On Monday, various Dalit groups organised an all-India strike against the Supreme Court’s judgement barring the arrest of public servants under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 before a preliminary inquiry is conducted, apparently to curb the alleged misuse of the law. The protests were widespread and forceful, descending into violence at many places or provoking a violent reaction from upper caste groups. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh saw deaths while Punjab requested the Union Home Ministry for paramilitary forces to control the situation.

Remarkably, given the national scale of the protests, there was no central leadership. The marches and demonstrations were organised locally, strung together through social media, specifically the messaging app WhatsApp. The federated nature of the protests is another example of the transformative impact social media has had on Indian politics.

'Not a rally, we want a surge of people,' says this WhatsApp message, urging people to 'please share it further'.

Group protest

OP Bharti is an advocate at the Tis Hazari court in Delhi and subscribes to the Ambedkarite ideology. In the run-up to the Bharat Bandh on April 2, he mobilised people by pecking away at WhatsApp. “I made groups for each court in Delhi as well as national groups to get people for the protests,” he explained.

The strike had little organised backing from political parties and was instead led by a host of local Dalit groups. Indeed, the first known call for the bandh was given by a local Dalit leader in Punjab’s Phagwara town. This was on March 27 and the protests were to be limited to Phagwara.

However, this call was soon taken up by Ambedkarite groups across the country through social media. In a WhatsApp group run by administrators based in western Uttar Pradesh, a user “Vinu” exhorted people to shut down India on April 2: “You people keep on using WhatsApp for wishing people while there the SC/ST act has been rendered ineffective.”

'If a woman [Phoolan Devi] could show so much courage, then what are the country's 20 crore Scheduled Caste and 10 crore Scheduled Tribe citizens doing?'

‘Change your DP’

In Rajasthan’s Hindaun city, a message exhorted Dalits to change their WhatsApp display pictures to that of a bandh poster for 24 hours. The mobilisation in Hindaun – a place with little history of Ambedkarite politics – was so successful the organisers were unable to control the crowd; the protest descended into caste clashes in which the houses of two Dalit leaders, including the sitting legislator, were burnt down.

Another message gave instructions on what to do in case “BJP and RSS people infiltrate the rally and start to shout ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans”, referring to the February 2016 incident of pro-Pakistan slogans being allegedly shouted at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. What were the protestors to do if this happened? “Beat them up and shoot the whole thing on video,” they were told.

'While six crore Rajputs shook up the country over [the Hindi movie] Padmaavat, 40 crore Dalits are choosing to fast for Navratri instead of protesting the dilution of the SC/ST Act.'

Early on Monday, the day of the bandh, WhatsApp groups circulated real time photos of the protest, further exhorting people to get out and join the marches.

Social media entered the political space in the West about a decade ago. Most significantly, the 2008 United States presidential election saw Barrack Obama use Facebook to campaign, bypassing more traditional methods of canvassing. In India, that inflection point came in 2014, with the Bharatiya Janata Party marshalling an online army to push the candidature of Narendra Modi. Now even small organisations such as the Ambedkarite groups that organised the bandh are employing social media to make a real impact on the ground.

One of the pictures from Bharat Bandh protests that was shared on Ambedkarite WhatsApp groups.