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Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. An Experimental Exercise in Collaborative Publishing Between Delhi and Berlin

Introduction by the Editors

Published onOct 02, 2021
Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. An Experimental Exercise in Collaborative Publishing Between Delhi and Berlin
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As the title already suggests, this special article collection is less interested in solidarity as theory or pedagogy, but rather in exploring the changing solidarity reasonings and legitimizing narratives of whom ‘we’ should be solidary with (Vasiljevic 2021) and who is excluded from this imagined community of solidarity. If we only look at the widely circulated calls for solidarity in the context of recent ‘cow protection campaigns’ in India, for instance, it becomes immediatly clear that they can be used to promote very different, even contradictory kinds of political subjectivities and citizen activism; they can deepen a feeling of solidarity among a majoritarian group that deploys the criterium of non-slaughtering of cows and non-consumption of beef to discursively maintain and foster the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and thereby to effectively marginalize large sections of society (i.e. leather working or beef consuming communities) further. On the other hand, a call for political solidarity against the extreme violence which has been generated by so-called cow vigilantism can aim at subverting the hegemonic agenda and support the rights of different communities as equal members of the citizenship community. Quite obviously, media as institutions as well as media practices of diverse actors play a crucial role in the discursive production, mobilisation, but also in the challenging or countering of dominant solidarity narratives - within the imagined community of citizenship as well as beyond. They also contribute to the mediation of knowledge about less visible or forgotten repertoires of embodied solidarity, for instance by circulating images and recordings from protest sites where these practices are revived and performed - the community kitchens or library-cultural centers which were established for everyone present at the site of the long Farmers’ Protest in India, irrespective of class, caste or religion, are a case in point (Natt & Titzmann 2021). Especially social media platforms can also acquire the function of archives of solidarity and resistance, notably in the context of student protests in India since 2016 (see Anna Schnieder-Krüger’s article in this collection).

A quick look at the dictionary suggests that synonyms and near synonyms of ‘solidarity’ are ‘affinity’, ‘connection’, ‘empathy’, ‘kinship’, ‘oneness’, ‘rapport’, ‘sympathy’, ‘understanding’, ‘harmony’, ‘peace’, ‘affinity’, ‘fraternity’, ‘reciprocity’, even’ sweetness and light’. One thing that the articles show, and what we see in the wider world today is that there is nothing obvious and self-evident about the term ‘solidarity’, and even less of its working. For while ‘solidarity’ creates networks’ it ‘does not necessarily facilitate egalitarianism’.  In some instances such as Dhanya Fee Kirchhof’s article on the young artist Ginni Mahi’s videos show both an assertion of Dalit identity as well as imaginations of solidarity beyond caste.

This is not always the case. Often solidarity against a majoritarian and brutal state can become hate of the majority community. The distinction is difficult to maintain as the foot and social media soldiers of hate usually belong to the majority community. This politics of hate is being played out in many parts of the world. The Pandemic exposed the many fault lines of the contemporary world as anti-minorities sentiments surged online and in the streets. COVID-19-related anti-Muslim attacks occurred as did racial profiling of ‘others’ (see Latief & Haque 2020)

The aim of RePLITO’s and Doing Sociology’s joint call for contributions to a special article collection on the topic of Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community was twofold. First, to give an insight into the exciting ongoing research projects by students and young scholars from India and Germany and to showcase their contributions to the research area of media, solidarity and community. Second, to find out if we could develop a new way of thinking and publishing together that does not start after the presentation or submission of papers but already during the drafting and actual process of writing the articles. The collaborative publishing platform pubpub provided us with entirely new possibilities to follow and actively participate in the different stages of writing, commenting, and revising - and this was not a hierarchical process in which only the editors share their comments and suggestions on what has been written, but involved the whole group and thereby enabled insightful conversations in multiple directions. Through this collaborative publishing experiment, we experienced first-hand what the (perhaps not so far) future of researching, reflecting, and writing together - within and beyond academic spaces - can look like. We are convinced that it holds great potential for research-oriented courses as well as for multilocal research teams.

We invited students of Area Studies, Sociology, Social Anthropology and Media Studies as well as young scholars to submit research-based articles on imaginations and mediated performances of solidarity in contemporary social and protest movements in South Asia (and beyond). In the face of divisive politics and societal polarization, the need to express new forms of solidarity and respectful coexistence acquires exceptional urgency. This special article collection seeks to shed light on the richness of media-related strategies, practices and repertoires of individual and collective actors who reclaim or create spaces for resistant imaginations and solidarity. In increasingly media-saturated societies, articulations of solidarity are simultaneously performed in as well as for digitally mediated and material public spaces. In the same way, they often connect translocal spaces and networks across different contexts and borders. The role of these mobile networked publics in the changing public spheres of South and Southeast Asia therefore demands careful attention.

The Northeastern region of India is not a region that features prominently in the growing body of literature on media and society in South Asia. In this collection of articles, three contributions by Suanmuanlian Tonsing, Sampurna Das and Domenic Teipelke engage with the complex questions of citizenly as well as translocal identities among Northeast Indians, representation and mediated solidarity. In his article, Suanmuanlian Tonsing uses Baudrillard’s simulation theory and applies it to his analysis of a widely circulated music video in which four-year-old Esther Hnamte from the state of Mizoram performs a contemporary version of Maa Tujhe Salaam (2020), a patriotic song from A.R. Rahman’s 1997 album Vande Mataram. Tonsing argues that the national(ist) unity and solidarity which the song performance and video seeks to convey, is not only ‘simulated’, hence disconnected from the lived social realities and memories of suppression and violence in the region. Rather, the video is only interested in presenting a version of solidarity that fits into the majoritarian discourse, i.e. that is shared among members of the (imagined) same group, but has little to offer in terms of how solidarity can become possible “across groups that do not have shared affinities”.

Sampurna Das introduces a very different perspective on how digital media practices and solidarity formed and expressed through the internet in the context of an acute food crisis in Assam, caused by the stringent COVID-19 lockdown in India, can actually have positive “real-world impacts”. Based on her fieldwork and association with online fundraisers for informal female workers in Assam in May 2020, Das observed how a sense of solidarity and “resilience to manage hunger when the state had failed to provide adequate food to the needy” effectively helped bridge demographic and cultural differences, especially of class. This does not mean, however, that these emerging forms of solidarity across class and mediated through the internet replaced other practices of solidarity in the in-group, such as food sharing. In addition to this, Das explains that how wild food, especially ferns, “developed as an alternate local food system which in turn helped developed solidarity and resilience in times of uncertainty”.

Drawing on his own research stay in Bangkok and visual as well as performance analysis of the “Northeast India Festival” - which for the first time in its history was held outside India and in the capital of Thailand in February 2019 - Domenic Teipelke argues that the successful festival helped increase a cross-regional sense of solidarity and shared as well as continuously evolving cultural heritage among members of the Northeast Indian community in Bangkok. At the same time, Indian media portray both, Northeast India and Thailand, as “India’s gateway to Southeast Asia” under the Act East policy that promotes economic, strategic, and cultural relations within the Asia-Pacific region at different levels. Accordingly, this ‘revaluation’ (in a double sense) of a hitherto marginalized region could add to the perceived sense of pride among the Northeastern Indian community that Teipelke discusses in his article, albeit under the condition that they willingly and visibly ‘perform’ their loyalty to the Indian nation while at the same as a ‘cultural ambassador’ between India and Thailand.

Backed by her empirical research with Ravidassia communities in India and Europe, Dhanya Fee Kirchhof focuses in her article on the important genre of Ravidassia music videos. She introduces the highly successful young artist Ginni Mahi from Jalandhar who is known for her socio-critical texts and references to Guru Ravidass and B.R. Ambedkar. While Kirchhof agrees that the aspect of caste-based self-assertion, regional identity and articulation of self-respect are of central importance, she argues that it is important to understand Mahi’s songs and music videos also as imaginations of solidarity beyond caste and beyond assertions of “Chamār” or “Dalit” pride. The idea of “oneness of all humans in God”, as proclaimed by Guru Ravidass as well as in larger Bhakti and related Sikh and Sufi contexts, together with the notion of mutual recognition and need for acceptance by others are of central relevance when looking at Ravidassia music videos on YouTube, Kirchhof argues.

Wikke Jansen’s analysis of the Instagram account and project Kamus Bahasa Queer Indonesia (@kamusqueer), set up by a translocal network of self-identified queer Indonesians in the summer of 2020, is also backed by her extensive anthropological fieldwork and volunteer work in Indonesia. Kamus Bahasa Queer Indonesia combines definitions of queer terminology with colorful original artwork designed by queer artists. As Jansen explains, Kamusqueer makes a case for the existence of a queer Indonesian community, and by extension, for the importance of solidarity. She argues that in doing so, it implicitly appropriates the national motto “unity in diversity” to include gender and sexual diversity alongside recognized and protected national identity categories of ethnicity, language, and religion. Nonetheless, Jansen observes that the platform “ventures beyond the national, and contests its importance in the formation of solidarity, by situating itself within a global queer community, which itself is imagined as diverse but united”.

Ananya Bordoloi’s article studies the role that social media in general has played in the farmers’ protest  in India that began after the Indian Parliament passed 3 farm laws detrimental to the farmer’s interest and autonomy. The laws angered different sections of Indian society, which extended beyond just farmers and included labour and climate activists. The specific focus of this article is to explicate “the kind of solidarity that Instagram aided in the construction” of solidarity after the arrests of activists Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit labour acivist and Disha Ravi, a climate activist. Bordoloi argues that the kind of solidarity shown by Instagram users is a “political relation forged mainly by marginal groups who create new ways of associating with each other beyond the category of their likeness” and is” also internationalist in character”. She cautions however that “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”.

Debashrita Dey and Priyanka Tripathi explore how sympathetic agency and solidarity extend beyond gender binaries to foster an inclusionary ideal for both women and queer identities. The focus here is on two films by Rituporno Ghosh(1963-2013), a Bengali film-director, writer and lyricist whose works explored the hypocrisies of society, prising open transgressive social codes, same-sex desires and other concerns. The authors argue that while hegemonic masculinity is idolized, homosexuality and queerness continue to be marginalized and stigmatized in Indian society. They refer to two of Ghosh’s films such as Chitranganda: The Crowning Wish (2012) and The Last Lear (2007).  It explores how Ghosh reimagined Indian (Bengali) masculinity focusing on the “apparent willingness of men to engage with and constitutively respond to the needs of the ‘Other’.” And how “ through his compelling characterizations is able to evoke the conscious reflective praxis” of the ‘we’ politics that “helps women and ‘unmanly’ men to strive for their personal and collective rights” . 

Anna Schnieder-Krüger’s article is prompted by a “supposed micro-event on the campus” of  Jawharlal Nehru University (JNU) in February 2016 when the ruling regime of India targeted student activists of sedition. This soon snowballed into an all- out attack on the university as a den of ‘anti-national’ activities. Her contribution maps the “site of a pervasive and multi-dimensional process of negotiation around the narrative of the “national” vis-à-vis “anti-national” in contemporary India with a focus on  JNU. Here she focusses more on this other idea of JNU (the “not anti-national” or “ideal” narrative), which she refers to as the “myth of JNU” . She uses the term myth to describe something that one cannot name and that is not clearly defined, but something that is believed to exist and that is shared and experienced as a community. The article uses a variety of media created by students and alumni or JNU-supporters in general (online and offline) to convey the making and communication of the “JNU myth”.  And how this myth is used as a resistant memory practice against the government's strategic encroachments on freedoms. 

Chandrika Yogarajah’s article draws upon the “strategies, practices, repertoires and resources in the Eelam Tamil diaspora and in the Eelam homeland” to deal with the “collective trauma, shared violent heritage and collective mourning” of the community. These strategies and resources, the essay shows can be seen in “Tamil archive projects, Tamil community building processes, as well as in art (literature, music, visual art, comedy etc.)”. They are cross-media and performative and often “connect translocal spaces and mobile networks across borders”. She details how there are strategies and practices that deal with violence not to cope with grief or violence, but to “use emotions, such as anger, feelings of being hurt and sometimes even rage and resentment to call for “radical solidarity among Eelam Tamils” as well as “in the international societies”. Capturing a difficult “emotional topic such as war, genocide and trauma” is a challenging task. Conversations may be inadequate as a method. Yogarajah thus uses the method of photo-elicitation where “selected photos can evoke memories, narratives and feelings that can be captured more easily than in a simple interview situation”. This “phenomenological nature of the enquiry”, the “intimacy between researcher and participants” defines the sensitive treatment of this study. 

Rajesh Kumar Gupta’s article begins with the pandemic induced Lockdown in 2020 which led to untold suffering of India’s migrants workers. Even as the tragedy unfolded, the Indian government decided to re-telecast Ramanand Sagar’s television serial Ramayana, that had transformed both Indian media and Indian politics in the 1980s.  The essay focusses on the deployment of Rama in thHindutva politics of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and offers a glimpse of the multiple renditions of the epic Ramayana across regions and communities. And the change in Rama’s image in contemporary India: From Valmiki’s portrayal of Rama in the Ramayana (circa 500 BCE), as a heroic and righteous figure, a friend of the weak, chivalrous and valorous; and  Tulasidasa’s Rama (16th century CE) known for his generosity to the contemporary mediatized ‘fierce’ (ugra) image.  The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the use of mediatized popular culture have seamlessly fed into each other. There have been rising cases in BJP ruled states where mobs mostly belong to “Hindu nationalist organisations (RSS, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Vahini party, Gau Rashak Samiti, etc.), have brutally assaulted and lynched Muslims and Dalits while loudly chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’”, once just an everyday form of greeting. This weaponization of Rama against minorities is accompanied by an assertion of violent masculinity. 

The double edged nature of ‘solidarity’ of a ‘community’ needs careful examination. The history of most nationalisms tells us that the ‘solidarity’ of the ‘nation’ often rested on ‘exclusions’. Tagore who describes ‘nationalism’ as a ‘cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age’ was wary of the spirit of a nationalism where ‘the whole people’ are ‘taught from boyhood to foster hatreds’ … by ‘the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other ‘races’ and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them, by setting up memorials of events, very often false, which for the sake of humanity should be speedily forgotten, thus continually brewing evil menace towards neighbours and nations other than their own’. The resemblance with contemporary events cannot be missed even if the nature of ‘memorials’ and ‘media’ have changed.

It maybe useful to bring in the idea of ‘common good’ here which has a familial relationship to solidarity. In ordinary political discourse, the “common good” refers to those facilities—whether material, cultural or institutional—that the members of a community provide to all members in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common. Some canonical examples of the common good in a modern liberal democracy include: the road system; public parks; police protection and public safety; courts and the judicial system; public schools; museums and cultural institutions; public transportation; civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of association; the system of property; clean air and clean water; and national defense. An idea of solidarity in itself is an empty concept. It can be filled in with other ideas of ‘fraternity’, and social justice (see Titzmann 2021). But it can also be filled in with exclusions and hate.

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