Taking dissent online is not a new phenomenon. It has been used by activists in countries where governments are ‘repressitarian’- meaning both repressive in humanitarian practices and authoritarian in governance. With most countries forced to go into lockdown, humanitarian crises and human rights violations have erupted across the world. The pandemic has resulted in the shutting down of all channels of physical expression due to which, the cyberspace has now become a melting pot of dissent and dissatisfaction.
The Indian government took the lockdown as an opportunity to erase artworks at the protest sites of Jamia Millia Islamia, dismantle structures at Shaheen Bagh and to arrest many student leaders and political activists with false charges. There have also been many instances of human rights violations, police brutality and wrongful treatment of migrant workers. Along with these developments, the government’s flagrant dismissal of parliamentary procedure and due process can be seen through the introduction of repressive laws such as the EIA and NEP, government notifications regarding disability, internet regulation, UAPA and several others. The Monsoon Session of the Parliament passing 25 bills in 10 sittings, even with loud protesting from the Opposition, is a new record, but nothing to be proud of. The attempt to dismantle existing structures of democracy is a direct attempt to change the nature of the Indian Constitution and the Indian state. The need to shift agitation to virtual spaces is necessary to make sure that these issues, among others, stay alive in the public domain.
Physical protests usually survive on a momentum that is developed by a strong community backing it and a parallel is now found online with an unseen community providing allyship from different parts of the world. The demand for the abrogation of CAA and NRC as well as the demand for the release of all political prisoners found a space in international media and in several protests that erupted across the world in 2020.
The Fourth Estate, or the media has been restrained as well as transformed to such an extent that many of these issues and criticisms get hidden from the limelight. It has become a space where TV anchors yell at each other and play to the rhetoric of the government. Real-time news reaches much of the public through various Internet outlets such as blogs, indie reporting websites, Instagram accounts and Twitter posts. For the public to take notice, Twitter storms and organized campaigns online have proven to be effective, #BlackLivesMatter and #DalitLivesMatter is a testimony to this. India has seen a similar campaign demanding the release of political prisoners, with the case of Safoora Zargar making the headlines. However, this space is still dominated by and accessible only to the privileged classes and to make such issues become a part of every day, national conversation, we need to amplify the voices of the marginalized and the wronged. We need to promote the cyberspace as an effective tool for those in charge to look up and notice the pulse of the society.
We have yet to see monumental change, but with the clout of social distancing over us, we have no option but to exhaust the virtual space. Therefore, the importance of cyber dissent movements, their impacts and the best ways of organizing them and its disadvantages need to be looked at in-depth as it becomes extremely relevant in a world that is predicted to be affected by many more global pandemics.
Being politically aware and active on social media is a hefty task to undertake. It requires a lot of reading, learning and unlearning. I have personally struggled a lot to come to terms with what is actually happening around me and realized the countless ways in which I have been complicit in facilitating oppression. Interacting with people from various backgrounds in college along with listening to countless social media activists has greatly helped and alerted me to the intersectional dimension of each issue.
The excuse of calling oneself apolitical is no longer an option in a country where the government is actively trying to change historical political narratives and backtrack democratic laws and institutions. While voicing our political opinions online and joining cyber protest movements are necessary, we must also remember to not take up the space that belongs to the very communities we are allying with. Let us acknowledge the 2020 version of dissent and contribute to what will go down in history as a new era of activism and protests.
Featured image credits : Mariam George