In 2016, a Dalit activist and artist in the United States, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, designed a poster of a woman angrily holding up a sign that read, “Smash Brahmanical patriarchy”. Two years later, in an unlikely turn of events, the poster is at the heart of a political storm.
Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey’s visit to India this fortnight included a meeting on November 9 with a group of women journalists for an off-the-record conversation. At this meeting, he was photographed with Soundararajan’s poster. On Monday, when the photo of Dorsey was tweeted out, it became a lightning rod for controversy. Angered by the call to “smash Brahmanical patriarchy”, a number of Indian commentators criticised the poster, claiming that it was “hate speech” that served to “malign a community”. Congress politician Manish Tewari even went so far as to suggest that it proved that Brahmins are the “new Jews of India”.
Scroll.in spoke to Soundararajan about how the poster was created, why it led to such a backlash and how caste is reflected on social media.
What prompted you to draw these posters?
As a Dalit artist I am always trying to create work that brings forward the struggles, voices and dreams of caste-oppressed people. This poster series was co-created with another New York-based artist Shrummi with colour assist from Mon Mohapatra. The series has lots of different caste-oppressed women and non-binary figures holding up slogans and calls for justice given that we simply don’t have enough visual artifacts within Indian society.
This is not accidental. This is part of the structural oppression that makes up caste apartheid. Only recently have Dalits stormed intellectual bastions that have been typically the outposts of savarnas [upper castes]. Whether as journalists, artists, academic intellectuals or technologists, we are paving a path for the discussion of caste that centres our experiences of surviving violence and decentres Brahminical narratives that obfuscate caste power and diminish the horror and violence of caste apartheid.
What did you exactly mean by the phrase ‘Brahmanical patriarchy’? Does this specifically blame Brahmins, as some are saying?
Brahminical patriarchy refers to the interlocking system of caste, gender norms and rituals under Brahminic tradition that enforce caste through women and their reproductive function. The usage of Brahminical patriarchy is certainly not a new term: from Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar to Uma Chakrabati to countless Indian feminists, the understanding of how caste and gender are linked is not news.
The phrase is an insight into how how intersectionality in the Indian context works. As a Dalit feminist I am not interested in anything else but getting free. And we need to be able to have clarity on what is at the heart of India’s epidemic of gender-based violence and, to that, we need to be specific about its root in Brahminical patriarchy.
What is new is that clearly casteist trolls are eager to diminish any conversation that looks at culpability in India’s rape and casteist culture. But let’s be clear: it is fact, not violence, to name how one caste through scripture has held hegemonic power for centuries.
I wish that these trolls were as incensed by incident of a 13-year old Dalit girl, Raja Laskhmi in Tamil Nadu, being decapitated in front of her mother by her perpetrator. When savarna men face the same scale and frequency of gender-based violence that Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi women and non-binary people face, then we can talk.
I think only the most cynical, deflecting casteist troll would attempt to try to characterise Brahminical patriarchy as an attack on individual Brahmins. We are talking about systems of oppression in order to address this structural problem.
What did you make of the anger and outrage over the phrase? Does this qualify as ‘hate speech’ as some are describing it?
To begin, the poster is saying we need to end two interlocked systems of oppressions, not attack individual people. End of story.
That said, I can appreciate that there are strong feelings about this issue. It is hard to confront one’s privilege. But hurt feelings cannot be a justification for the obfuscation of the harsh reality of caste apartheid.
Further, I find the faux outrage over this poster an intentional distraction in that is meant to hide the structural privilege of the savarna castes. I think this is why equity feels like oppression for those who have been part of privileged castes for centuries. They don’t like educated Dalit women who are calling to question their impunity; they lack caste resilience and the self-reflection to understand the harm they have caused. It is the ultimate example of savarna fragility.
If anything, this episode is a further reminder of how savarna allies need to invest time and resources in helping their fellow savarnas unlearn their caste privilege and get comfortable with sharing power and intellectual space with their caste-oppressed peers.
Finally, the hate speech analogy is inaccurate and intentionally inflammatory. Describing a system of oppression is not the same thing as a slur. Any attempt to confuse this issue is part of the distraction.
How is caste reflected on social media? Is it a safer space for Bahujans than real world political spaces in India?
In the beginning, online spaces were powerful places where Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi activists from around the world could build community and began to find agency in the safety of their collective online visibility. Places like Facebook and Twitter were areas where many activists were able to come out and find community that might be impossible in casteist, real-life communities that rejected many. However as the internet became more corporate, centralised we also saw a digitisation of caste apartheid and a move towards an escalation of casteist tactics and campaigns online. This is what has led to our state of perpetual trolling and disinformation and we have to address this not as individual casteist incidents but as a systemic problem requiring structural thinking.
That said, the issue of disinformation, harassment, and hate speech requires a lot of understanding about both the context of the country you are in and investments in research and staffing that can handle such violent content. Right now, there are no means to report casteist slurs using Twitter’s current reporting process. The only way, then, to make Twitter safer for Dalit-Bahujans is to work directly with caste and gender queer oppressed communities to understand our experiences of violence and disenfranchisement and work to create policies and tools to help us have equity on the platform.
Twitter’s Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead tweeted to say, ‘I’m very sorry for this. It’s not reflective of our views.’ However, Jack Dorsey has spoken of supporting “Black Lives Matter” in the United States in 2016. Does Twitter approach social justice movements differently in India and the US?
I think this is a soul-searching moment for the platform. Jack has spoken about how moved he was about the platform being used by organisers of the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. He even marched in Ferguson [to oppose police brutality in the United States] and created t-shirts that had Twitter’s logo with the phrase “Stay Woke”. I believe Jack and Twitter India can and want to do the right thing but this statement reflects bad crisis management for a situation their team was just not culturally or even emotionally prepared for.
For a couple of days Jack and the Twitter India team got to see what it was like to be a Dalit women on their platform. The threats, the alternative facts, the brigading, it’s all horrific. And yes, it needs to change. Twitter can not be a platform for expression and ideas if vulnerable communities are routinely deplatformed by violence, disinformation, and hate speech.
I think this moment, as painful as it is, could be a call to Jack and Twitter India getting to know more Indian gender and minority communities, to better understand this problem and to not let casteist bullies intimidate the possibility of creating a gender and caste-equitable Twitter.