COVID-19 and activism’s digital makeover

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On December 15, 2019, as news of violence on the Jamia campus broke, scores of young citizens across the country had already started organising themselves, with SOS calls put out by individual accounts on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter urging Delhiites to assemble at the Delhi Police headquarters for an ‘emergency protest’ called by the JNU Students Union. As midnight struck, pictures of citizens gathering at the site, clad in heavy woolens in the chilly December Delhi, standing with banners and handmade placards, went viral.

Through the next few weeks, several individual accounts like Sawhneyyyyyy (referred by the name of social media handle due to security concerns) and Purani Dilli Waalo ki Baatein complemented the efforts of the activists on the ground by giving out SOS calls, driving relief efforts, and combating misinformation.

But by March, with the COVID-19 pandemic freezing protests on the streets and making public gatherings a no-go, citizens across the country were engaging with socio-political issues online like never before. Internet usage in India has increased by 20-25% since March 25, when the nationwide lockdown began, according to a recent report by the ratings agency Crisil. With a large chunk of population hooked to social media now, the lockdown has ushered in a digital reinvention for socio-political dissent and debate.

Change.org, an international platform that enables users in 196 countries to create open petitions and start online campaigns, said that the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has led to an unprecedented surge in the volume of COVID-19-related petitions. From January to April 27, 2020, the total number of coronavirus-related campaigns touched 3,700, with 3.5 million signatures received so far. Further, after Brazil and Germany, India ranks third in terms of the number of signatures received for top COVID-19-related petitions in any country. The top 65 petitions in India have received 2.6 million signatures so far, the organisation told The Hindu.

“On the issue of COVID-19, three petitions stand out for their massive public mobilisation and sheer impact: make attacks against doctors a non-bailable offence, an appeal for a moratorium on rents in Maharashtra, and a request to the PM to make a statement on the rising incidents of racism against people from the North East,” said Nida Hasan, country director, Change.org India.

“In case of the first one, a petition started by a doctor, Sarika Verma, gathered overwhelming public support with over 2,20,320 signatures, and played a significant role in the government’s recently promulgated Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 which essentially makes attacks against doctors and healthcare personnel a non-bailable offence,” she said.

“This is the highest number of petitions that we have ever seen on a single issue … the last time we witnessed such a sharp spike in petitions was after the gruesome Hyderabad gangrape, when over 500 petitions were started in a span of 72 hours.”

Idea of a protest

As socio-political discourse turns online, Twitter storms and social media campaigns have emerged as notable forms of protests. Young India, a collective of over 100 student and activist organisations around the country, recently put out a call on Twitter urging users to post pictures of themselves from their houses on April 25, opposing the recent arrests of anti-CAA protesters and UAPA charges against activists. By evening, the hashtag #FightCoronaNotActivists had registered over 10,000 posts on Twitter alone; Facebook generated a much higher number.

N. Sai Balaji, national president of the All India Student Association (AISA), which is a part of Young India, said, “By March-end we realised that the coronavirus pandemic is here to stay for a long time and public gatherings will be difficult. The idea behind any protest is making our voices heard, and before the lockdown, most of that was offline, the internet only supplemented it. But after the lockdown the government did not remain silent (even as the protests died), thinking that people could not raise their voice. We had to creatively break that (notion).”

The pandemic has also given a push to resistance art online. Jamun ka Ped, a web comic series on Instagram, is actively engaging with the socio-political aspects of the pandemic. Mayukh Goswami and Meher Manda, founders of the comic series, are currently based in New York. Not residing in India enabled them to explore topics that may make local artists vulnerable to attacks, they say. “We exist to practise dissent and critique the administration for any anti-people policies. The handling of the COVID-19 crisis was an obvious subject to explore that,” said Meher.“Because our medium is the internet, we try to keep our content as simple as possible in terms of language, so that every single person is able to understand it. Whenever I write something that is heavy-winded, Mayukh reminds me to tone it down,” said Meher.

A tough space

However, the internet as a medium presents a myriad of problems in keeping political engagement alive, that are tricky to circumvent.

For a young and user-funded organisation like Polis Project, a research and journalism organisation that provides a platform to indigenous and diverse voices, and for community conversation, financial stability is a major concern. The group’s latest online conversation series, Dispatches – Conversations from a Lockdown, is open to access for all and throws light upon a host of issues related to the COVID-19, including the state of Rohingya refugees in India during the pandemic, the military setting up quarantine camps in the northeast Sri Lanka, and the fate of chronic patients during a lockdown.

Suchitra Vijayan, a litigator and founder of Polis project, said, “We pay our writers, contributors, researchers and interns. Given that we are solely funded by individuals and don’t take corporate donations, surviving is a struggle,” she said. Nonetheless, the number of donors – even kids donating as little as $2 a month – has been increasing over the last couple of months, said Ms. Vijayan. “Our job is to be useful for people on the ground … for us, online space is an extension of public programming … Polis does not have a subscription model because we believe knowledge has to be free,” she adds. Polis has also increasingly been in touch with activists and locals on the ground, said Ms. Vijayan.

On the other hand, Naima Kalra Gupta of We the People of India, a collective of over a hundred organisations, said that it is hard for people to break out of online echo-chambers. “How do you convince a person from the other side? Echo chambers are formed for most people who try to voice their opinion on social media. It becomes more about articulation than engagement … Hence, it is important to be soft and not alienate an audience,” she said. Presently, We the People of India has been actively sharing curated collections of verified news articles about the COVID-19 on its Instagram, while also putting out calls for donations and being in touch with local organisations on the ground to provide food and ration to underprivileged communities. The group has launched a national helpline to provide medical aid and ration essentials and released online statements condemning the arrests of anti-CAA protesters and the imprisonment of Akhil Gogoi.

The rural-urban divide

However, there is huge divide between urban and rural India when it comes to internet adoption, without which internet activism can’t succeed. According to a 2019 report by Kantar IMRB, a market research, survey and business consultancy firm, internet penetration in rural India is just 25%, compared to 66% in urban regions, even as it continues to grow rapidly. Moreover, while the English language continues to dominate as a medium of internet consumption, the total number of English language internet users in India in 2017 was just 175 million, compared to 234 million Indian language users, according to a joint report published by KPMG India and Google.

Mr. Balaji said that in the present state, the only way to give a voice to those who cannot engage with internet activism is to connect with a representative of such communities. A nationwide online hunger strike called by AISA in March to draw attention to the hunger crisis due to the lockdown garnered a massive response, he said, as thousands of citizens across the country observed 12-hour-long hunger strikes from their homes and shared pictures. AISA has also been regularly calling upon local politicians and leaders through their social media handles to send relief material to affected communities, mostly stranded migrant workers. “The Telangana government has been especially responsive in this process,” Mr. Balaji told The Hindu.

However, the strike attracted the State’s scrutiny too. “We received a call from the Delhi police when we gave out the call for the hunger strike, asking if the strikes were from home,” said Mr. Balaji.

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