Dalits, Internet and Emancipatory Politics
Voltaire, writing in 1764, remarked on the constructed and contested nature of
historical narratives. “All ancient histories, as one of our wits has observed, are
only fables that men have agreed to admit as true. With regard to modern history, it
is a mere chaos, a confusion which it is impossible to make anything of.”1
Voltaire’s remark is as much about the conspiracy of consent regarding the
constructed nature of ancient history, as it is about the uncontrollable and contested
nature of modern historical narratives. If one applies his words to the case of
Maharashtrian Dalit2 narratives of history, it becomes evident that historical
narratives about a distant past are, indeed, traditionally monopolized by the powers
that be. However, in the case of the recent past, more and more voices are being
heard, though some may be deemed as ‘mere chaos’.
History and traditions have been harnessed for legitimising the Dalits’ lowly status
and consequently, it has been very important for the Dalit publics to search for a
counter-historiographical tradition. Major revolts against caste oppression and
other inequalities in Indian history seem to have used a two–pronged strategy: first,
claiming the authority to write independent historical narratives from one’s own
point of view, and second, discrediting the grand narratives constructed by those in
power. Thinkers starting from Buddha made efforts to effectively communicate the
ideals of equality and social justice both to the oppressors and the oppressed.
Charvaka’s (before 500 C. E.) criticism3 of the creators of the Vedic literature or
Tukarama’s (17th century) claim4 that ‘we are the only ones who truly understand
the meaning of the Vedas’ – these were manifestations of the thinkers’ efforts to
discredit the grand narratives and claim the authority to ascribe meaning to the
scriptures. The modern period of history also saw efforts such as the Satya
Shodhak Samaj (Society of Truth Seekers established in 1873), which attempted to
offer an alternative cultural narrative that exonerated the lower castes from the
responsibility of their plight.5 All these efforts can be seen as attempts to claim the
agency to historicize one’s own past. In the nineteenth and the twentieth century,
thinkers such as Phule and Ambedkar used the print media for sharing their
emancipatory counter-historiographies with the Dalit publics. Twenty- first century
Maharashtra has seen the communication revolution and a concomitant
democratization of knowledge. It is argued here, that Dalits in twenty-first century
Maharashtra are creatively using the Internet as an emancipatory space. They may
not be able to fully utilize the potential of the internet, nor are they working in an
organized and uni-directional manner. However, a review of their activities in
cyberspace attests to the fact that just like Gutenberg’s revolution, the Internet is
acting as a catalyst in a number of inter-connected phenomena that are useful for
A technocrat at a world summit of the G-8 nations in 2011 thus described the
potential of the internet for the disadvantaged people-
The critical change produced by the digital network environment is
the radical decentralization of the capacity to speak, to create, to
innovate, to see together, to socialize, the radical distribution of the
poor means of production, computations, communications…that
which gets us together inside the experience, being there on the
This ability to share things as they happen is a remarkable thing for any society.
For the people who have been historically deprived of the agency to tell their own
story, the importance of the internet and the opportunities it offers for networking
with fellow human beings cannot be overemphasized. Maharashtrian Dalit youth
have definitely taken to the internet in the last few years. That the figures of
internet penetration among the Indian population have been growing at a
breathtaking speed, is no secret.7 However, specific caste-wise data of network
usage or connectivity are not available. In such a scenario, case studies become an
important tool of understanding how the internet is used by the Dalits, who have
been deprived of opportunities to create and share knowledge.
What is worth the attention of researchers of Maharashtrian place and space is
perhaps the fact that the Dalit youth in Maharashtra are increasingly making use of
the internet as a space that offers emancipatory opportunities. The present paper
argues that Dalits in Maharashtra have learnt to make use of the internet in support
of their emancipatory politics. More than any public space that is physically
identifiable; the Dalits in Maharashtra are comfortably making use of the internet
to voice their concerns about inequality, document instances of unfair treatment,
rally together for a common cause and share their successes and failures in their
fight for equality. This is not to say that by virtue of the huge potential of the
internet the Dalits have successfully achieved what they want. Far from it.
However, the fight for equality would have been much less visible and much less
effective, had the Maharashtrian Dalits not been able to use the internet as
effectively as they do. What an African journalist has said in her local context can
be relevant in this case, too. She says that ‘the mere presence of women in online
spaces does not constitute emancipation unless they can exercise agency and use
those spaces to assert themselves.’8Similarly, Dalits in Maharashtra, it is argued
here, have been able to exercise their agency in their use of the internet and have
effectively used it to assert their ideas and voices. A large chunk of the Dalit
population even today is definitely on the wrong side of the digital divide.
However, a review of the various creative ways in which the Dalits have used the
internet helps us paint a picture of resistance, a picture of hope and also of
Beyond a few web-pages that have largely gone un-archived, source materials
relevant for Dalit emancipation began to appear online in the year 2000. This was
also the year when the International Dalit Solidarity Network was established.
From 2001 onwards, Dr Ambedkar’s speeches reported in The Hindu, a daily
newspaper, back in 1951 found their way into the online edition of the newspaper,
which was indexed and archived by Francis Pritchet in his pages on the website of
the Columbia University.9 Though these were not direct contributions by
Maharashtrian Dalit people, they have proved to be important for the emancipation
movement as widely used source materials to date. A Maharashtrian Dalit engineer
had begun the work of Dalit emancipation and solidarity from a different location a
few years before this. The first ever Dalit International Conference was organised
through the Dalit International Organization, Malaysia (DIO) in October 1998 in
Kuala Lumpur by Mr Rajkumar Kamble and his colleagues.10 While the internet
may not have been used for organizing the conference, its documentation has been
preserved with the help of the internet. After 20 odd years, the pamphlets and the
photographs of the conference are preserved on the website of the organization that
bloomed from the conference, Dr. Ambedkar International Mission (AIM). The
AIM has not only organized a number of follow up conventions of Dalits in Paris
and the U.S., it has also been instrumental in organizing a Conference at Columbia
University, USA in 2013 to commemorate Dr Ambedkar’s arrival there a hundred
Around 2008, the internet came to be effectively used as a medium to achieve what
the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions were able to achieve in the Western
world. In September 2006, members of a Dalit family were abducted, raped and
killed in eastern Maharashtra, with no witnesses ready to testify. Mainstream
media did not report the news for weeks together. A Dalit government officer used
the potential of the internet by publicly uploading the report of the Fact Finding
Commission that documented the findings about the crime.11This was quickly
taken down from the website, but by then it had been widely shared and reported in
the mainstream media. Whether the action helped secure justice for the sole
surviving member of the family is a different issue, but the internet was usefully
harnessed to at least give voice to an otherwise voiceless victim.
The arrival of YouTube and Facebook in India are two phenomena that gave a
further boost to the idea of using the internet specifically for purposes relevant to
the Dalit people. Dalit music had always been very popular in Maharashtra. In fact,
a Marathi saying, though perpetuating caste-based labels, acknowledges that
Brahmin households have writing and Mahar households have music.12 The
YouTube videos of Ambedkarite songs are some of the most viewed videos in the
world of Marathi music. Non-Bollywood Ambedkarite songs by the famous family
– Anand, Milind and Adarsh Shinde-- have easily garnered more than a million
views each.13 Dalit Camera is a popular YouTube channel operating since 2007
that has more than 6 million views for its videos, films and documentations
relevant to the Dalit lives.14 A number of films pertaining to the issues that the
Dalits are interested in are easily available and widely shared on YouTube. There
are films featuring Dr Ambedkar’s speeches, his funeral procession, clips of Dalit
leaders’ speeches, episodes of television series such as Samvidhan which dealt
with the making of the Indian Constitution and even videos of untoward incidents
such as the riots in early 2018 at Bheema Koregaon filmed and shared by the
members of the public. Facebook also is a very popular medium for bringing about
Facebook became popular in India over the second decade of the twenty-first
century as the number of smart-phone users went up. In 2013, the number of active
mobile phone Facebook users in India was 57.5 million and is expected to reach
167.7 million users in 2018.15WhatsApp, which is a popular internet-based
messaging application for smartphone users, has also been bought by Facebook.
Both Facebook and WhatsApp, have opened unimagined new vistas for the Dalits
who wish to come together or share any ideas while enjoying the anonymity of the
social network. There are dozens of Facebook pages related to the Ambedkarite
movement and managed by Maharashtrian Dalit youth. Vaibhav Chhaya16 is a
Dalit activist and media professional who has been organizing a festival to
commemorate the Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal. The festival entitled, 'Sarva Kahi
Samashtisathi’, has been popularised with the help of his Facebook page. The
schedule of the festival, changes to and details of the programme are shared on the
In times of crisis, too, the internet technology and the power of Facebook has
shown that it can be harnessed for larger good. On 6th December 2017, when
hundreds of thousands of Ambedkarites began to gather in Chaitya Bhoomi in
Mumbai to pay annual homage to Dr Ambedkar, Vaibhav Chhaya and dozens of
Dalit activists realized that there was a cyclone warning sent out for Mumbai. With
the help of Facebook and WhatsApp, they organised tonnes of food to be cooked
by friends and families, and distributed throughout designated places in Mumbai
where thousands of Ambedkarites had to take shelter for a couple of days.
Besides the social network part, where one can easily organize like-minded people
without too much of fear of caste labeling, the internet has proven useful for
fearlessly presenting Dalit viewpoints about almost anything. In 2014, a new
edition of Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste with an introduction by Arundhati
Roy was published. Many Dalit activists found that Roy’s introduction did not
convey what Dr Ambedkar wanted, and they felt that in fact her introduction was
unfairly taking the readers’ attention away from Dr Ambedkar’s essential
argument. A number of Dalit scholars and thinkers as a part of the Ambedkar Age
Collective wrote their repartees around the theme and even published a book called
‘Hatred in the Belly’ as an ‘answer back’ to Roy’s arguments. Gaurav Somvamshi
is a part of this collective, which is associated with the website called
roundtableindia.co.in. He is one of the authors who have, while pursuing their
independent careers, taken up issues of caste inequality and its justification. He
wrote a seven-part article on http://roundtableindia.co.in/ , which dealt with the
various questions that he faced as a Dalit in the present day.17 The articles garnered
a lot of views and discussion through the website as well as through his personal
Facebook page. This is a case that goes to show that social media and websites can
go hand in hand or complement the content that each of them have got.
WhatsApp is an application that lets users share digital media in a closed group
setting. Umesh Hattikat is a research student who has recently submitted his M.
Phil. dissertation that studies the history of the Vhalar subcaste. This is a subcaste
that is found scattered in South Maharashtra and has a very low literacy rate. When
Hattikat set out to study the caste group, he was not sure how he could get
information regarding the recent history of the Vhalar people. However, to his
surprise, he found that the Vhalar youth had organised themselves in a caste group
via WhatsApp and were all approachable through that messaging service. His
survey work became very easy after this discovery, and he hopes the dissertation
will have some policy implications for eventually bettering the lives of the Vhalar
Dalit literature was once accused of lacking a sense of humour.19 Today, the
accusation can no longer stand. In the early phase of autobiographical and cathartic
writings, Dalit literature paid little attention to humour as a genre- though dark
humour has always been present in the writings of Maharashtrian Dalit authors
such as Baby Kamble20. With the availability of visual editing tools coupled with
smartphones and computers – Memes have become a very popular form of
presenting one’s viewpoint in a humourous fashion. Typically memes contain
images decorated with comments. Dalit youth have launched facebook pages that
regularly upload relevant and topical memes that use satire. Just Savarna Things,
Savarna Fat Cat, Sassy Bahujan Memes are a few of them 21.
The examples dealt with so far have primarily shown how the internet has helped
Maharashtrian Dalits in exploring ways to emancipate themselves. The story
obviously has a grim side, too. A Dalit smartphone user was murdered in Shirdi
over an altercation regarding his use of an Ambedkarite song as his ringtone in
2015.22 This is by no means a solitary instance. The Bheema Koregaon riots in the
New Year week of 2018 also had a strong relationship with the content spread
through the social media. Competing and contradictory narratives of history were
floated by the Dalits as well as non-Dalits in the build-up to the event which
commemorated the battle of Bheema Koregaon that took place 200 years ago.
Videos were virally circulated with the aim of fanning communal hatred and they
resulted in loss of at least one life and property worth millions of rupees. Present
day contestations for social acceptance are almost always played out in the field of
historical narratives. The Bheema Koregaon riots were no exception.
To conclude, the internet has been used by the Dalits in Maharashtra as an
emancipatory space. With the help of the internet, they are getting access to
authentic sources of information and an audience with a genuine interest in their
stories. The internet helps them document their own history through their own gaze
by bringing people together, protected by the comparative anonymity of
cyberspace. These processes of course, come with a concomitant set of challenges.
By connecting virtually, are the Dalits able to retain the connection with the grass-
roots, the masses? After all, the Dalit movement was always known for its
rootedness. Is it that the new media are creating a cultural hegemony of the
digitally advantaged Dalits over the disadvantaged ones? Online catharsis might
lead to a certain degree of distancing of Dalits from their own lived experiences
and this may lead to an eventual apathy about real life events. And finally, while
the internet can be a highly supervised and supervisable medium, there is a
possibility that it may be used for socially engineering the opinions and activities
of the Dalits. While the future holds the answers to many of these questions, from
the point of historiography, one can see Voltaire’s argument coming true. There is
a slow but steady transition from a universe of Grand Narratives of Dalit history to
a multiverse of competing memories and histories taking shape.
* The author wishes to thank Professors Anne Feldhaus and Prachi Deshpande for
their suggestions when the paper was first presented at the International
Conference on Maharashtra : Society and Culture in January 2016 at Dr.
Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad and scholar- activists
Mr Raju Kamble and Mr. Gaurav Somvamshi for their review and comments on a
earlier draft of the paper.
1Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Jeannotet Colin, Cramer, Geneva P. 101. Accessed on 10-01-2018.
2 The word Dalit in Sanskrit literally means crushed or trampled upon. This is a word used for the people
of the formerly untouchable castes in South Asia. Many other words have been used to describe the
same group of people, eg. Untouchables, Shudras, Pariahs, Depressed Classes, Harijans, etc. These
nomenclatures are rejected for various reasons by the Dalits themselves. Even the word Dalit is not
unchallenged as some prefer the name Ambedkarite.. I have stuck to Dalit here, primarily because of its
widespread usage and acceptance.
3‘The Creators of the three Vedas are the Cunning, the Clever and the Night-wanderers.’ Charvaka,
quoted in Sayana Madhava’s Savadarshanasamgraha, P. 14. Accessed on 10-01-2018.
https://archive.org/details/Sarva-darsana-sangrahaOfMadhavacharya (translation mine.)
Charvaka was one of the ancient Indian philosophers who negated the authority of the Vedas as
repositories of knowledge.
4Tukaram, ,Gatha, 2256. Accessed on 12-01-2018.
0%A4%A4%E0%A5%87_%E0%A5%A8%E0%A5%AA%E0%A5%A6%E0%A5%A6 (Translation mine. )
Tukaram was a seventeenth century poet renowned for his humanistic ideas and progressive views.
5 For a detailed discussion about the SatyaShodhakSamaj’s efforts at creation of an alternative history
and culture, see- ShraddhaKumbhojkar, Denial of Centrality to Vedic Texts, in Willy Pfändtner& David
Thurfjell (eds), Postcolonial Challenges to the Study of Religion, Interreligiösarelationer. Uppsala:
Swedish Science Press, 2008.
6YochaiBenkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Interview at the e-G8
Summit, Paris, 30-05-2011. Accessed from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/g8-hails-power-of-
the-internet-as-an-instrument-for-emancipation/ on 10-12-2017.
7In 2014, India had shown a 240% growth in the number of internet users in the previous five years. In
2015, the number of internet users in India was 259.88 million. In 2017, it grew to 331.77 million people.
Source: Statista.com accessed from https://www.statista.com/statistics/292488/fastest-growing-
internet-populations/ and https://www.statista.com/statistics/255146/number-of-internet-
users-in-india/ on 28-01-2018.
8Delta MilayoNdou, Being online will not guarantee emancipation, in The Herald, 27-10,2016.
Accessed from http://www.herald.co.zw/being-online-will-not-guarantee-emancipation/ on 11-
hett/00ambedkar/timeline/1950s.html accessed 24-01-2018.
10http://ambedkarmission.org/about-aim.html accessed on 24-01-2018.
12 The original Marathi saying goes – Baamnagharee
13https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0wVhY5XYVM accessed 28-01-2018.
14https://www.youtube.com/user/kadhirnilavan/about accessed on 20-01-2018.
16https://www.facebook.com/vaibhav.chaya accessed 01-02-2018.
9190:seven-questions&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 accessed 01-02-2018
18Interview with Umesh Hattikat, December 2016.
19 Discussion with Prof. Aravind Deshpande, Historian of Literature. March 2001.
20 Kumbhojkar, Shraddha, Baby Kamble Yanche Vaicharik Yogdaan, in Paramarsh, January, 2018. Pune.
bollywood-memes/16920179) accessed 21-04-2018.
ringtone/article7232259.ece accessed 01-02-2018.