In early June, as the US was being consumed by protests stemming from the senseless murder of George Floyd, a Korean boy band affirmed their alliance to Black Lives Matter with a $1 million donation, setting forth an unusually passionate discussion about the interplay between pop fandom and politics.
This wasn’t just any K-pop band, but Bangtan Sonyeondan: known to millions as BTS and creators of the year's top-selling album by a very wide margin.
But more importantly, BTS enjoys an intensely loyal and politically active fanbase around the globe, which took the signal and crowdsourced another $1 million donation to BLM the following day. These fans—who call themselves Adorable Representative Master of Ceremonies for Youth, abbreviated to A.R.M.Y—also began taking over right-wing hashtags across social media and spammed an app used by Dallas police to catch BLM protesters.
However, over in India, one chapter of the BTS ARMY was embroiled in a different kind of fight. On May 31, @BangtanIndia—an unofficial account with more than 71,000 followers that describes itself as the “first Indian BTS A.R.M.Y Fanclub”—had tweeted an apology.
They’d said they were sorry for not using their platform to aid the BLM movement, And in doing so, they also admitted the existence of a conflict at the heart of the global BTS ARMY: to be, or not to be, political. This, even as fans argued on the same thread as to what constitutes political activism.
Bangtan India’s apology, while giving the group’s reasons for remaining neutral, did not indicate that India’s largest BTS group was about to change course. And many informed observers knew why. It was because they’d been burned before.
In replies to the May 31 apology, many members referred to a previous “backlash.” According to one fan, this backlash had begun with a simple tweet at the beginning of 2020 when the Bangtan India account had posted what was described to VICE News as an “awareness petition” about India’s Citizenship Amendment Act.
What followed was a barrage of abuse from supporters of the Act, which forced Bangtan India to delete the tweet. “Our DM was flooded with so much hate that we had to delete the petition, tweets and lock our account for a few days. There were abuses and all sorts of death threats,” said the ARMY member, who cited security and privacy reasons for staying anonymous. “It was so bad for our mental health.”
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in December 2019 and ordained that religion could be used to determine Indian citizenship. It amended the country’s Citizenship Act of 1955, and provided an easier path to citizenship for members of six religions who had travelled to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014. Islam was not included on the list of six religions.
The CAA has been criticised, including by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, for being discriminatory against Muslims. Legal experts as well as Indian political leaders warned that the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi intended to use the CAA in conjunction with a national register of citizens to leave a large number of Indian Muslims stateless.
Anti-CAA protests, led by students, swept India after the government went ahead and passed the law despite objections from Opposition leaders and members of the civil society. In response, members of PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party initiated rallies in support of the law, and often threatened violence against those in opposition.
Delhi Police now blame anti-CAA activists for instigating the February 2020 riots in the country’s capital, where 53 individuals were killed. The police have consistently refused to charge individuals connected to PM Modi’s BJP, as well as its own personnel, who were alleged to have been involved in organising or participating in the violence.
It was into this cauldron of hate that Bangtan India’s unwitting tweet fell.
“It’s hard for young people to have those first experiences of politics when all they’re trying is to help people,” said CedarBough T Saeji, a visiting assistant professor in Asian Languages and Cultures in Indiana University, Bloomington. “In South Korea, young women who identify as feminists turn up at rallies against misogyny wearing sunglasses and hats or they fear they will lose their jobs for raising their voice. This is the reality of the world. It’s discouraging and sad.”
When Indian teenagers spammed PM Modi’s Instagram posts to show dissent in the first week of July, many were threatened and intimidated by right-wing trolls. As recently as last week, standup comedians were being forced to post public apologies after receiving rape threats and being doxxed on social media; two individuals were arrested for those threats after.
With the stakes for left-wing political activism so high in India, it’s understandable why India’s BTS ARMY has attempted to straddle a fine line between implicit endorsement of BLM and diplomatic silence. In doing so, they often lend their support to less politically controversial causes, such as a recent fundraiser for the flood-hit northeast Indian state of Assam. This managed to raise INR 590,175 (USD 7882) within 24 hours: almost 10 times its target of INR 30,000 (US$ 401).
BTS itself has been known to call out South Korea’s social mores and power imbalances. However, music critics have observed that the group never really made any overt political statements for “fear of a backlash.” In fact, many ARMYs in the US reportedly expressed discomfort with K-pop fandom being linked to politics, while some fan sites banned political discussion.
Saeji said that the BTS ARMY don’t see most issues that they raise as political. “For BLM, for instance, since many ARMYs are persons of colour in the US, they see it as a human rights or social issue,” she said. “If you could donate to an orphanage, why wouldn’t you donate to help the disadvantaged in American society fight to improve their situation?”
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