I have grown up in cyberspace as much as I have in the physical world. The internet has shaped so much of me and I, it. Much like the rest of Gen-Z, I find myself on my screen at least four hours a day and utterly dependent on my laptop and wifi for work and play. My reliance on technology and the internet is the result of several innovations and a complex web of social and political dynamics. One of them, so glaring and ever-present that it is seldom acknowledged, is privilege rooted in a dominant Indian caste background ‒ because caste dynamics are integral to our experiences of life, even on the internet. As I have often questioned, is Indian cyberspace really democratic?
Who makes up the internet?
India’s internet penetration rate stands at ~50% ‒ one of the poorest statistics in the world. Access has long been consolidated in urban, richer locations, though it is increasing in rural India due to affordable data plans and smartphones (even then, there are concerns about whether usage is being calculated appropriately). According to a 2020 UNICEF report, only 24% of Indian households have internet connections with which they can access remote learning.
Significant rural-urban and gender divides in internet access are obvious, but there is little data on the role of caste. Generally speaking, the Indian caste system consists of four castes. In order of precedence, these are the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers), the Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and the Shudras (laborers and artisans) These make up the upper castes of the Indian caste system. A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits. One 2019 study by the CSDS found that 29% of the people in India’s Dalit communities have used social media (compared to 46% in caste-privileged communities). High usage was seen only in 8% of Dalit communities, and 9% of OBC communities. Smartphone ownership too was found to be much lower.
“Social media usage data suggests that the social media space has always been upper-caste dominated and continues to be so.”
The internet, of course, exists beyond social media. For many, a lack of access to the internet, rooted in their social and economic marginalization, hinders their ability to work, receive an education, and survive in an increasingly digitized world. India’s BharatNet program aims to connect 250,000 gram panchayats (village level grassroots organizations that make up the local self-governance system in India) via optical fiber by 2023, but the implementation of this program has been slow. Aditi Agrawal from MediaNama writes, “1,07,260 gram panchayats are still not connected and if work continues at the pace it did in January-August 2020, the project would take 6 years and 8 months to complete.”
How can narratives about the democratizing power of the internet be considered true when massive caste-related access gaps still exist? These statistics ‒ and the ones we don’t see ‒ reiterate the fact that social dynamics don’t cease to exist on the internet. In fact, the internet becomes an extension of our physical lives right from the moment of access.
Even where there there is access, there is inequality
This July, Dilip Mandal, an expert on media and sociology, wrote about how India’s subaltern ‒ Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and other backward classes ‒ have not been able to challenge oppressive powers as effectively as once thought possible. This is attributed to the replication of social hierarchies ‒ the domination of privileged castes ‒ in the digital space. The internet is widely considered to be a public sphere, a realm of politics where strangers come together to engage in the free exchange of ideas. However, Mandal rightly asserts that India’s public sphere itself is hegemonic and distorted thus resulting in a similarly distorted online realm.
Here are the key highlights from a 2019 Oxfam and Newslaundry report on the representation of people from different caste groups in Indian media:
- Of the 121 newsroom leadership positions, 106 are occupied by journalists from the upper castes and none by those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
- Three out of every four anchors of flagship debates are upper caste. Not one is Dalit, Adivasi, or OBC.
- For over 70% of their flagship debate shows, news channels draw the majority of the panelists from the upper castes.
- No more than 5% of all articles in English newspapers are written by Dalits and Adivasis. Hindi newspapers fare slightly better at around 10%.
- Over half of those writing on issues related to caste in Hindi and English newspapers are upper caste.
- Around 72% of bylined articles on news websites are written by people from the upper castes.
- Only 10 of the 972 articles featured on the cover pages of the 12 magazines under study are about issues related to caste.
The threat of the Internet
The internet has brought with it a new set of potential issues, including the looming threat of state surveillance, privacy concerns, and the seemingly inevitable rise of technology-enabled state power. These are novel concerns for many and their rise terrifies me, but that is partly because my privilege has shielded me from an experience of life where surveillance is the norm. This is one of the many functions of caste. These concerns are only heightened under the current hyper-nationalist government.
Surveillance is a part of the process through which the dominant castes uphold their power over the oppressed castes. Privacy is the privilege of the oppressors, as has been reiterated by many Dalit-Bahujan writers and activists.
Examples of tech’s rising role in enforcing the caste system are plenty: GPS-enabled trackers tagged on Swachh Bharat (translation: Clean India) sanitation workers, the leakage of Aadhaar numbers of scheduled caste students by the Andhra Pradesh government website and the broader concern of caste-based geolocation, the surveillance and resulting criminalization of Dalits’ rights defenders, the internet shutdown in Saharanpur after a fatal caste atrocity, COVID-related personal data leaks that reveal people’s names and caste locations and hence carry the potential for abuse, the many instances of the exploitation of personal wants, needs and identity by big tech and many more instances.
This violence and violation, alongside political harassment, hyper-nationalism and the disproportionate representation of dominant castes on the internet, are a grave cause of concern, and conversations surrounding it deserve more space in the mainstream.
Mulling on social media
Recently, as #DalitLivesMatter trended online in light of caste-based violence in Hathras and systemic oppression, I wondered whether my opinion — as a woman from a dominant caste — urgently required space on social media. My conclusion was that it didn’t.
Caste-privileged proclamations of allyship overwhelm conversations, leverage virality, and are celebrated — despite, or perhaps due to, their mediocrity. All of what is said has already been said before by people from Dalit and Bahujan communities, and I feel acutely aware of having taken up space similarly, now and in the past.
Our proclamations are transient and fleeting, yet we are convinced that our opinions are entitled to space. This is a function of both what Dilip Mandal called replicated social hierarchies as well as the neoliberal rooting of Instagram and the social currency it demands.
Anti-caste activism and identity
Professor Mandal said that his once-held assumption that social media will allow India’s voiceless underclass to express themselves has been proven both right and wrong. The wrong is illustrated above ‒ but the right holds immense power.
Tejas Harad, journalist and founder of The Satyashodhak, writes about the sense of community that Twitter has given Dalit youngsters, and how “social media was, finally, a platform where lower-caste individuals could come together to overcome geographic and cultural boundaries”.
Even six years ago, Sunil Gangavane, working on PUKAR’s research on caste identities on social media, spoke of how students in urban cities are more likely to seek out caste-related communities online than to talk about caste in physical spaces.
There is the power of archiving and sharing, through platforms and blogs like RTI, Velivada, and Dalit Camera. There is art, music, community, and discourse, and the best memes on the internet. The internet has aided this process of creativity, self-empowerment, solidarity and emancipation.
While the internet is not inherently democratic, and privacy concerns are rising, it’s up to all of us ‒ technologists, researchers, allies, students, and people who love️ the internet ‒ to work collaboratively to create a healthier cyberspace that prioritizes the safety of vulnerable communities. This, especially in the Indian context, requires a critical anti-caste lens on all of the things that make up our digital realities.
It is imperative to think about ‒ and act on ‒ how systems of oppression enter and influence this space we call home. We must remember that the internet is what we make of it ‒ it has the potential to reproduce caste dynamics, exacerbate them, or challenge them.