Caste and the Digital Sphere

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Commentary by Professor Chaise LaDousa

Shreeti Shubham joins scholars like Frank Cody and Sahana Udupa in questioning and critiquing ideologies that celebrate the digital sphere in India for its promise of making possible democratic activity and participation by those who have traditionally lacked access to the public sphere. Whereas digital technology in India is widespread, Shubham shows that thinking about the digital sphere in India entails much more than questioning who possesses what technology — although the distribution of smartphones, for example, is highly unequal and exhibits inequalities. Shubham’s focus is on the ways in which the digital sphere has made possible social activity and cultural production such that Brahmin subjects and Brahmin subjectivity have found articulations in groups fostered by the internet. Such groups require explicit identification for membership, even as they offer non-explicit slogans like “tradition gives confidence and technology gives comfort.” Shubham explores the formation and language of some of these groups to find that discourses like reservations versus meritocracy, vegetarianism, gender policing, and patriarchy serve to constitute likeness and belonging. She also shows that such formations rest on the othering of Dalits as an abject other. They are underserving in the discourse of meritocracy, unclean in their food consumption, and unsafe in their aspirations for marriage. These domains focus on images of self and other, reproduce casteist stereotypes, and provide an arena for social exclusivity and a policed realm in which such insidious discourse can circulate freely.

The contextualization and reflections on this phenomenon are exciting and rich. This kind of research is timely and quite desperately needed in the cooptation of the public sphere by politicized digital labor in India. There are aspects of the discussion that are worth probing further, and my comments about this are to urge Shreeti Shubham to continue in this valuable project. First, would it be worth looking at the flow of messages and images in real-time? How do messages get taken up, and how do alignments between speakers emerge? Counter-discourse is a concept raised and developed in the paper, and I was wondering if members of the chat themselves ever give evidence of the production of counter-discourse. These questions are linked to a second comment. The gendered images produced in the materials presented are extremely patriarchal, and I was left wondering about the gender of the participants. Some of the materials hail women for educational possibilities, and some raise gendered activities like cooking. Are there comments that arise that might indicate that gender is something relevant to participants and their subjectivity? Finally, the methods and the author’s positionality are discussed well. Given the remarks made about anonymity in methods and the importance of the notion of counter-discourse in the paper, might it be worth it to bring some light to Dalit discourses, or perhaps note that Dalits have indeed launched counter-discourses in the political and literary spheres?

Professor Chaise LaDousa is the Christian A. Johnson Excellence in Teaching Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Anthropology, Hamilton College, New York.

 

 

Caste and the Digital Sphere │ Shreeti Shubham

Introduction

In recent years the new media has become a place for asserting public opinions of marginalised people. However, the technology that opens up new doors cannot be studied without understanding the social hierarchy in the existing society. In India, one such social hierarchy exists in the name of caste. The culturally and economically privileged people mainly belong to the “upper caste,” dominating the entire public discourse in India and discriminating against a large number of the population belonging to the bottom in the caste system hierarchy. Therefore, any discussion on the role of caste in the digital sphere must begin with how caste functions in Indian society. “Caste is social exclusion because the caste a person is born into is supposed to determine his or her occupation and status in life” (Omvedt, 2008, p. 17). The origin of the caste system is much doubted, but it is somewhere rooted in the first mention of the four varnas: Brahmin (Priest), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaisya (Traders), and Shudra (labourers/artisanal workers) in the Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda (1200-900 BCE). The Jatis or sub-castes are classified according to these four varnas; the first three are discerned as “upper caste” and the last one as lower caste, Dalits — Scheduled caste — and Adivasis — Scheduled tribes — are outside of this varna system (Omvedt, 2008, p. 18, Vaghela et al., 2021, p. 212:3). Caste is now not limited to Hinduism, but it also permeates other South Asian religions (Vaghela et al.,2021, p. 212:3). In this paper, I will focus on the Hindu caste system and study the dominance of privileged castes and the marginalisation of the Dalit people in the Digital sphere.

The long-time dominance of the privileged caste over the cultural, economic, and political resources structured is also present in the virtual sphere. The privileged castes have stigmatised every culture belonging to Dalit people and used casteist slurs to demean them (Sajlan, 2021, p. 78–79). For a long time, the Dalits were and still are denied any education, land rights, or any political representation, which helped in maintaining the dominance of the upper caste over the economic resources — such discrimination also developed an “inferiority complex” among the Dalits (Singh, 2018, p. 380). Since the “upper caste” dominates the media industry in India, the voices of the Dalit people have always been neglected by the mainstream media in India  (Mandal, 2020, p. 2 – 4).

In academia, there is a dearth of attention on how this wide gap between the privileged and the marginalised in the Indian digital sphere can reverse the full potential of the online medium to create a democratic space or a public sphere. My study will contribute to this purpose. In my paper, I will seek answers to the following questions.

 

a. How does caste shape access to the digital medium?

b. How does caste function in social media?

c. How to counter caste-based hate speech?

d. How can digital media really be a public sphere?

 

Literature review

 Social media has become an essential tool in bringing out the voices of marginalised people. The online space makes it easier for Dalit communities to fight the power structure centred around the caste. However, technology has not freed it from the stratification of society as the control of the former has fallen into the hands of those who are powerful. To discuss this issue, I shall draw on some of the studies that have been carried out on this topic. In the light of these studies, I shall attempt to analyse the literature based on the theme of social, cultural, and political marginalisation of Dalits in the social sphere, the penetration of caste-based discrimination into the digital sphere, and the role of caste in accessing the digital capital.

Gopal Guru explores the different notions of Dalit marginalisation in the context of India and broadly categorises it into political and cultural marginalisation (2000). In India, caste plays a significant role in the election — shaping the political strategies or ideologies (Vaghela et al., 2021, p. 212:4). However, in the entire political discourse, Dalits and their issues have always been neglected by the major parties. Dalit leaders who attained ranks in the political hierarchy are disregarded, undermining their potential (Guru, 2000, p. 111). This political marginalisation remains not limited to the offline sphere but shapes online political communication too. In their study of caste and online political communication, Vaghela et al. (2021) find that Twitter is dominated by the upper caste members of parliament (MPs), the number of upper caste MPs is more than the lower caste MPs, and they are more active on the bird platform. They argue that upper-caste MPs are often more likely to be retweeted by the other upper-caste MPs and by the lower-caste MPs of their party, whereas upper-caste MPs are less likely to retweet the lower caste MPs’ tweets ( p. 212:10 – 212:12). The retweet behaviour depends on the user’s topic of interest, their alignment with the topic, and the similarity between the profiles (Yang et al., 2010, p. 1636; Macskassy & Michelson, 2011, p. 209). Notably, the upper-caste MPs follow the homophilic trend by only retweeting their caste group MPs’ tweets, while scheduled caste MPs follow a contrarian trend, or the heterophilic trend, which means they retweet upper-caste MPs more than their own group (Vaghela et al., 2021, p. 212:15). This retweet behaviour of the upper caste and the lower caste MPs is what Dr Ambedkar called the consequence of the “social system of graded inequality” while talking about the voting patterns of minority and majority (Ambedkar, 1955, p. 168). He argued that the social hierarchy condescends to the high-status group to never vote for lower lever candidates, whereas the “lower level (voters) takes pride in giving their vote to the candidate” of the high-status community (Ambedkar, 1955, p. 168). The retweet behaviour in the online sphere is merely an extension of the political marginalisation that Dalits face in the (offline) social sphere; their potential is constantly being dismissed, even in the Digital sphere (Vaghela et al. 2021, p. 212:16 – 212:17).

In the cultural marginalisation, the symbols and icons of Dalits have been constrained from the public places based on the concept of purity and pollution, and the entire public spaces are designed as per the privileged caste cultures. It leads to the exclusion of Dalits from the public sphere (Guru, 2000, p. 112). Some authors assert that the socio-technical medium empowers the marginalised to procure them a space to form a collective identity based on their cultural practices, which helps them resist the dominant perspective. Gerbaudo and Treré (2015) contend that the online medium helps the marginalised construct the collective identity based on the notions of icons, symbols, and other cultural practices that lead to the emergence of collective actors in the online protest paradigm (p. 865– 866). Based on the points of Gerbaudo and Treré (2015), Thakur (2020) argues that the digital realm provided the social and cultural capital to the Dalits and facilitated the emergence of “counterpublics” of India. It gives them a space to raise their voice against the oppressive and hegemonic domination of the caste structure (Thakur, 2020, p. 361–362). He also notes down the challenges in consolidating the anti-caste movement in the online sphere; he argues that ‘Dalit’ is not a homogenous category; it is a very plural group with the subgroup of different ideologies, or the political leanings like Amedkarites, liberals, left-liberals; they do not share an associated path to resisting oppressive structures, and Ambedkarites are more radical in their approach and often criticise the Dalit leaders for not doing anything to dismantle the caste structures, while the upper-caste Hindus have already dominated the digital sphere and are disputing the anti-caste online movement (Thakur, 2020, p. 369–371).

The material marginality is much deeper among the Dalits among all the marginalisations. The material marginality can also be understood in the notion of time and space (Guru, 2000, p. 112–113). Gopal Guru argues that “Dalits do not enjoy the sense of time of the privileged” because of the lack of the affordability to exist in the “prime time” spaces or the mainstream spaces (2000, p. 112). Material marginality is also one of the reasons for the digital divide, though Digital Divide is a broader concept. In India, there is a dearth of empirical studies exploring the digital divide from Weberian’s approach or seeing beyond the economic aspect of the Digital Divide. One of the studies that apply both the Marxian and Weberian approaches while studying the digital divide in India is Tewathia et al. (2020). Their findings said that there is a lack of access to devices and media literacy among the marginalised caste, which is further exaggerating the inequality; the Upper-caste gets most benefited from the social (digital) networks; the study shows the positive Matthew effect with the high-status group, which means the high caste is being more powerful in the digital age, while a negative Matthew effect follows the marginalised caste. (Tewathia et al.,2020, p. 1, p. 2, p. 8). The other work is by Anant Kamath, “Untouchable” cell phones? Old caste exclusions and new digital divides in peri-urban Bangalore.” He uses oral histories and feminist methodology to know about the engagement of Dalits with the new technologies in the peri-urban Bangalore. His research shows that out of more than two hundred people, only two Dalits had a hold on the English language; only they could search for jobs or other opportunities thoroughly online. He argues that even after having access to the devices for many years, the opportunities for the marginalised remain limited because of the English language and the lack of (social) network capital (Kamath, 2018, p. 382).

The material and social capital strengthen the dominance of the upper caste in the Digital sphere. The digital divide, unequal social (digital) structure, and scarce resources are constraining the Dalits to question the prevailing inequalities (Thakur, 2020, p. 363), and it is augmenting the existing stratification in the digital sphere (third digital divide). In his article, Hate Speech against Dalits on social media: Would a Penny Sparrow be Prosecuted in India for Online Hate Speech, Devanshu Sajlan (2021) looks at the recent trend of caste hate speech in social media; he cites the discrimination against the oppressed caste — i.e., the caste-based slurs meant to delegitimise the existence of the Dalits in the online sphere, the hate content posts are meant to mock the Dalit cultures, link them with derogatory references, and anti-Ambedkar; the motive behind the caste-based slurs is to intimidate or instil fear among the Dalit community which prevents them from claiming their rights (Sajlan, 2021, p. 91– 92). He analyses the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 from the international legal perspective, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); Section 3(1)(u) of Atrocities Act, 1989 punish the hate speech against the scheduled castes and scheduled tribe “community” (Section 3(1)(r) punish hate speech against SC-ST “individuals”), but only in the case when it incites any law and public order. In contrast, the article (4a), ICERD regulates hate speech based on human dignity (p.86–p.88). The author suggests that caste-based hate speech hurts the dignity of the community and can have a long-term psychological effect on the community; thus, India needs to regulate caste-hate speech to ensure the dignity of the individual (Sajlan, 2021, p. 80, p. 92). Despite all the challenges in the digital sphere for the marginalised castes, some studies discuss that the Digital medium has become a platform to liberate the marginalised from their past experiences, to resist the oppressive system, and the network society is helping them to overcome the fear by coming together and resisting caste-based discrimination (Paul & Dowling, 2018, p. 6). Leigh et al. (2011) stress that the presence of the marginalised in the online sphere has encouraged a new anti-dominant discourse by safeguarding the entry of Dalits into the national discourse; digital media empowers the community to access the public space without any state or structure-based censorship.

Although the internet has provided a platform to the Dalits for expressing their opinions, which may enable a new discourse against the hegemonic production of knowledge and in the anti-caste discourse, as Ragnedda contends, the internet enables only “individual mobility” and not “structural mobility,” Individual mobility is an individual attempt in achieving the rank in the social scale, it did not destroy the concept of social hierarchy, whereas the structural mobility is the structural changes, the moving up and down of an entire group of class, caste, gender, or the decline of the social hierarchy itself (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 52). Ragnedda argues that the “Internet is less likely to promote structural mobility since the use of the Internet relies on the existing social structure” (2016, p. 52). I believe that the previous studies fail to observe this point. The digital sphere has exaggerated the structural inequality centred around caste by bolstering the presence of the dominant caste. As Vaghela et al. (2021) note, “There is ample evidence to show that casteism remains alive and divisive online as much as it does offline” (p. 212:1).

 

Theoretical Framework.

“The citizens access the Internet, not as a tabula rasa (blank slate),” but they are already a part of society which shapes them socially, culturally & politically; their online norms and behaviours rely on their social background (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 10). Ragnedda, in his book The Third Digital Divide: A Weberian Approach to Digital Inequalities, explains the digital divide by using the Weberian cultural perspective. The author discusses the social and cultural benefits of using the internet, further exaggerating the offline inequalities and forcing us towards “the third digital divide” (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 28). The first and second levels of the digital divide are about access to the Digital medium and the uses of the digital medium or digital literacy. At all the levels of the digital divide, the social-cultural capital plays an important role; it benefits those who are socially and culturally privileged (Ragnedda, 2016). By using this approach, or the Weberian lens, in this paper, I will demonstrate that the social-technical medium is not working towards creating a new public sphere or anti-caste sphere, but it is bolstering the dominance of the upper castes in both the online and offline spheres and making the marginalised castes more marginalised.

 

Methodological Consideration

 To collect the data, I have used the netnographic study. Netnography is the conduct of ethnography over the internet (Kozinets, 2015, p. 4). The netnographic researchers also use methods used in an ethnographic study like participatory observation, interview, and non-participatory observation (Xun & Reynolds, 2009, p. 18). My research approach is limited to the non-participant observation method. Non-participant observation is a qualitative research collection data method; unlike the participant observation method, the researcher observes a community’s behaviour without any direct communication with them (Williams, 2008, p. 561). The observation ends when the new data do not have any crucial things to add to the researcher’s understanding. Researchers may conduct direct or indirect non-participant observations. Direct observation can be the study of human behaviour in the field without directly interacting with them; For studying any historical, social phenomenon, or any violent situation, researchers can rely on indirect observations like observing video, newspapers, or film recordings (Williams, 2008, p. 561). Non-participant observation can be overt or covert. In Overt non-participant observation, the community knows that researchers are present, but they do not interact with each other, whereas in Covert non-participant observation, the community is not aware of the existence of the researcher. (TiSDD Method, n.d.). Virtual non-participant observation is a covert affair as the researcher lurks the blogs and social networking sites (Murthy, 2008, p. 839–840). Virtual non-participant observation opens the doors for the marginalised researchers to study the inaccessible or the dominant groups, but it also raises some ethical concerns while researching the marginalised community; hence the researcher should be obligated toward the vulnerable community (Murthy, 2008, p. 840–841; Williams, 2008, p. 561). Digital researchers can collect enormous data by observing the pages and lurking the social media sites; moreover, the data can be recorded by screenshots or saving contents (Williams, 2008, p. 562).

There are many strengths of non-participant observation (in general netnography). Easy access to vast data, more budget-friendly and time-saving than the conventional methodology, the digital data is stored in the medium; it allows researchers to examine the data at their own consistency (Xun & Reynolds, 2009, p. 19). The Limitations of the approach are participant authenticity; on the social and technological medium, it is hard to find the real identity of the user (Xun & Reynolds, 2009, p. 19), and without the participant’s interaction, there is a risk of misinterpretation of the user’s behaviour (Steils, 2019, p. 32), also like in conventional methods, the social-cultural gaze of the researcher or the “researcher selectivity” influence the data collection, interpretation (Murthy, 2008, p. 841). Above all, one of the most significant limitations of netnography is the digital divide, the only community who have access to the digital medium can be researched or do research online (Murthy, 2008, p. 848).

For over a month, I have lurked on many social media profiles that proudly mention their caste. I have discerned the contents, messages, pages, blogs, and videos of the dominant caste. I have observed the online prominence of the dominant and the non-privileged caste groups and their outreach in terms of retweets, likes, comments, and subscribers on YouTube. The study also uses secondary data to interpret the cultural and economic background behind accessing the new media, which ultimately helps dominate the internet sphere. I have used various hashtags to know about the direct caste-based discrimination or hate speech on social media.

 

Research Material

The primary research material is collected from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. These are contents shared by the dominant castes and a few marginalised groups. At the very beginning of the netnography study, I joined three dominant caste private groups on Facebook: Brahmin worldwide, Brahmin business, Profession & job network, and Brahmins’ Bhojan. Each group has almost ten to fifty thousand members. I also discerned some public groups and posts on Facebook related to Brahmin marriages. All the private groups on Facebook are only open for Brahmins to join. Though anonymity on social media allows anyone to access certain groups, many of the questions that are asked before joining the groups make it difficult for everyone to join.

Moreover, the groups only serve the interests of the Brahmin community. Before joining the private Brahmin groups, the individual has to answer several questions about their knowledge of the Brahmin community, such as which city of Brahmins they come from. What is their gotra (clan)? Which Veda do they belong to (Brahmins are supposed to belong to different Vedas)? The motive behind collecting this information from the group members is to ensure the ‘purity’ of their online sphere. The objective behind joining these private groups on Facebook is to explore how casteist communication, preserving homogeneity, and the concept of purity and pollution in the (offline) private sphere permeated the online realm. I also joined a private group, Dalit voice, with fifteen thousand members, and the other public groups ran by members of the Dalit community. The purpose of joining the Dalit groups was to see the difference or similarity between the functioning of the upper caste and the Dalit private groups on social media. To access the Dalit private groups, the person must be aware of the works of Dr Ambedkar and answer, “do they still practise untouchability?” However, I did not collect much of the data from the Dalit private groups due to some ethical challenges I mentioned below.

I lurked many profiles on Instagram and Twitter with the surnames Sharma, Pandey, Shukla, and Jha (all these surnames are of North India Brahmin). I examined their posts and comments on the tweets of Dalit, Ambedkarites, and anti-caste people. On both the platforms, I followed the trend with the hashtags #proudtobebrahmin (proud to be brahmin) #anticastereservation (anti-caste reservation), #saynotoreservations (say no to reservations) #aarakshanbarbaadih (reservation is destruction) #savarnalivesmatter (savarna lives matter) #brahminlivesmatter (Brahmin lives matter) #RepealSCSTAct. On Youtube, I noted the reach of YouTube channels run by upper-caste members compared to Dalit channels. I also looked at the contents and the comments of three specific videos, two of the videos were anti-caste in perspective and questioned the Brahmin’s supremacy over the resources. In the first video, a comedian with the surname Sharma sarcastically questions the caste system and the hegemony of the Brahmin community. The second video was “We are Brahmins” on the Buddhist broadcasting Aajtak platform. In this video, a woman questioned a man over the practice of Brahmanism. The last video spreads the opposite message, a casteist song to claim the Brahmin’s superiority; the lyrics of the song were “sare jag me dhoond liya Brahmin jaisi koi jaat nahi” (I searched the whole world only to find there is no mightier caste than the Brahmin caste). The objective of viewing the videos and reading the comments was to see how the upper caste individuals react to casteist and anti-casteist content and how their online behaviour is part of their social norms. Although my research remains limited to the upper caste right-wing group, the anti-reservation or casteist attitude is not limited to the only right-wing. Many of the secular, left-wing groups also have some anti-reservation opinions. In this study, my main focus is to study the upper caste spaces.

I prefer not to explore more of the marginalised spaces for two reasons. One is my social position of a privileged caste. The dominant caste researcher studying the Dalit groups often succumbs to their caste location and explores the marginalised spaces with their stereotypical Savarna lens. Another reason for not setting my foot in oppressed spaces is a moral concern; while upper-caste scholars can easily access Dalit domains, Dalit scholars face challenges while entering the dominant spaces. Thus, caste studies remain confined to the Dalit area. Indeed, it started a discussion in academics about the conditions of Dalits, but it did not touch or question any behaviour/power of the upper caste. Amid the dearth of studies on upper-caste behaviour in academics, I stick to studying it. The time limitation made me observe only the Brahmin spaces and not those of the other upper castes.

For my study, I also used secondary research material, media reports and journalistic writings to answer the research question: the role of caste in accessing the digital space and how it is creating a third digital divide.

 

Findings and Analysis

How technology eases the functioning of the caste system in the digital sphere can be understood from the line used by one of the groups of Brahmin marriage, “Tradition gives confidence and technology gives comfort”. The meaning of tradition here is to practise the caste system.

 

 

 

                            

 

Brahmin groups and Weber’s “Status Group”

The caste system limits knowledge production to a few hands. The traditional society used to be homogeneous and closed; the online society aims to move toward heterogeneity and open the spaces for all (Schuller & Theisens, 2010, p. 100). The online Brahmin private sphere is more rigorously following the same homogeneity and limits their spaces only to their caste group. A significant number of Brahmins worldwide are making themselves heard in the virtual space and employing their casteist attitude to make the virtual space more regressive. The objective of the private caste groups is to serve only the interests of their caste, which will ultimately reinforce casteism in both the digital and social sphere. The groups are being used for promoting the Brahmin’s businesses, for maintaining the purity of their caste, either by controlling the choices of women, like one of the members of these group wrote that a “Brahmin girl should be aware of Muslims and non-brahmins, and avoid interaction with them at any cost,” or by controlling the choices of food habit of the people, and promote the business of “pure food” for and by Brahmins. The entire hegemony of Brahminism is based on the “pure blood” and the “pure food.” These online Brahmins’ private groups are what Weber called “status groups.” Weber’s concept of social stratification is not confined to economic factors only, but it is the relationship between class, status, and power. He defined status groups as those with a similar lifestyle, “similar cultural and social interests and common consumer patterns” irrespective of their class (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 39). In the age of the internet, this “sense of belongingness” to a group goes beyond the geographical boundaries, hence boasting the power of these high-status groups and rewarding them with social prestige, power, and money. (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 40–44). The private Brahmin groups prosper from online interactions, which leads to offline returns in terms of easy accessibility to places, education, and increased domination over the resources, a “third digital divide”. By affiliating themselves with a caste group in the digital sphere, these groups get the most advantage in the offline spheres.

 

 

             

 

 

Norms & behaviour of Upper-caste Individuals in the online sphere

The online interaction of upper caste groups over social media, their comments, posts, likes, and retweets are casteist as well as in the direction of maintaining the status quo of Brahmin’s hegemony. The Twitter and Instagram profiles that I observed proudly mention Brahmin in their bio of the social-technical medium, but against the caste-based reservations or the affirmative action, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and any laws & policies which empower the marginalised castes. The upper-caste users of social media blame reservations for their failure. The main argument against the reservation is “caste no longer exists”, “Brahmins are suppressed”, “reservation should be economically based”, or caste-based “reservation is killing the merit.” In one of the tweets, an upper-caste man wrote, “Everyone has an equal brain” then why is there a reservation? Without even deeming the structural inequality that requires affirmative action, the upper caste individuals are constantly targeting Dalits. The upper caste people on social media demand the setting up of the Savarna commission to protect themselves from the atrocities of Dalits on them (see the images). There is a trend on social media on Brahmin lives matter. Due to the necessary policies or actions to increase the representation of Dalit communities in the public sphere, the feeling of victimisation among members of the Upper castes has persisted. Many anti-reservation and anti-SC-ST Act (1989) memes are widely shared among the upper caste groups. They call themselves “deserved’ as opposed to the ‘reserved’ category and question the merit of every Dalit. The hate speech against the Dalits also manifests in the savarna posts, Brahmins called themselves Buddhijeevi (Intellectual), and the structural hatred against seeing the Dalit community in the dominant spaces made them mock Dalits by calling them “Aarakshanjeevi” (A person who survives on reservation), “Bheemta” (offensive word to demean Dalit Ambedkarites), Chamar, Bhangi (Casteist slurs), and so on. The comments on the Youtube videos are to legitimise the Brahmin’s supremacy over the other castes; a Pandey commented, “Vedas suggests that Brahmins are the first among all other castes who read all Vedas and Puranas,” the other one said, “Brahmins are believed to achieve a higher level of success than the average population.” People’s behaviours in the online world are shaped by their cultural, economic, and political backgrounds (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 7), Talcott Parsons sees these norms and values as social order, and the internet became an essential tool in “serve to preserve and reinforce the social order” (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 73). The behaviour of the Brahmin communities in the online sphere is part of their social norms and behaviour that could not tolerate the Dalit presence in public spaces and want to maintain the caste privileges or the social order.

 

                    

             

                             

            Casteist slurs, anti-reservation, anti-SC-ST act posts, and tweets on social media.

 

Caste, the Digital divide, & the reinforcement of the caste system in the Digital & social sphere

The research of Kamath (2018) and Tewathia et al. (2020), which I discussed in the literature review section, demonstrates how caste restricts (or facilitates) the access and the uses of technology. After the pandemic, a large section of the economy, political communication, and education shifted toward the digital realm. However, the growing disparity between accessing and the knowledge of the uses of the technology between the privileged and the marginalised caste is further exacerbating the social inequality and reinforcing the caste in both online and offline spheres by rewarding the upper caste with status, privilege, political power, & money (the third digital divide). One of the recent media articles, Data of Disparity Shows Why It is Critical That Digital Learning Is Inclusive (2020), notes the higher disparity among the Schedule caste and the upper caste students in the accessing and using the internet, even at the higher education level. Higher education helps in mitigating the social gap; in lack of it, the chances of a large section will move toward traditional work or caste-based work.

Moreover, the gap will further minimise the chances of Dalits or any other marginalised section in India’s tech sector, which the upper caste has already dominated. In her feature India’s tech has a caste problem, Raksha Kumar, a prominent journalist, writes that the lack of access to English or a quality primary education and lack of affordability to get a technical degree already creates a wall for the marginalised section to reach the IT sector. The private sector in India does not require any affirmative action to follow. Hence only the Upper Caste with social, economic, and digital capital reaches the tech industry quickly and gets rewarded with a high pay scale, prestige, and power. It led us to the third digital divide; the social sphere and the virtual sphere both boasted the power of the upper caste. Ragnedda (2016) argues that the privileged in the society or the high-status groups who control the resources in the social sphere are more likely to control the technology than the lower status group; the privileged groups use technology to reinforce social stratification, and thus tech-led stratification leads toward a “third digital divide” (capacity to benefit from accessing and using the internet) or a “path to inequality, both in the social and the digital realm.” (Ragnedda, 2016, p. 5, p. 19, p. 33, p. 51, p. 61). The lack of access to technology, media literacy, and digital networks among the marginalised caste are the consequences of the existing social order (caste), which causes the first and the second level of the digital divide in India. Both the level of the digital divide have led to the third level of the digital divide and reinforced the dominance of the upper caste in both the virtual and social spheres. The insignificant presence of Dalits in the virtual sphere will destroy the entire democratic essence of technology.

 

Conclusion

This paper has assessed the functioning of the caste in the digital sphere. By shifting the location of studying the caste from marginalised to privileged spaces, the paper explored the online behaviour of the upper caste as the product of their social norms and safeguarding the social hierarchy. The social order not only influences the digital realm but benefits from the digital hierarchy. It helps the upper caste to maintain the status quo and their privilege. The paper observes that caste not only eases the access and uses of technology but further exacerbates the gap between the marginalised and privileged castes in the offline sphere. The preceding discussion has shown that the digital capital in the hands of the upper caste boasted their power to control the public sphere and challenged the anti-caste discourse. The dominance of the upper-caste narrative, the demonisation of minorities, and hate speech against the Dalits will further push the marginalised out of the (digital) public sphere. This digital led stratification will undermine the full potential of technology to improve the life quality of people and make a public sphere. In the public sphere, “access is guaranteed to all citizens” (Habermas, 1964, p. 49). Although a counter-public sphere is challenging the dominant or casteist narrative of the public sphere in the Digital Age, the journalists and activists coming from marginalised castes are occupying the digital space. However, as discussed above, this only brings a change in individuals, not structural change.

We need a law and policy level intervention to minimise the first and second digital divide that can increase the representation of all the marginalised communities in the online sphere. It will help make the online sphere heterogeneous. The present study also discussed the hate speech against the Dalits; the online platform makes it so easy to target Dalits. Social media is full of casteist slurs; chamar, Bhangi. The casteist slurs targeting the SC-ST community are punishable under section 3(1)(u) of the Atrocities Act, 1989, but only if it incites public order. Hate speech on social media targets the dignity of the community; thus, the law should regulate hate speech to protect human dignity (Sajlan, 2021, p.92). Further, the government and the non-governmental organisations should work toward countering the fake narrative around affirmative action, the Atrocities Act, 1989, and dissipating the idea of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the upper-caste spaces.

 

 Note

The “Upper Caste” or “Lower caste” is used only because it is widely understood, not to establish any sort of superiority or hegemony of any caste.

 

 

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