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A movement on a missed call

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on August 14, 2015
On target: The IAC team strategically sent emotionally-charged SMSes to their
supporters aiming to channelise public anger to the movement. Photo: V V Krishnan

On target: The IAC team strategically sent emotionally-charged SMSes to theirsupporters aiming to channelise public anger to the movement. Photo: V V Krishnan   -  The Hindu

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The cellphone has seeped into social activism, but its impact is not limitless

Bholanath Biswal, 68, retired bank manager, is not sure how he first heard of the India against Corruption (IAC) campaign: “The television or the radio.” But he lucidly remembers what he did soon after. “I gave a missed call on the toll-free number and became part of the movement.” Protests and demonstrations had never featured in his life before. But fighting corruption seemed worthwhile. “And I couldn’t do it single-handedly,” he says from his village, Jagatsinghpur in Odisha.

Biswal became a regular at demonstrations and rallies organised by the IAC in the state. “I would get messages about upcoming events. I took part in four or five demonstrations, including the one in front of Jagatsinghpur collectorate and also those in Bhubaneswar,” he says. Once IAC splintered, and a part went political, Biswal switched off. But as long as it lasted, the cellphone orchestrated his participation in the country-wide campaign.

With mobile phones dictating daily lives, it is unlikely that social activism will remain impervious to it. WhatsApp and bulk SMSes are coming handy when work means engaging large, unorganised sections of people across the country.

In campaigns like IAC, which burst onto the scene and sorely missed carefully nurtured grassroots support, the cellphone was crucial to base-building. It was majboori, says Dilip Pandey, convenor, Aam Aadmi Party Delhi, who was earlier part of IAC. “Communication was our mission and the best way to cut across society was the cellphone,” says Pandey. The movement may not have had history, but the cause did, he asserts vehemently. “It was a natural manifestation of people’s anger.” The team chose to channelise public anger through powerful SMSes. Drafting them was serious strategy and involved the entire core team. “I remember the first message we sent. It said something like “Aapke liye ek 70 saal ka insaan bhookha ja raha hai” (A 70-year-old man is going hungry for you). Our messages always had a heightened emotional pitch. The message and the messenger mattered, so these were sent in Anna Hazare ji’sname and that brought credibility,” says Pandey. At the movement’s peak, the messages are supposed to have reached over a crore people in 15 days to a month. “The SMS was cheaper then — three paise per SMS,” says Pandey. In Handbook of Research on Political Activism in Information Age, writers MV Rajeev Gowda and Purnima Prakash mention the IAC’s ‘missed call’ recruitment drive. “Through this method, the IAC were able to generate more than five million missed calls from unique numbers,” they say. “Sending out bulk SMSes cost the IAC nearly ₹50 lakh, which they raised through donation from volunteers,” they add.

The IAC may have squeezed the cellphone dry; but older, grassroots-based movements use it with much more caution. Though a welcome aid, social activists don’t want to overestimate its potential. There is no substitute to face-to-face interaction, they say.

Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) has been working in the rural boroughs of Rajasthan for nearly 30 years. The impact of the cellphone on activism is, at best, mixed, she says. “It is not a total blessing. It has, in fact, given rise to a number of problems.” When issues are broken down to “brief messages, quick replies and missed calls”, we are “reducing ourselves to the lowest common denominator,” she says.

Roy’s activism is built on community interactions and first-hand understanding of local issues. To her, the mobile phone can never take the place of “sitting down and talking.” “It reduces a discourse to black and white, and the understanding it provides of an issue is superficial, often without looking at consequences.” Nikhil Dey, also of MKSS, knows it is ‘foolish’ to ignore the mobile, but is sure their social activism cannot be based on it. So, while communication with MKSS full-timers is largely through SMSes and photographs, and videos and short films are also shared on WhatsApp, traditional principles still rule activism. “We don’t see it as a substitute to meetings and printing pamphlets, but one that enhances interaction,” he says.

Cellphone-and-activism is also a matter of economics. Bulk SMSes need money and many groups find it hard to spare. “In groups sustained by individual donations and fundraising, it is hard to spend money on bulk SMSes,” says Madhuresh Kumar, convenor of National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM). They use the cellphone judiciously. Messages are sent individually to national-level convenors who pass it to state-level managers, who then disseminate it further.

Where the cellphone has made definite inroads is in heightening the drama around activism. “The aspect of creating a spectacle has always been there and the cellphone has amplified it,” says Kumar. Earlier, if NAPM members burned a bill in Manesar, apart from the 50 who did it and the local newspapers that covered it, others would remain clueless. “Even the next district wouldn’t know. But with WhatsApp, you spread it to your comrades and reach a wider section when it is put on the website.” Roy picks out the ongoing Shiksha ka Sawaal Abhiyan in Rajasthan where effort is on to file RTIs from 85,000 government schools. Here the mobile phone became a perfect enabler. “The short film for ‘Shiksha ka Sawaal’ was shot and edited on the cellphone and has spread everywhere through it,” she says.

At a recent meeting of the young Working People’s Charter Process in the Capital, a WhatsApp group was among the demands. The group has street vendors, bricklayers and domestic workers, as well as trade unions, academicians and lawyers. “We now network on the phone with regional NGOs,” says Nirmal Gorana. The cellphone has been crucial to their work, he says. It broke ground in rescuing bonded labourers from Jammu & Kashmir and other places, he adds. “Most of the labourers had cellphones. They cannot read messages, but we could call them.”

The cellphone may be great for basic information dissemination. Susan Visvanathan, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, calls it “access to unlimited quantum of information.” But mere information often doesn’t translate into numbers on the ground. “In places, say the interiors of Narmada, people would have got an SMS on a dharna. But it never matches the impact of our karyakarta sitting with them and raising awareness on an issue. If 10 people turn up after field work, four hardcore ones may come after an SMS,” says Kumar. Dey points out that access to the cellphone often does not mean facility with it. Not everyone with a phone can read an SMS or record a voice message, he says.

While social activists acknowledge the increasing prevalence of the cellphone in activism, there are certain roles they know it can never play. “The cellphone, by itself, cannot initiate anything, unless it is a deep crisis like the December gang rape in Delhi. In normal mobilisation, which involves struggle, it can only play a supportive part,” says Roy.

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Published on August 14, 2015
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