledging this and learning from it, as well as the stupendous task of reinventing the organisation.


Speaking as a human rights defender, I will say that this country needs more media media organizations that do investigative journalism to expose rights violations, corruption and nepotism, challenge the conventional ‘development’ paradigms, promote pluralistic voices, and has the guts to call spade a spade. I hope this spirit, which is what I have thus far equated TEHELKA with, continues for the years to come. 



Parents! Well…Not Well

•February 24, 2012 • 10 Comments

A friend of mine told her parents that she wants to marry the man she loves. The entire family is flipping out because the guy’s caste is not good enough. They have asked my friend to choose between them and him.

What sort of parents would ask their child, who they brought to life and nurtured for years, to choose illogical, primitive and oppressive social strictures disguised as tradition and dignity over her happiness?  What sort of parents would threaten their child by saying ‘do what you want (by which they mean ‘be happy’) but over our dead bodies’?  What sort of parents would tell their child ‘if you marry this guy (who you love, respect and want to grow old with) you are on your own’?

I think I know what of sort of parents do this – the ones who are sick and dead in their hearts.

My friend who is – amongst other things – a beautiful human being, is trying hard to make them see reason. She is hurt and her heart is aching. She asked me what she should do. I said, ‘your parents are sick. You and I both know the reasons of this illness. You should forgive them and continue loving them, for we don’t stop loving our parents because they are not well in their head and heart. But DON’T let sick people decide for you.

What is even more sick is that my friend’s not the only one going through this. And that this is happening in 2012!

End Caste. Ending Caste-Based Discrimination is not Enough.

•November 29, 2011 • 11 Comments

For long years now Dalit rights and human rights organizations and various people’s movements have been challenging ‘caste-based discrimination’. I strongly believe and advocate that the movements should be focused to end and eliminate the very system of caste. To say that we stand against ‘caste-based discrimination’ presupposes that we are okay with the caste system without its discriminatory practices. It does not require much reading of facts and opinions to conclude that the caste system rests squarely on practicing and perpetuating a hierarchical structure of ‘high’ and ‘low’, on a system of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. It is amply clear that the system of caste was institutionalized as part of the hegemonic agenda of the dominant castes.

To take an example, the feminist movements in India, and elsewhere, are very clear that as they fight against gender-based discrimination, the larger agenda and mission is to end patriarchy – the very system that produces the discrimination. Similarly, the Dalit rights movements need to now channelize their energies in annihilating the very system of caste.

When I presented this thought a few hours back at the International Consultation on Caste-Based Discrimination organized by the International Dalit Solidarity Network in Kathmandu, an overwhelming number of activists agreed that this indeed is the right way ahead. Why then, it is important to explore and understand, is this not the popular discourse amongst the reformers, activists and academics?

There are several reasons for this:

It is imperative that any movement that is aimed at challenging rights violation, begins by highlighting the atrocities, discrimination and violence that is caused by social, political or structural causes. So, in the process of articulating the importance of protecting the rights of people who are at the receiving end of such violations, it is natural that the prominent discourse is that of ‘ending discrimination’. However, if were to continue to do this narrow discourse, it will be detrimental to the very agenda of promotion of human rights.

When I have proposed this larger agenda of  ‘ending caste’, several Dalit activists, organizations and academics have expressed a fear that ending caste may also end the affirmative actions (known as reservations in India). Yes it will! But isn’t that the ultimate goal? Aren’t we very clear that affirmative actions are merely remedial measures? If we agree that it is remedial then we must also accept that remedies cannot become another system.  On a practical plane, caste has to be dismantled first and then the dismantling of the affirmative actions should follow. In other words, affirmative programs, special statuses and protections should continue when the society has proved beyond doubt that we have indeed become a casteless society.

Popular electoral politics around the world, especially in India and south Asia, is based on community, caste and other identity affiliations. It is very common for electoral candidates to woo people from their own communities/caste groups. In fact this method of nominating candidates, campaigning and voting has become a norm and therefore escapes scrutiny and challenge. Dalit politicians are, unfortunately, not any different in this regard. And it is quite likely that this call for a caste-less society will be a big challenge to all political aspirants who are used to the short cut of garnering votes based on their caste identities.

I believe that if we are truly committed to an equitable society that stands for social justice, and are committed to the practice and promotion of human rights principles, we have no choice but to strive and struggle for ending caste.

Bailing out the King of Good Times

•November 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Vijay Mallaya, the self proclaimed ‘king of good times’, and his fleet of aircrafts have fallen from the skies. In the last two weeks the Kingfisher airlines had to ground more than 200 flight routes and scores of Mallaya’s ‘hand picked staff’ have gone on strike. Vijaya Mallaya has sent an SOS signal to the government of India and has pleaded for a bailout. This plea, in the expectation of receiving subsidized loans, is totally hilarious. But this hilarity can well turn into a mockery of the Indian republic and its citizen if the government goes ahead and bails this private enterprise whose greed and bad business sense has brought this situation on to itself.

I am traveling in interior Jharkhand since the last week, meeting various Adivasi groups each fighting and protesting impending displacement that will be caused by corporations that have their eyes set on the mineral wealth here. These are Adivasis, the original inhabitants of these forests and regions, whose relationship and entitlement to their land and forests far predates any state – Moghul, colonial British or modern Indian – or the idea of state. Even so, the corporations have the audacity to conceive of looting these original inhabitants (and have done so many times in the past) because they have utter faith on the heavy muscles of the overzealous government of India. It is perhaps this faith that prompted Mr. Mallaya to seek help from this corporate friendly government.

Why should I and other taxpaying citizens bail out a company that is private enterprise? Why should I bail out a private company that earns millions more through its breweries and other enterprises? Why should I bail out a private company that can spend millions in buying a whole team of cricketers, make them play instant cricket to packed stadiums wearing its logo and earning millions more in the process? Why should I bail out a private airline when my own national carrier (Air India) is bankrupt? What did I do wrong that Mr. Mallaya is expecting that I should cough up my hard earned money so that he can continue to have good times?

If I, and my government did have the money, here’s a list of urgent matters that I would want to bail out:

– The thousands of children dying of malnutrition

– The millions of landless farmers caught in debt trap who still waiting for the effective implementation of the various Land Reforms Acts

– The millions of under-trail prisoners rotting in the various jails in India because they don’t have enough money to bail themselves out (and most of them have already spent more time in jails than they would have if they had been found guilty!)

– The many hundreds of desperate farmers who are about to commit suicide because of failing crops and mounting debts

– The thousands of Dalit children who drop out of schools every year because some teacher or fellow student repeatedly insult them by calling them inferior and untouchables

– The millions of rural artisans who are giving up the artistic professions and forced to migrate and live in filthy slums because we have not yet worked out effective marketing of their produces

– The dozens of human rights activists imprisoned under false charges of sedition and violence against state (some of them even sentenced to death by hanging!)

– The millions of tribals in this country who have been forced out of their farms and ancestral lands because other ‘barons’ of the corporate India are hell bent on mining out the last piece of coal, iron and bauxite from under their homes

This list, very unfortunately, can go on and on and extend endlessly. A short trip outside the brightly lit cities of our country taken with an open heart and ear will result in an atomic explosion of that extended list.

I am sorry Mr. Mallaya, but I cannot bail you out.

Apolitical NGOs

•October 30, 2011 • 7 Comments

I have spent two decades campaigning for causes I care deeply about – an end to caste discrimination, gender equality, and fighting against divisive and non-secular politics. In this blog post I want to explore the curious occurrence of political apathy in the NGO sector in India. Time and again, when working with colleagues in the ‘social sector’, I encounter a reticence to engage with politics; from the politics of gender to the politics of wealth distribution, the politics of education to the politics of caste.

Let me share a short anecdote with you. A while ago I was invited to evaluate the programs of a very large and very well respected microfinance NGO in India. The evaluation coincided with the NGO’s annual meeting – an occasion which saw the coming together of over 5,000 women (all members of self-help/MFI groups).

Around lunchtime I heard a commotion in the kitchen area. I went over and found a group of 30 or so women having a heated discussion with some of the volunteer organizers. The women were refusing to eat the food that had been prepared. When I enquired as to why this was the case, they answered, ‘because you have already served a bunch of Dalits’. The volunteer organizers were trying to pacify the women, ‘lets not disturb the event, we will make sure there are separate lines for queuing for food and separate seating arrangements for eating’. So I went up to the main organizers, the top layer of management at this large NGO, and I said ‘you have to disband this meeting right now – it has to be called off. This incident is an attack on your basic principles, which I am sure are not negotiable. If your empowered and conscious women are still holding forth their sense of high and low, then you need to rethink your social empowerment strategies. But right now, we have to communicate to them that this cannot, and will not, be tolerated. Everyone needs to be sent home and told that they will be communicated about the future of the SHGs in due course. Your message to the women should be loud and clear.’

Interestingly, the meeting was not disbanded but the organizers agreed to take this matter up with the women in the next meetings. However, the NGO realized how serious I was about my suggestion of not tolerating this nonsense, which resulted in a very interesting discussion with the NGO about the role that our sector, the development, social, voluntary sector, whatever you want to call it, plays. When do we start intervening in which situations? This country has thousands of organizations working for the underprivileged.

Under what circumstances is it fine for these organizations to work on economic empowerment but not be concerned with challenging the politics of power that give rise to the very poverty they are trying to combat? This tendency to avoid active political engagement is most apparent in organizations that are concerned with ‘service delivery’. Their mandate is not political transformation or empowerment – their mandate is ‘let us reach water to X number of villages’ or ‘let us set up X number of micro finance units benefiting X hundred women’. These type of organizations do not want to engage in work that shift paradigms or subverts the status quo – this is seen as too activist. They say ‘we are not jhandadhaaris (flagbearers) – we do not wear the badge of a political movement’.

It is this, this literal aversion to ‘politics’ that I do not accept. An NGO providing microfinance (or any other) service to its ‘beneficiaries’ stating that it will not engage in politics is a very political stand! By taking such a position they are clearly stating that they are interested in maintaining the current castiest and patriarchal power structures.  Very unfortunately, there are a large number of such NGOs with big budgets (and some even have been awarded for their social empowerment work!) that refuse to subvert the existing power structures and take the easier path. They don’t seem to realize that this apolitical easier path they take now is going to cost all of us very dearly in the long run.

Casteism, like patriarchy, racism and violence, should not be tolerated no matter what the consequences are.

Social Media and Revolution

•April 28, 2011 • 4 Comments

It is undisputed that the social media, unlike newspapers, radio, telephone and television makes many-to-many communication possible. And therefore, it is more democratic. But the technology that social media rides on – the Internet and telephony – are grids that needs to be laid out. The discussions, and the contentious issues now, are no more whether the medium is allowing for democratic participation or not, but rather that of access.

We need to be acutely aware of the fact that access to this powerful and apparently democratic social media needs large amounts of investment in fiber optic cables, satellites, transponders, antennas, servers, technologists, software’s, steel and land. Through out the first, second and third world, these investments are largely made by private corporation supported and facilitated by respective governments through their taxation and subsidy policies, land allocation rules and even immigration policies to set up these information and communication infrastructure. And since this is the case, profit remains at the center of such endeavors, and the purpose and objective is not to foster protest or social movements. The corporations and governments only invest in technology where it suits its needs and agendas. Therefore, it is not surprising that Egypt can and did shut down Internet access for a week during the recent revolution and that China has the most stringent control over Internet access in the world.

In India, the lack of access or the digital divide is the result of general poverty and the traditional rich-poor, urban-rural divide. India has more than 790 million cell phone subscribers as of Feb 2011 but only 100 million internet users (only 11.4 million of those have access to broadband). Though India is the third largest Internet user in the world (but then everything in India, with 1.2 billion people living there, can very easily be in the top ten charts of nearly anything) it is only 8.4% of its population. Yes, Internet is mostly accessed through cell phones and 40% of Internet users in India do so from their phones. But India is largely a 2G country making accessing internet over mobile phones painfully slow, not to mention hurtfully expensive. So, it will be a long time before more than 800 million people in India can drag themselves out of the internet black hole.

They key to conflict resolution and peace building, I believe, is listening, and not, contrary to popular belief, talking. Definitely not chatter. What FB offers is a ready group of ‘friends’ and ‘likers’ who we may perceive to be listening to us. Our posts and tweets being commented on or re-tweeted, or our status being liked, or we being poked, gives us a sense of belonging and being cared for. There is no denying that there is instant, if not deep, gratification to be had from plastering our inanities on the great wall of Facebook. I will not be surprised if, in the near future, shrinks (who we pay to listen to us) may go out of business. Or if a new breed of shrinks will make millions for weaning us of our net-addictions.

Can social media create a movement or revolution? Good question. To me the answer is no. Revolution is created by radicalized communities who are tired of, and extremely angry at, the established power structures or regimes or policies or even attitudes. So, to that extent the ‘creation’ of movements comes from the hearts of living human beings who are not afraid to challenge and oppose. From their aspiration and desire to change and transform their immediate future for themselves. Social media, however, plays a crucial role in organizing and sometimes strategizing, and definitely a great role in publicizing and galvanizing. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did just that in Egypt. According to one Cairo activist : “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” It is rather interesting to note that there is nothing about passion, oppression, desire, change, future in this articulation, which is crucial and center-stage for revolution. But, what it does have is ‘management’. And there is a big difference between managing and creating.

What can create social movements is people’s right and freedom to voice so that they can be heard unadulterated and unmediated. Their ability to participate in the decision- making processes of matters that govern their lives and future. Voice is a funny thing –it is simple to understand (and some of us take it for granted) yet it is not as simple too. For a vast section of Indian population voice is denied to if you happen to be the wrong caste, wrong religion, wrong region, wrong class or wrong gender. And at times, you may have a strong voice but you are so far away from those whose ears matter, that it is as good as not having a voice. This is the case with many indigenous peoples in India merely because they live in very ‘remote’ places or have been pushed back into remoter areas with successive development projects. Some communities, like Dalits, have traditionally no voice in their village administrations. This scenario is fast changing because of Dalit assertion and affirmative actions (known as ‘reservations’ in India). But such assertions almost always come at a very high price. The cost can be an arm, a leg, a nose or your dear life. In such a scenarios, which unfortunately are not limited to India, there is a need for empowering voices and sometime to build voice-bridges.

Here’s where my work at Video Volunteers comes in, where we work with the most disadvantaged communities and empower their voices and teach them how to use the power and potential of video, audio, internet, discussions, debates, story telling etc to connect to the world and force it to listen. More about that on VV’s website.

Perhaps the most important role of social media, and which it has proven to do very successfully in some cases, is distribution. Viral has a different connotation in today’s social media era. It does not, unlike a few years back, evoke images of a sick and feverish person. Instead it now means a cause or campaign hitting feverish pitch. Campaigners would give their left arm if their cause went ‘viral’ – which is, all who came in its way would be infected and will happily pass on the infection to hundreds more, and they to thousands more. Since social media enables many to many, which is a radical shift from the traditional one to many, a relevant piece of information or story has the potential to be circulated ‘virally’ by thousands of connectors. And since the world is increasingly shrinking, at least for some of us, these connectors are not, and need not be, from the same country or cultures. It is this fact that makes every company, even those in the business of transporting news and information like news media, to very prominently display two logos, and unwittingly advertize the two respective private companies – Facebook and Twitter.

With 500 million active Facebook users and 75 million (as of Jan 2010) Twitter users, with liking, un-liking, friending, tweeting, re-tweeting etc become part of every day lingo, the conventional media giants have no other option but to ask their readers, listeners and viewers to ‘follow’ them on Facebook and Twitter. They are all gearing for the eventuality that the future eyeballs will all be on computer screens and smart phones and tablets. They realize that ‘mainstream’ media, as we understood that word till 10 years back, is dead or nearly dead. And with that mainstream news and content creation or mainstream journalism too is on its deathbed. But then, that’s another blog.

The future is and should be what the industry calls user-generated content or consumer-generated-media and what I call community created content. The community video producers, the community journalists and community radio reporters I am working with are doing just that. They are radicalized individuals rooted in their communities, not fearful of questioning the established powers, challenging norms, revealing uncomfortable facts, not afraid of putting their hearts out, with cameras and recorders, sharing their stories of triumph and loss, piercing our very short-spanned attentions and inspiring us to take action for a better world.

– This article is an edited version of a lecture on Social Media and Revolution I gave at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, on 28th April 2011.