VICE Asia is calling 2019 "The Year We Woke Up". This year, we saw young people stand up, push back, and take matters into their own hands. We celebrate the fighters, the change makers, the movements that have shaken us wide awake and reminded us of our own roles in realising change. This story is part of a series.
It’s been a tough year to endure, no doubt. Between the number of reported rape cases rising to a terrifying level, air pollution reaching such an alarming rate that oxygen bars started trending, and the endless denial and problematic statements that seem to summarise Indian politics, we’re kinda glad to see 2019 wrap up. But even as it seems easy to look the other way while bad things are unravelling all around us, now is the time when we should wake up and stay woke, take charge, and march full throttle for the rights, laws and justice we desperately need. Making this less intimidating and more effective is Jhatkaa.org, a non-profit platform that vociferously fights for everything from stricter punishment against sexual harassment to net neutrality to combating sexism to urging authorities to take action against climate change. While Jhatkaa is known not only for being the biggest homegrown Indian organisations trying to take online activism and make a difference in real life, and also as the guys going beyond the hashtag activism most of us seem to content ourselves with, Avijit Michael, the founding trustee of the organisation, is known for being the main man on a mission.
While it was established in 2012 by Deepa Gupta, an activist with a vision to unify people for a cause, Michael knew Gupta from his days at Greenpeace and was brought on board since the beginning. Through the efforts of Michael, a wonder-filled wide-eyed techie with a large appetite for advocacy and an even bigger one for bringing about change, and his team of campaigners, Jhatkaa (which translates to ‘jolt’ or ‘shake up’), essentially employs the internet to build a community of changemakers whose efforts ultimately translate to tangible action. While the 36-year-old is based in Bengaluru, Jhatkaa has a deep-rooted presence across most major cities of India and raises its funds through donors.
The idea is to alert citizens about how they can participate more actively in the democratic process by signing petitions, joining their nearest protest group and sometimes even walking right to the doorstep of important decision-makers and ministers to demand the change they deserve. “There’s a Harvard study that says when 3.5 percent of the population (about 45 million people in India) is engaged in a cause, it is more likely to result in real change,” Michael tells VICE over the phone. “So, our aim has always been to deepen ties as a community which can come together, use social media to reach out to a wider audience and work towards a more equitable and sustainable world.”
Inspired by his grandmother, who was a freedom fighter during India’s independence struggle and even did her share of jail time, Michael’s initiative enshrines the civil disobedience movement and is trying to resurrect the same sentiments that powered it all those years ago. They achieve this through a combined effort of calling out the companies or government bodies causing any kind of distress, filing RTIs to gather evidence against them and gathering troops to rally for positive change. “These days, because of social media marketing, most companies, politicians and government bodies really care about public opinion of them online. So, when thousands of people come together to call them out, they know that it’s bad press and do their best to avoid it.” One such case this year where call-out culture catalysed action was when Apoorva Yarabahalli and Snigdha Jayakrishnan—two students from the Symbiosis Law School in Hyderabad, a prestigious private university—revealed that their college had suspended them for accusing a professor of sexually harassing students. When the college, which had also failed to form the mandatory Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), initially tried to deny the allegations, the girls teamed up with Jhatkaa and launched a campaign to get the truth out there. This involved a petition, more than 200 personal emails sent to the college authorities by the Jhatkaa community, a viral illustration that brought their struggle to life, a Twitterstorm detailing what happened, phone calls and formal letters—all of which led to the authorities admitting their oversights, forming an ICC and letting back the students they had kicked out. “It goes to show just how far citizen pressure can take you”,
Michael says, pinpointing this victory as the tiniest glimmer of hope in a cloudy year. “What these girls achieved takes us one step closer to our goal of ensuring that every college and company sets up ICC. As a professional organisation, it’s our job to challenge such things, but for an individual, especially one still in college, it takes an immense amount of courage. It’s been inspirational to those around them and will make students voice their issues more actively going forward.” Apart from raising awareness on one college’s bad behaviour, Jhatkaa has also been involved in inviting people to sign petitions against multiple cases of sexual harassment, helping domestic workers, media employees and even housewives effectively combat a culture that often refuses to believe survivors.
After filing several RTIs, they also brought to light that the recommendations on how to combat charges of sexual abuse and harassment as suggested by the Justice Verma committee, which included allocating a Nirbhaya fund for rape victims to take up such cases in court, weren’t implemented, and only 30 percent of these funds were actually handed out.
Jhatkaa was also one of the organisations at the forefront of the global climate strikes held across India and the world this year, pushing forth the urgency of climate action. Michael feels that they partially succeeded since after several years of denying even the existence of climate change, authorities are now at least slowly admitting that an upcoming apocalypse is a real possibility. Jhatkaa is also working to create a system of electric buses running through cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru before expanding to other cities. Between urging large numbers to fight the good fight and meeting with intellectuals to chart out the best possible course of action, Michael and his dedicated team of campaigners have probably ticked off more than a few boxes from the activism version of a to-do list. Michael’s activism has managed to rope in young people from across the country, a demographic that has become famous for being fed up with the shit the older generations have wrought on the planet, and is coming together to do something about it. “I think young people are the only hope for our future. The older generation has made many mistakes, but the younger generation is really waking up to them and doing their best to fix as much as they can, so we want to amplify their voices and ensure that their demands are heard.” Michael admits that young changemakers like Greta Thunberg and Ridhima Pandey have been his biggest source of inspiration this year, and he has even connected with the latter to strategise ways to make climate change awareness a top priority in government policies.
Michael, who always knew he wanted to launch a mission that would take advantage of the efficiency and accessibility of the internet, first formulated the idea of Jhatkaa back when he was a student at Christ College in 2007. Unfortunately, back then, the country was still skeptical about the scope of online activism and wasn’t ready to fund an operation like this. “So, I started working with Greenpeace and Change.org, which were already established organisations. I worked on cases like preventing brinjals from being injected with hormones and the Nuclear Liability Bill, and each experience taught me the importance and impact of citizen mobilisation.”
12 years later, Michael’s mission has had many considerable victories, the biggest one so far being the movement against the mercury poisoning of a river in Kodaikanal by Unilever, which devastated all the surrounding villages that relied on its water supply, but continued to be ignored even in the court. “This happened in the 90s and locals had been fighting this case for more than 15 years when we stepped in in 2015. We then teamed up with politically-inclined rapper Sofia Ashraf and made a track on the struggle the communities and families bordering this toxic river have had to face. This was retweeted by Nicki Minaj and later Ashton Kutcher. Thanks to the internet, suddenly a hyper-local issue that hadn’t got recognition for more than a decade got a global spotlight, and eventually, Unilever had to give them the compensation they deserved because they didn’t want their whole ‘sustainable’ image affected on social media.”
Not only has his organisation come up with innovative ways to send out a powerful message, but Michael is also personally deeply involved in every part of the process. His fervour and energy for activism is so intense that last year, he was arrested because of a campaign he orchestrated in an effort to prevent the trees in Aarey colony from being chopped away to build a metro shed, an issue that continues being highly contested. Jhatkaa created an online petition, and all those who signed it were sent a text message with the phone number of Ashwini Bhide, the head of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC), urging the community to call her up and nudge her in a more environmentally conscious direction just before a meeting with the Green Tribunal. “I was arrested for trying to facilitate democratic process,” he tells us. “Over 3 lakh people signed the petition to prevent mature trees in the Aarey forest from being chopped off, and we told all those who signed up to keep calling the MMRC head, so their phones were ringing off the hook. So, they got annoyed and filed a case against me, which is interesting because all I did was tell concerned citizens to call a public official on a public number, and they had me arrested for it.”
When asked whether dissent has become more difficult today, Michael weighs in by saying that since people in power are more authoritarian, it’s more of a reason for us to worry about our needs being met, our rights being ensured and our individual voices carrying statements more powerful than those wielded by controversial politicians.
Currently, Jhatkaa is working on a campaign to challenge the controversial Citizenship Bill that was just passed in the Indian parliament, which has been criticised for excluding Muslims and being unconstitutional and has also resulted in an internet clampdown in Assam after the state was privy to violent protests. “This communication clampdown that we’re seeing in Kashmir and Assam is dangerous, and we need to get the conversation going now more than ever,” he says with a sigh. Michael believes that the best we can do at an individual level, especially given that protests are being silenced with maximum security, is just to keep asking difficult questions and keep the conversation going. “The problem is that good people often stay silent, and the trolls are the most vociferous, and this makes it seem that they are the majority view,” he points out, stressing the importance of even simple acts like sharing a news article on social media.
“One of the key things we’re looking at doing over the next year is training citizens on how to create, change and engage with government,” he says, agreeing that a more nihilistic atmosphere appears to be slowly casting its shadow. “A lot of citizens feel hopeless because they don’t know what to do, even when it comes to dealing with annoying things like the state of the road or other basic things our tax money should be providing.” Michael maintains that his main purpose with Jhatkaa is to help citizens understand how the machinery works, how they can present the facts and engage with decision-makers. “The government is not bad or good. There are still some people in it who want to do the right thing, so we as citizens need to get behind them because taking initiative and action is the best thing we can do to get them to notice us.”
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