Chetan Kumar has been called into his local police station three times in the last month. “They questioned me for several hours, asking me why I tweeted the things I did,” the popular actor and anti-caste activist from southern India told VICE World News. “This is a way to silence voices that demand equality and justice.”
The police investigation into his social media posts was triggered by criminal complaints from Karnataka state’s Brahmin Development Board, a government department in charge of maintaining the rights of Hindus born into the privileged Brahmin caste.
The caste system in India has parallels to America's racism problem, a comparison Martin Luther King Jr. made after visiting India in 1959. In it, a group of people are subjected to structural and institutional exclusion, often through violent means, based on the caste they are born into. Unlike the U.S. though, India outlawed caste-based discrimination in 1950.
But data, anecdotal evidence and Brahmin government departments show that one of the world’s oldest surviving social stratification systems continues to thrive institutionally and in everyday life.
The caste system in India has similarities to America's racism problem, a comparison Martin Luther King Jr. made after visiting India in 1959.
India’s caste problem has led to school and college dropouts and even suicides of Dalit students. Last week, a Dalit professor from an elite university that produced tech leaders including Sundar Pichai, quit, citing caste discrimination.
On social media, caste bigotry and biases manifest openly, often brazenly.
Kumar’s posts were met with vicious trolling, even death threats. One activist demanded his deportation. (Kumar is an American citizen with an Overseas Citizenship of India.) The Karnataka State Brahmin Development Board, in their police complaints, alleged that he was “hurting religious beliefs” and that he is harmful to “national integration.”
Data, anecdotal evidence and Brahmin government departments show that one of the world’s oldest surviving social stratification systems continues to thrive institutionally and in everyday life.
“Status quo organisations like this one deeply embed and entrench ideas that some people are superior by birth and some inferior,” said Kumar, who identifies as a Bahujan – a term that includes all the oppressed identities in India.
“In India, you are your caste by birth,” he added. “But you can choose what you fight for and against.” On June 30, Kumar sued and demanded the arrest of a prominent state politician who had called his anti-caste posts “against the Constitution” and a “publicity stunt.”
“The very nature of everyday civic and social life in India is organised around the deeply exclusionary principles of caste,” an anonymous Bahujan academic called “Buffalo Intellectual” told VICE World News. “No matter what the space or platform is, you see the same pattern of exclusion.”
Dalits comprise 27 percent of India’s total population of 1.3 billion. Given the dominance of privileged castes in the mainstream media, anti-caste internet users have been turning to social media. But research shows that despite India's growing internet penetration – projected to reach 900 million people by 2025 – most users are from privileged castes.
“The very nature of everyday civic and social life in India is organised around the deeply exclusionary principles of caste. No matter what the space or platform is, you see the same pattern of exclusion.”
Suraj Yengde, a Harvard post-doctoral fellow who was named among the “25 Most Influential Young Indians” by GQ magazine, told VICE World News that most Dalits are not on Twitter. “I also see a lot of anonymous accounts,” he said, “which concerns me because anonymity is good, but it also gives space to toxicity.”
A March 2021 report by the global advocacy group International Dalit Solidarity Network found that anti-caste tweets are prone to all forms of abuse such as trolling, cancelling and doxxing. “Constant caste abuse and inadequate measures by social media platforms to hold abusers to account can leave Dalit online users with psychological stress and anxiety,” the group stated.
In 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, during a visit to India, was trolled for holding a placard that said “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” – a bahujan slogan that challenges casteism and male dominance of society. After Indian users accused Dorsey of “bigotry,” “racism” and “hate speech,” Twitter apologised.
Last year, an Indian Dalit man’s lawsuit against Cisco Systems and its two employees involving caste discrimination in Silicon Valley put a global spotlight on India’s caste system. Indians fill significant skill gaps in America’s big tech industry, and the lawsuit triggered hundreds of similar stories to surface.
VICE World News spoke to five anti-caste influencers about their experiences on social media. They all said there is an inherent bias – in interactions and on the platforms themselves – that mimics real-life caste-based realities.
“Constant caste abuse and inadequate measures by social media platforms to hold abusers to account can leave Dalit online users with psychological stress and anxiety.”
“Some handles got the blue tick after that,” Verma said, referring to Twitter’s way of signifying an account is verified. “But it’s not much.”
Most platforms still don’t have a filter for caste-based slurs, he added, “Bahujan voices face a lot of abuse and backlash for voicing their opinions, and there is no support provided by these tech giants.”
Srishty Ranjan, a popular Dalit voice on social media, told VICE World News that speaking publicly about her Dalit identity used to trigger fears about her future.
“Caste is such a hushed topic, but I realised that if you’re silent, you’re complicit. So I decided to speak up despite casteist and sexist abuse online,” she said.
A 2019 Equality Labs report found that 13 percent of all Facebook posts relating to India have casteist content, no thanks to the weak moderation of the platform.
“Caste is such a hushed topic, but I realised that if you’re silent, you’re complicit. So I decided to speak up despite casteist and sexist abuse online.”
“Casteist posts are an area of serious concern” because casteism is a part of the Indian “ecosystem of violence designed to shame, intimidate and keep caste oppressed communities from asserting their rights,” said the report.
In an email response to VICE World News, a Facebook spokesperson said their hate speech policy incorporated “caste” based on the “regional context and feedback,” and took into account the “local, cultural and linguistic specifics” of slurs “in order to understand how language is being weaponized or used to attack people.”
“We do not allow hate speech on Facebook and Instagram,” said the representative. “In the first three months of 2021, globally 6.3 million pieces of content were actioned on hate speech.”
A Twitter spokesperson also responded to VICE World News, stating that they’re aware of the struggles of marginalised communities “in their journey to be seen and heard.” The platform recently updated its hateful conduct policy to include the word “caste.”
But some influencers said it’s not enough. “I see casteist jokes every day,” said Ranjan, adding that many Bahujan accounts are censored, and some posts have been met with actual violence. Last year, five men stabbed a Dalit lawyer to death for an “anti-Brahmin” post on Facebook.
Ranjan also questioned whether social media platforms have Bahujan representation.
Amitabh Kumar, the founder of tech advocacy group Social Media Matters, told VICE World News that educated upper-caste Hindus dominate India’s tech industry. “This is across all high-paying jobs,” said Kumar, whose organization also consults with Twitter.
“I doubt there is a representative percentage in any company, but most coders are usually not from a Bahujan background because their education and economic levels are different. So while they’re brilliant, they will not be in Singapore or New York to study.”
VICE World News asked Twitter and Facebook how many Bahujan employees they have. Facebook did not respond to that question. The Twitter spokesperson, however, said that they have partnered with the National Campaign of Dalit Human Rights and Social Media Matters to “establish a dialogue with members of oppressed castes.”
Increasingly, Bahujan social media users are organizing campaigns to hold accountable upper-caste influencers and public figures with millions of followers.
Recently, they called out those with a history of trolling prominent Bahujan political leader Mayawati, who founded India’s first Bahujan political party. In May, Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda was removed as a United Nations treaty ambassador after he made sexist, casteist remarks about Mayawati.
Buffalo Intellectual called these moments “disruptive” yet small, while Yengde called the discourse “scattered”. Nevertheless, Ranjan and Verma said the anti-caste movement is getting stronger.
“The upper-caste people on social media are definitely unsettled,” said Ranjan. “Now that we are reclaiming the resources historically denied to us, we aren’t holding back.”
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