Friday, April 2, 2010

[ZESTCaste] How Indians are using Facebook to fight the caste system

How Indians are using Facebook to fight the caste system

By Monty Munford World Last updated: April 2nd, 2010

India's caste system – or, as I like to call it, Hinduism's version of
institutionalised apartheid – has lost some influence in the sixty-two
years since independence. But certain social barriers remain – and
now, for the first time, social networks such as Facebook and Orkut
are offering all castes the chance to register their anger about them.

Nowadays, the untouchable classes are delicately described as
"scheduled" castes and "tribes", but to many outsiders remain "Dalits"
– and they constitute nearly a quarter of India's total population.
Previously referred to as the "Depressed Class" in the era of the
British Raj (for the depressing jobs they endured), their numbers have
risen rapidly in the last few decades.

As part of "the biggest democracy in the world", Dalits have now used
their numbers to gain political, as well as economic power, and by law
are guaranteed between 7.5 per cent and 15 per cent of vacancies in
Indian Government jobs, something that riles the upper-castes. As
recently as 18 months ago, a Dalit was murdered by upper-caste
criminals because he had the audacity to visit a temple to pay homage
to the goddess Durga.

In a country of nearly 1.2 billion people, there are 54 million
internet users, and Indians use their mobiles for everything. (There
are more than 500 million Indians who have mobiles, so in general this
is how social networks are accessed.) Facebook and local social
networking site Orkut and even Twitter (with a mere 1.5 million users)
are widely accessed and the caste debate has led to the creation of
hundreds of groups.

And the forums on these sites only underscore how divided these
communities still are. In a recent example, 3,000 members of a
scheduled online community bemoaned how their caste identity had
created an unbreakable glass ceiling, while other more venomous
comments from higher-caste members accused them of being "beggars" who
used their status to acquire jobs. Comparable, some would say, to the
more unpleasant debates about immigration in the UK.

In a matter of hours, the thread was full of odium and hatred as the
vying communities made their respective feelings known. According to a
study by PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research), it
found that 32 random Orkut online communities based on caste showed an
increase of nearly 30,000 members in just three months and most of
them are highly educated people, and very angry ones at that.

However, as I drilled down into these communities and ignored the
bilious caste comments, something else caught my social network eye.
Yes, it was love and marriage. So, while these groups profess to allow
different caste members to shout and scream, there were a lot more
posts about boys and girls hoping to find somebody from their own
social group or caste to hook up with. Somebody for the their parents
to approve of, in other words. Plus ça change.

Monty Munford
Monty Munford has worked in the media industry for the past 10 years
and moved to India in 2008. He writes for several publications
including The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Times of India. He is
@montymunford on Twitter.


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