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Solidarity as a political relation on Instagram during the Indian farmers' protest

in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)

Published onOct 06, 2021
Solidarity as a political relation on Instagram during the Indian farmers' protest
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The focus of this article is to explicate the kind of solidarity that Instagram aided in the construction of consequent to the arrests of activists Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi during the ongoing farmers' protest in India.

Introduction

The ongoing farmers’ protest in India began in early November 2020 after the Indian Parliament passed 3 farm acts.1 Demanding a repeal of all three laws, farmers mainly from Punjab and Haryana marched to the capital under the “Dilli chalo”2 campaign and were met with large scale police brutality as well as unlawful arrests (Pandey 2020). The laws enraged different sections of Indian society, which extended beyond just farmers as it also included labour and climate activists. Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi were two such activists who stood in solidarity with the farmers’ cause and were similarly arrested.

Nodeep Kaur is a Dalit labour activist who started working at a glass factory in Haryana after the end of the first lockdown in India. Kaur is part of the labour union Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS) that advocates for workers’ rights in the Kundli Industrial Area (KIA) in Haryana that is supportive of the farmers’ protest (Ashok 2021). On 12 January 2021 she was arrested from KIA on charges of murder, extortion and theft and was subsequently sexually assaulted and tortured in custody. The workers’ union (MAS) that Kaur is part of was running a parallel campaign with the farmers protest and were using their platform at the Singu-Delhi-Haryana border (where the Dilli Chalo campaign was stationed) to raise their concerns about non-payment of salaries and harassment by employers at the KIA (Deol 2021). It was during a protest with other workers in KIA that Kaur was arrested by Sonipat police in Haryana.

Disha Ravi is a climate activist and founder of the Bengaluru chapter of Fridays for Future, which is an international climate justice movement. On 13 February 2021, she was arrested on sedition charges for creating and sharing an online “protest toolkit” that outlined ways of supporting the farmers protest. She had edited two sentences in the toolkit and said that she was in support of the farmers because they are central to providing food for the country (Trivedi 2021). The Delhi police accused Ravi of creating a toolkit to misinform and disaffect against the lawfully enacted government (Gunia 2021). Furthermore, the police said the toolkit suggested a conspiracy in the run-up to the huge rally on 26 January 2021 where protesting farmers clashed with the police (BBC 2021).

Consequent to the activists’ arrests, Instagram was inundated with posts in solidarity with both activists. Social media in general has played a key role in the farmers’ protest – it has aided efforts in organising solidarity protests across the world (in the US, Australia, and the EU) as well as provided platforms through which messages of solidarity could be shared. The focus of this article is to explicate the kind of solidarity that Instagram aided in the construction of consequent to the arrests of activists Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi. To do so, it firstly examines how Instagram’s features aided its users in expressing solidarity towards either or both activists. It then focuses on two trends seen in the data analysed from eight Instagram accounts – solidarity shown towards Kaur came largely from Dalit rights’-based accounts; and most artist or art-based accounts showed solidarity for both activists. The final section concludes with the argument that the kind of solidarity shown by Instagram users is one that Featherstone (2012) maps out, which sees solidarity as a political relation forged mainly by marginal groups who create new ways of associating with each other beyond the category of their likeness; it is also internationalist in character; hence, solidarity is a relation that shapes different ways of challenging inequalities.

Farmers’ protest and social media

The farmers’ protest had already caught a lot of media attention since its onset. Since the current ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came into power there has been an increasingly extreme crackdown on freedom of expression (activists arrested in the Bhima Koregoan case; student activists arrested after the Delhi pogrom; arrest of opposition leader Akhil Gogoi in Assam against Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB); arrest of indigenous activist Hidme Makram during a peaceful protest against killings of adivasi women); freedom of association (internet shut downs in Kashmir subsequent to abrogation of special status of the autonomous territory and in Assam after passing the CAB); and attacks on the press (among many other independent media NewsClick was raided by the Delhi police) Therefore, social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have become platforms for individuals to receive critical news about events in India in general and about the farmers protest specifically. The ruling government has also hit out at these social media platforms through new policies such as the IT Amendment Act. Social media platforms, especially Instagram, have therefore acted as an information-sharing tool for activists as well as for news websites that are critical of the government, and a mobilising tool for groups supportive of the farmers’ protests in India and abroad.

Although large companies that offer social networking services through platforms such as Instagram cannot be seen as value neutral, it is one avenue through which people living in a country with an extremely poor record on press freedom (Nair 2021) are able to express their views and opinions as well as enabling news organisations to deliver critical information.3 It is at this juncture where social media provides a viable platform for activists, journalists, and any concerned citizen, that I enter as a researcher-participant who was involved in organizing protests in solidarity with the Indian farmers in Berlin, Germany. There were a few accounts that were sharing information regarding the farmers protest from its onset and were also publishing heavily during the period that both activists (Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi) were in custody.

Although most existing Instagram research has relied on data-mining through the hashtag feature (Barbour, Lee and Moore 2017; Dorsch 2018; Afnan et. al 2019) I narrowed down this study to eight accounts (millennials_for_environment, adivasilivesmatter, dalitdesk, dalitcamera, artedkar, bakerprasad, madpaule_diaries and art.of.resistance) that were gaining a lot of traction during the height of the farmers’ protest (and the subsequent arrests of both activists) in early 2021. These were the Instagram accounts most visible on my Instagram photo stream. Here, I interject once again as a researcher-participant in the farmers protest as my photo stream on Instagram was a tool for organizing solidarity protests here in Berlin and the posts that appear on my photo stream are also my unit of analysis. I chose these accounts based on their types (cause-based or art/art-based accounts). I chose four cause-based accounts (millennials_for_environment, adivasilivesmatter, dalitdesk, dalitcamera) and four art/art-based (artedkar, bakerprasad, madpaule_diaries and art.of.resistance) because I observed that cause-based accounts were standing in solidarity with activists that aligned with their causes whereas art/art-based accounts supported both activists equally. Kaur was arrested on 12 January 2021 and released on 26 February 2021 whilst Ravi was arrested on 14 February 2021 and given bail on 23 February 2021. The time frame during which I collected the data from the aforementioned accounts is between the arrests and subsequent attainment of bail for both activists (12 January-26 February 2021).  

One major line of questioning in existing Instagram scholarship on online solidarity focuses on whether the flavour of solidarity, or any other form of political action, is influenced by the platform’s affordances (Pearce 2020). Instagram is a social media platform with mostly visual content with the company describing itself as “photo and video sharing social networking service” (Instagram.com). Therefore, most studies on Instagram have focused on the visual affordances4 that the platform provides in the context of political action such as civic mobilisation during the Romanian presidential election of 2014 (Adi, Gerodimos and Lilleker 2018); maintaining the momentum of the women’s march of 2017 in the US (Einwohner and Rochford); and expressing solidarity after tragedies such as the mass shooting of 2015 in Louisiana, US (Pearce 2020) and death of innocent refugees, like Alan Kurdi, crossing the Mediterranean sea (Geboers 2019).

The focus on the visual aspect of the platform in relation to political action has brought about analyses through concepts such as performance and affective publics. The notion of performance, argue Einwohner and Rochford (2019, 1104), “fits well with the nature of Instagram, which provides through images, a curated window on the user’s life”. The authors here frame politics and protest as performance. They argue that posts on Instagram about the women’s march can be seen as a political performance that “show” the “doing” of the march online (1108), which helps in carrying forward the momentum of the march beyond its emergence. Similarly, Adi, Gerodimos and Lilleker (2018, 322) assess “pictures [on Instagram] as a form of political expression […]” during the second round of presidential elections in Romania in 2014 where Romanians at home and abroad mobilised online (and offline) for their preferred candidate Klaus Iohannis. Papacharissi (2016 cited in Adi, Gerodimos and Lilleker, 319) argues this mobilisation created affective publics which can be ephemeral and transient but can last beyond the emergence of the event and aid in constructing symbols that may enable people to re-imagine democratic institutions.

These studies provide an important insight into the nature of Instagram and how it impacts (and limits) the extent to which political action can be carried out due to the platform’s visual affordances. However, they speak little to the notion of solidarity on social media in a way that is substantial to understanding how solidarity is shaped by social media platforms. That is to say, the term is used but not defined and more focus is paid to the platform’s visual aspect and how that causes or limits political action. This is tackled by the second strand of Instagram scholarship which zeroes in specifically on the kind of solidarity the platform aids the construction of.

Taking the tragic death of Alan Kurdi and the subsequent reworkings of the original photograph showing the 3-year old’s dead body washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey, Geboers (2019) analyses seven re-workings of Alan Kurdi photographs that resonated significantly on Instagram. Through Chouliaraki’s (2013 as cited in Geboers 2019) concept of post-humanitarian solidarity, which argues that aestheticization of what people see in the media renders the distant sufferers invisible due to self-reflexivity, Geboers finds that in the reworking of the Alan Kurdi photographs, the suffering is ‘replaced’ by political/emotional views of the creators thereby writing themselves into the visual narrative, adding their own feelings to the iconography of the original (ibid, 22). Thereby, Geboers (2019, 8) sees aesthetics as a key technical affordance of the platform which invites users to be increasingly personal. The users in turn take a personal stance on world events and present it in a way that is aesthetically appealing to other users. In doing so, solidarity becomes restricted to solidarity towards people like us (ibid., emphasis added).

Pearce's (2020) study is on the visual construction of solidarity after a mass shooting tragedy in Louisiana in 2015. It was carried out 2 years after the mass shooting and the author uses Durkheim’s concept of solidarity, which is defined through the role of public presence, such as in the form of ritualistic funeral practices, that contributes to development of solidarity. Instagram affords users, and in this case, members of the local community in Louisiana to confirm ritual collective practices of grief and solidarity after a disruptive event by enabling them to gather in an online space much like public space and share their grief through hashtags such as #LafayetteStrong along with photographs (2). The present study places itself in the second strand of Instagram research and enters the line of inquiry to explicate the kind of solidarity that Instagram aids the construction of consequent to the arrests of activists Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi.

Emerging (political) platform vernacular on Instagram

In order to understand the relationship between Instagram’s affordances and the kind of solidarity formed during the online solidarity calls for Kaur and Ravi on Instagram, the framework of platform vernacular (Gibbs et. al 2014) is of particular use. Gibbs et al. (2014, 257) contend that “each social media platform comes to have its own unique combination of styles, grammars, and logics, which can be considered as its ‘genre of communication’”. In Instagram’s case, its vernacular includes its “square-framed image format […]; its’ distinct use of vintage-style filters; its image feed or photostream; and the use of hashtags,” (MacDowall and Souza 2018, 7). It can also include taking a selfie, photo-sharing and photo tagging (Pearce 2020). Furthermore, platform vernaculars are shaped through the logics of architecture and use (Gibbs et. al 2015). This reveals an important distinction between different types of platform vernaculars – there are some that are not specific to a just one social media platform (e.g. hashtags are used across platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), whereas others are tied to the use or function of the social media platform itself. For example, Instagram’s square-frame image format which adds to the platform’s vernacular of aesthetics is very specific to Instagram.

In the case of Instagram accounts that stood in solidarity with Kaur and Ravi, these manipulated the visual affordance of the platform by including text-centric images (see Fig 1 & Fig 2).  They thereby add to an emerging platform vernacular of Instagram demonstrating its potential as a space for political contention. This is in line with the impetus for Einwohner and Rochford (2019, 1097) to study Instagram’s political potential after the 2017 US women’s march as much more attention is usually paid to the platform in the context of narcissism. It also aligns with MacDowall and de Souza's (2018, 319) conclusion that Instagram is a fertile research space for studying “emerging visual political cultures”.

Figure 1: Text-centric image with activist Disha Ravi’s picture with call for solidarity above her picture (Post: @millennials_for_environment).

Post from 23 February 2021.


Figure 2: Series of text-centric images discussing Disha Ravi’s arrest (Post: @youthkiawaaz reposted fully on @adivasilivesmatter).

Post from 16 February 2021.

Although Pearce’s (2020, 10) paper on school shooting in the US found local businesses in the Lafayette region using the hashtag #LafayetteStrong that exploit Instagram’s visual requirement by using text-centric images (‘composed of a solid color background emblazoned with a written image’) as way to advertise their products or brands, in the present case Instagrammers were using the same function for political dialogue and information dissemination as is evident from the examples given above (Figure 1 and Figure 2). Hence, the accounts in consideration were adding to Instagram’s vernacular as a site for online political action.

Furthermore, out of the eight Instagram accounts studied, four (Dalitcamera, bakeryprasad, madpaule_diaries and art.of.resistance) posted in solidarity with both activists and out of these four accounts, three were artist/art-based accounts (see Figure 3). Although varying in the number of posts, Bakeryprasad, Madpaule_diaries and art.of.resistance were able to exploit Instagram’s architectural logic that promotes aesthetics and therefore they added to the growing political vernacular of the platform by posting art that stood in solidarity with both activists.

Figure 3: Solidarity shown for activists Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi by Instagram accounts between 12 January and 26 February. Author’s elaboration.

The mediated Dalit public sphere

Research on political action by marginalised groups in India such as the multifaceted Dalit5 identity group has largely focused on Facebook and Twitter (Thakur 2020; Singh 2018; Devanoor et al. 2017). As a historically subjugated group of people in a Brahmin (upper caste) centric India, Dalit people on social media have come to create multiple “counter-publics” that oppose hegemonic ideas by using their identity as well as distinct phrases and idioms based on specific, rather than universal, worldviews (Thakur 2020, 364). Although the section of Dalit people engaged in social media activism on Dalit issues in India belong to the Dalit middle classes6 (Pai 2013; Yengde 2019), this does not minimise the considerable extent to which social media has facilitated Dalit-led agitations; contributed to the formulation of arguments and theories towards the anti-caste debate (Devanoor et al. 2017); and provided a platform to reclaim and re-define what it means to be Dalit (Singh 2018; Thakur 2020, 367).

This article presents similar findings regarding solidarity shown for Nodeep Kaur on Instagram. Out of the 20 posts in solidarity with Kaur, across the eight Instagram accounts in consideration, 16 of them are from four Instagram accounts (dalitdesk, DalitCamera, artedkar, bakeryprasad) that specifically focus on Dalit rights issues. Although two of the latter are classified as “Art/Artist” on Instagram, their self-descriptions attest their Dalit identity (“Dalit Artist and Writer” for artedkar) or their anti-caste position (“Ambedkarite” in bakeryprasad’s case). The first two (dalitdesk and DalitCamera) are explicit in their focus on Dalit issues as is evident from their Instagram handles and their photo stream. As argued above, most of these posts are text centric and either display demands, such as: “Release Nodeep Kaur” (Bakeryprasad and DalitCamera), or they are informational, such as tracking Kaur’s bail procedure (Dalitcamera and dalitdesk). Artedkar stands as an anomaly because the user merely posted a self-made drawing of Nodeep Kaur without any text on the image itself but under it (which is not the unit of analysis for this study). Hence, Instagram has aided the efforts of a congregate of “digital Dalits” (Nayar 2011) to publicise and post in solidarity with a cause of a fellow Dalit individual, i.e. Nodeep Kaur. This section of Dalit online activists were adding and continue to effectively add to a growing vernacular of Instagram, which is political in nature through the tweaking of its photo feature with text-centric posts.  

A point of consideration here is the exclusivity inherent in the concept of public sphere, which is as old as the concept itself. Habermas’ understanding of the public sphere excludes women, workers, and non-proprietors in general which Habermas himself later recognised (de Sousa Santos 2012). Hence, when it comes to understanding the mediated public sphere, it comes with considerations of the digital divide and illiteracy which excludes a vast majority of people within a large population such as India’s and then within one of the biggest marginal groups such as the Dalits.

Therefore, whilst it may be the case that Dalit social media activism comes from an emergent Dalit middle class, the solidarity shown towards a working-class individual such as Nodeep Kaur, who is a daughter of a farmer and was working at a glass factory, demonstrates the potential of social media activism to cut across class lines, if not caste lines. Although demonstration of online solidarity with a working-class Dalit activist can hardly be equated to turning up for protests in support of Kaur’s cause, online solidarity nevertheless aids in the multiplication of the struggle (Michaelsen 2015) by adding pressure, creating momentum and disseminating information across borders. Lastly, the extent of Dalit online solidarity for Kaur adds to the thesis that social media platforms facilitate the discussion around the Dalit identity and forward the anti-caste debate, which is aligned with the conclusion of studies aforementioned.

Solidarity as a political relation

Taking the example of the solidarity built between civil rights activists in America and the English working class against state-sanctioned slavery in America in 1860s, solidarity is theorised by Featherstone (2012) as a relation forged through political struggle that seeks to challenge forms of oppression. Featherstone explains that solidarity is a relation, one that is transformative and inventive in nature because it creates new ways of relating between places, activists and diverse social groups rather than seeking likeness between them. It is also forged from below whereby marginal groups are the ones shaping practices of solidarity. There is also a refusal of political activity to be contained within the nation state, hence it is internationalist in character. Therefore, Featherstone conceptualises solidarity as a political relation that shapes different ways of challenging oppression and inequalities.

 In the context of solidarity shown towards Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi, Instagram’s design features and social reach has enabled users’ creation of new ways of relating with one another.  In the first instance, Instagrammers have manipulated Instagram’s photo feature to reflect their demands by making it more text-centric which has also added to Instagram’s growing political platform vernacular. Secondly, artist/art-based accounts were significantly more visible due to Instagram’s architecture of promoting image-centric photos. Adding to the inventive nature of solidarity, these accounts were also forerunners of showing solidarity towards both activists rather than just one. Instagram, like Twitter and Facebook, has also seen a growth of Dalit social media activism but in this case, Instagrammers formed solidarity (with Kaur) that cut across class lines, if not caste. Finally, although within the data gathered there is no indication of an internationalist character in the solidarity formed, as an online platform it allows for such a relation to occur. In fact, it was through Instagram that solidarity protests were organised abroad in support of the activists and farmers and through which I as a researcher and a participant came to be involved.

Whilst social media platforms, such as Instagram, may aid in creating political relation and help in agitating against forms of oppression, it is hardly a replacement for on-the-ground action and mobilisation. Scholarship on social media have erred caution to the temperamental character of Instagram collectives to form loose collectives around “short term demand of change, an empty signifier that everyone can relate to and interpret differently” (Adi, Gerodimos and Lilleker, 2018, 328); others have pointed to online solidarity leading to no action but rather a denigration to ineffective forms of pity and self-reflexive solidarity that actively replaces the victim by personalising the narrative (Geboers 2018).

Moreover, thinking of Instagram, or social media platforms in general, as a tool for research has the danger of obscuring the ways in which these platforms are in no way distinct from the cultural formations to which they promise access (MacDowall and de Souza 2018). The exclusive nature of social media and the consequently mediated public sphere has also appeared in the context of this study. It is well documented that those with higher income and higher education use more social media and often also use it to maintain both social and cultural capital (Yates and Lockley 2018). Hence, questions for further research could be an inquiry into the extent which social media platforms, especially Instagram, provide a space for politics shaped by marginal groups; and how far can it be used as a tool to build and maintain solidarity in the long run and on the ground. Moreover, although Instagram is constantly expanding its reach beyond the US and the EU rapidly, research in this field lags behind by being limited to only these regions. Therefore, the present study’s insights of a growing political platform vernacular on Instagram in India could aid other projects within the nexus of social media research, political mobilisation and the digital divide in other parts of the global South.


About the Author

Ananya Bordoloi is a graduate student pursuing Global Studies at Humboldt University of Berlin and works as a student research assistant at Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung. She holds a bachelor’s in International Studies with a minor in Journalism. Ananya is primarily interested in post/ decolonial theory and in building a critical perspective from the global South. Her research interests lie in migration, inequality and media studies. Ananya is part of the anti-fascist Berlin-based collective @berlinforindia.


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