Sanghapali Aruna is exhausted but remains defiant. The past few days have been quite overwhelming, considering the outrage over the ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ poster that was held up by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a closed door meeting with Indian women journalists, writers and activists.
Aruna was among the women who met with the Twitter team for a discussion on women’s experiences of using the platform, from online movements to facing abuse and sexual harassment. At the end of the meeting, Aruna, who is an anti-caste activist and Executive Director of Project Mukti, gave Jack two posters, one which read ‘End Caste Apartheid’ and another which said ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’.
When a photograph of Jack holding the second poster was tweeted, it immediately led to widespread social media anger. Jack was accused of “inciting violence” against a “minority” community (the Brahmins), and not just by random trolls, but even a senior IPS officer who said the poster has “potential” to create communal riots. TNM caught up with Aruna for a chat on the uproar.
Much has been said about ‘Brahminical patriarchy’ in the last few days. Did you ever think it would become such a big deal when you gave Jack the poster?
Actually not. Because we have been giving these art pieces to a lot of people. When we designed these posters, the idea was to make sure everyone understands what the Indian cultural, historical and contemporary contexts are. Because whoever we were meeting were mostly social activists and those who are in positions of authority where they can make decisions.
During Twitter CEO @jack's visit here, he & Twitter's Legal head @vijaya took part in a round table with some of us women journalists, activists, writers & @TwitterIndia's @amritat to discuss the Twitter experience in India. A very insightful, no-words-minced conversation pic.twitter.com/LqtJQEABgV— Anna MM Vetticad (@annavetticad) November 18, 2018
This was part of our journey towards building a society that is full of equity. We thought we'd give it to him as he's the head of an organisation that's been in India for so long. We thought he should know. We didn't know it was going to be so huge and that we could actually make people angry.
But do you feel Jack actually understood what the poster said?
Not at all. The meeting was only for one hour and everybody was in a rush to leave and there was no time to talk about it. I gave Jack two posters that said “End Caste Apartheid” and “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” immediately after the meeting ended and everybody was like "Let's take a photograph".
I'd raised the issue of caste and Islamophobic slurs that are so rampant on these social media platforms at the meeting, and said that they're not being adequately addressed. When I said these are the posters we've designed to take our work forward, he took them, looked at them and said "Thank you so much". He did not ask me what the posters were about. He probably understood that it's related to the cause but not the whole context. I can't expect a person who comes from the West to understand it. It needs a lot of discussions, questions, and clarifications to understand this thousands-of-years-old oppressive system.
At the meeting, what instances of caste-related abuse did you speak about and are you hopeful that they will take it seriously?
I was positive when I was sitting over there. I was trolled badly when a video went viral during the Rohith Vemula protests and there was a kind of doxing - where they tried to get my physical data, location and all that. There was a person who came to JNU and said a lot of things to me on my face. I didn't consider this as a threat at that time. But later, when I was discussing this with a couple of technology experts, they said this is called doxing, where they target activists, try to get their information. It means they're tracking you and you need to be careful. You need to delete social media accounts. So I had to, without any second thoughts, delete everything because for me, my work was more important than being on social media platforms.
That was a choice that I made. It wasn't that I wasn't able to take on these trolls. I would have loved to - but when you're in public attention, you can't work as much as you want. And for me my work towards building digital literacy and safety of our communities was important. But I have to say that these trolls have been increasing day by day. And though I'm not on Twitter or Facebook so actively, I'm still working on trying to understand these platforms, see what kind of ecosystem is being built around hate speech and disinformation. What kind of trolls, what kind of language people use to attack vulnerable communities. So I was talking about that to them and also about how the reporting process doesn't have caste in it.
Even Facebook has introduced it (caste) quite recently. Three months back when I met them, they said this is a new addition they're really proud of in their community standards. I was happy though when we're reporting, it doesn't have caste as such. What they're addressing is caste slurs and I think that's the first step. We look forward to them making it more explicit.
I felt that even Twitter should take a stand, given the cultural, historical and social context of India, and not be unaware of the aspects that are actually operating in this country. They can't not have 'race' in their system of reporting in America, right? I told them that the population of Dalits itself is almost the same as the population of the USA. So caste becomes a bigger issue and if you're not having it in your criteria, then it's a very big mistake.
When answering to my comments, Vijaya (Twitter's legal head) did become emotional and I'll say that it was genuine. I felt bad when she cried and I said it's okay, we all are constantly learning. And I said this attempt of meeting us was also a learning process, and that we can fix this together. That happened and Vijaya came to me after the meeting, gave me her email, and said we'll definitely meet. And immediately after I came back home, all of us received a mail saying they have consulted the team, and that as of now, caste can be reported under 'intra-religious distinction' - which was weird for me because how is caste intra-religious? It's not. I did tell them that as of now, the community standards are not adequate to answer all the questions that are there.
So I feel they are making attempts and I'm sure they will definitely now, after this whole episode, make more efforts to understand what's happening in this context and how they can address it better. And if they're not doing it, and they are distancing themselves from it, I think that would be really disappointing.
The phrase 'Brahminical patriarchy' has been in use for years now in academic circles and anti-caste revolutionaries like Ambedkar have written about how gender and caste are intertwined. Yet, there is so much outrage. Do you think this ignorance is wilful?
Yes, I think it is wilful. Because most of them are educated - they're writing in English and abusing us in English. They haven't read anything. The term 'Brahminism' is used on an everyday basis. It's not that we need to go and read Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar. Yes, of course, if you want to understand at a deeper level, you need to read them - but I'm sure none of the bhakts have read it. For them, whatever they're getting from their school - you know, the bhakts go to a different school - so whatever they're getting there, they're blindly believing in it. They don't want to read Ambedkar, they just want to appropriate Ambedkar.
Even though it's wilful, I'd say that it's a political one-upmanship game. Right now they want to show that they're in minority, get sympathy from the whole world. And by attacking Jack, they're trying to prove that they're the people who're being trolled, attacked on a daily basis. They will have no evidence for this. The only reason they're saying is "we're minority". But what about the cases of caste based atrocities that are happening on an everyday basis to our people? None of the Brahmins are lynched or killed or raped or paraded naked for riding on a horse, or for sitting cross legged or if their shadow falls on other caste members. For that matter, any community which is at the top level.
This is patriarchy, which is based on brahminism. For women from each and every caste, the patriarchy they experience is different, the manifestations are different. Patriarchy is not the same for women of all castes - that is what we're talking about. If they don't want to understand, let it be so. We need to be clear that we're not talking about brahmins or any commmunity, we're talking about the system in which patriarchy is perpetrated in various forms based on your caste location. A system which is graded and is different for women from different castes.
Among the reactions we've seen is why nobody speaks of 'Dalit patriarchy' or 'Muslim patriarchy'. Your response?
Muslim patriarchy is something I don't want to answer because I don't see it as an equivalent to Brahminical patriarchy (in how it manifests). But when we say 'Dalit patriarchy' or 'Shudra patriarchy', where is it stemming from? It is Brahminism - the whole Dharmashastras, the religious scriptures, the Hindu texts, where you see how they sanction certain things on the women.
If 'Dalit' is part of the Brahmanical social order, we cannot say there's a ‘Dalit patriarchy', 'Shudra patriarchy' - it is the Brahminical patriarchy that we're talking about, which has its roots in Brahminism.
We've seen savarna women supporting the poster but also those who usually bat for equality, lash out against it. Was this only to be expected or do you feel betrayed?
I see that there is a division. There is a section of savarna women who're standing with the poster, for the message on the poster. There is a section of women who don't want to do it, but I think that's okay. We can't expect everyone to stand with us because they have their own notions of patriarchy in their mind, which they don't understand mostly or want to challenge. I think we need to give them time to understand.
Image credit: equalitylabs.org
It has taken forever for people to understand the caste system. Even now, a lot of people say that there is no caste system. They go on about reservations. Are we still holding any Supreme Court Chief Justice position? Are we the CJI? Are we holding any positions of authority? When Raya Sarkar came out with her list, you saw how many savarna feminists lashed out against her. And these were women who speak about sexual abuse, feminism. So what I'm saying is, your cause cannot get support from all sections at one point. It will get support from different people at different times. I appreciate whatever solidarity we're getting now and I'd say that if this solidarity can be maintained in future, we can fight this oppressive system.
How do you feel about Twitter's response to the backlash? Have they reached out to you since then?
I was disappointed by Vijaya's statement, of course. You can be neutral, but you don't need to apologise. Twitter didn't apologise, but Vijaya's tweet came as an apology. So I felt that shouldn't have come because it means the message is wrong.
They did reach out to the panel members saying they are willing to discuss further. But I don’t see what we can hope from closed door meetings. A lot of things are happening. Just yesterday, the Jodhpur court has taken the case against Twitter CEO Jack and all that. And a senior cop for sure should know what "Brahminical" means and it's not that it's targeting one community. It's actually very disappointing and annoying at the same time. And they're saying this is an attack on Brahmins and millions of Hindus - Brahmins are not millions of Hindus, first of all. And the other Hindus are always oppressed by this system. I wish they'd take a stand and say yes, this is affecting us, and that this Brahminical system is so oppressive on us too.
If we're talking about Brahminical patriarchy and this is the response....you don't need to ask any more questions. This IS the brahminical patriarchy that we're talking about. We want to push social media platforms to take accountability and address the ecosystem of hate speech and disinformation on their platforms.