My first brush with social media was in 2012, when I was in 11th grade and Facebook was all the rage among my peers in Delhi. One day after school, I logged into the website and started browsing the posts that some of my classmates had put up. One comment on a post by a classmate left me stunned for years to come.
“Dhobi ka baccha hai kya?” he had written in Hindi. Translation: Are you a Dhobi’s [washerman’s] kid? The comment triggered years of internalized shame and abuse in me.
Dhobis are members of the Dalit community, who fall on the lowest stratum of the caste system, the longest-running social hierarchy system in the world. The community has been intergenerationally marginalized.
I am a Dhobi. Growing up, my parents were very clear that I could never reveal my caste identity to anyone. “Log chhi chhi karenge,” they told me. People will express disgust at you. But the concept truly hit home the day I saw that comment. I knew I could never reveal my identity to anyone — offline or online.
In India, people usually determine your caste location on the basis of your surname. My family had, however, changed their surname decades ago to avoid socioeconomic shunning. This is a common practice in India, where Dalits change their surnames in an attempt to keep their identities hidden when they move from villages to large cities.
My changed surname might have helped hide my identity from strangers, but I knew the truth, and the more time I spent on social media, the starker my reality became.
On social media, I saw attacks against my caste on a regular basis. These attacks ranged from microaggressions to actively violent threats. Hundreds of Facebook memes on popular pages took jabs at caste-based affirmative action. When anyone argued in favor of affirmative action, they were instantly shot down, called caste names, and asked to go back to their caste jobs. In order to fit in with the dominant castes, both offline and online, I even made fun of the affirmative action received by my community.
Even though the slurs I read on social media were not directed at me, they made me question my credentials, and wonder if I deserved a place in a good university or workplace.
In India, it is assumed that people who do not conform to traditional beauty standards are from the Dalit or Adivasi (indigenous) community. So, I would never post pictures of my family or my house online, fearful that someone would be able to identify our community just by looking at us.
I found myself consciously refraining from discussing any caste-related subject online. In 2019, however, I set up a Twitter account under a pseudonym just to post things that were critical of the caste system. I didn’t want to use my real name because I didn’t want anyone to find out that I was Dalit.
Social media can often feel alienating for people from marginalized communities. When I joined social media, for instance, I saw that nearly all the popular channels, pages, and users carried a dominant-caste surname and featured a fancy, elite lifestyle. It was rare that an influencer or page would post about experiences that I could relate to.
Even today, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in India are dominated by dominant castes. In fact, I quit Instagram last year because I could not relate to the elite, high-resolution world of the dominant castes. Given the lack of diverse voices, caste slurs are rampant on social media in India. Many caste names are casually used as curse words.
Last month, I was sitting with a friend at my house and scrolling through my Twitter feed when we read a tweet that shook us. Meena Kotwal, a prominent journalist, was called “Chamriya” by a dominant-caste person who wanted to hurl an insult at her. Chamriya, a slur that means a woman from the Chamar community — who are members of the Dalit community — is a word I hear often in the offline world. The word Chamar is used in north India as a slur to signify disgusting, dirty, or bad. A random search on Twitter will lead you to hundreds of tweets with caste names like “Bhangi,” “Chamar,” and “Dhobi” being used like swear words in casual conversation, even among famous influencers and public personalities.
All of this is so rampant that many people from marginalized communities in India stay away from social media. For the longest time, I was convinced that we were a small minority, even though that is far from reality — Dalits constitute 200 million people in India. And Dalits and Adivasis together would form the sixth most-populous country in the world.
Young voices from my community fear that online caste-based harassment could spill over into their professional lives. Srishty Ranjan, an influencer from my community, tells me how she is scared that her life could be ruined by one tweet that makes its way into her academic life. “After I called these comedians out, and got hate-filled DMs, I don’t feel safe to comment anymore,” she told me. “It’s very scary to think about what would happen as a Dalit woman in a university space filled with dominant castes. They could expel me from the program, if somebody complains.”
Sexism, queerphobia, and racism are more global issues, but hate speech against lower-caste people is a South Asian problem. The most problematic part of this issue is that caste-based harassment is extremely difficult to report on social media, leaving people in my community with little in the way of recourse when they are attacked online. In fact, there was no mechanism to report this abuse for a very long time, until recently when Facebook and Twitter added caste to their protected categories. There is also the use of special characters in slurs, which makes it difficult to tackle them on social media. While there is some mechanism to report these slurs now, the language is nuanced enough that many instances of harassment still slip through the cracks.
For instance, Kotwal is often called a “Bheemti.” This is not legally a caste slur, but it is a jab at her caste location. Bheemti refers to Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and a stalwart of social justice in India. He was also a Dalit figure and major voice against the caste system in the 20th century, and worked towards the upliftment of my community all his life.
When Kotwal tweeted about the caste slur used against her, a brigade of dominant-caste people joined in to bully her. Many started hashtags demanding her arrest — even when she was a victim of caste-based harassment — under the claim that she was “trying to disparage Hinduism.” In many cases, Dalits and Adivasis lose their lives for a simple social media post that may be seen as offensive to the dominant castes. In September 2020, Devji Maheshwari, a Dalit rights activist, was murdered for his Facebook post critical of Brahminical systems.
In the last few years, there has been a small but growing influx of influencers from my community who are vocal about caste. Srishty Ranjan, Anjali Rai , Sankul Sonawane, Ritesh Jyoti, and many others on Twitter have called out casteism on social media, taking up the space denied to us for so long. In many cases, this results in targeted harassment.
Indian social media spaces need to be made more hospitable to those from marginalized castes. Social media policy teams have to come together to devise mechanisms that make it easier for Dalits and Adivasis to access social media, and to use it without challenges. They must promote diversity by actively hiring people from the Dalit and Adivasi communities.
There should also be more mechanisms to report caste-based hate speech. If policy teams do not have Dalit and Adivasi people, we cannot expect sensitivity. Governments also have to make sure that they understand that hate speech online means hate speech offline. The alternative is dangerous; the 2017 case of Saharanpur violence was fueled largely by online hate on Facebook.
I am cognizant of the fact that with a single tweet, I could stand to lose my career and life. This is a fear I carry with me every day, and so I am very careful about what issues I choose to talk about and what I say. In the past, I was careful to never voice an opinion against casteism myself. I only retweeted, reposted, or shared others’ views on it, never my own.
Now, even that has become too much to carry. In 2020, I made the choice to reveal my caste identity after I was inspired by many Dalit handles. I saw the vigor with which they reclaimed their identities and spaces, and I wanted to reclaim the space that has been denied to us for so long. I hope others can reclaim this space for themselves in the same way.