Shades of freedom: I, me, meme

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on August 10, 2018

Laugh’s on you: The millennial generation has taken to memes, tweets and hashtags as forms of political dialogue   -  Image Courtesy: The Indian Feminist and Sassy Bahujan Memes

Hashtags, tweets and Facebook pages have turned social and political critiquing on its head

Satire, said John Dryden, was like chopping a man’s head off with a bit ofthread. India’s netizens would know that. They see healthy dollops of satire in the dissent and dialogue that are essential to a democracy. A new form of political critique exists on the pages of social media today: Funny, politically conscious, and talking to young netizens in their own language. And it’s often as subtle as severing somebody’s head with a fine spool of thread.

If a generation marched with placards in hand to voice its protest, the millennials voice their concern with satirical posts — on Twitter, Facebook, as GIFs or memes — on the Net.

A few weeks ago, a section of Twitterati went to town, poking fun at trolls who had been attacking Swara Bhaskar. The actor, often viciously trolled for her political opinions against Hindutva forces, had earlier been asked a few questions that should have been directed to the government. In response, sympathetic Twitterati pretended she was the Prime Minister, and, for a day, she was both congratulated for her job and blamed for all the issues that people wanted to take up with the government (What happened to the black money in Switzerland? where is Nirav Modi?). Someone even put her in a beige Nehru jacket and swadeshi topi, and made a page called Prime Minister Swara Bhaskar.

Facebook pages such as Humans of Hindutva (HOH), a parody of Humans of New York, poke fun at ministers, rabid Hindutva groups and a host of others. HOH had an image of a prominent union minister wearing khaki shorts, sitting with legs crossed, his Basic Instinct moment captured for posterity as the profile photo on its Facebook page.

Many of the pages face threats from trolls — or police action. Several people have been arrested in the recent past for sending or sharing information of a “grossly offensive” nature. A professor from Jadavpur University was arrested in 2012 for circulating a cartoon online that lampooned West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. The Mumbai Police filed an FIR against comedy group AIB after it put up a satirical post with the hashtag #Wanderlust on the PM’s travel itineraries. The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that retweets could invite a defamation suit.

It is, however, not easy to suppress humour for long. The HOH page with the minister was taken down in December 2017, but a parallel page called Humans of Hindutva Returns appeared thereafter. Eventually, the original page was restored, too.

Not that the satire is always overtly political. Pages such as The Indian Feminist and Humans of Patriarchy tackle issues such as gender inequality with memes. Sample this tweet by Humans of Patriarchy that takes a crack at superstition. “If you say ‘I don’t want kids’ three times, a middle-aged person will appear and explain (so) you might change your mind,” it says. One of its memes shows a headshot of a formally-dressed young man, standing with his hands crossed, smiling into the camera. The post reads, “I’ve read a lot about feminism. Let me explain it to you.” The joke is on mansplaining — a widely discussed trend of men seeking to explain — usually to women — any issue.

The Instagram account The Indian Feminist’s bio reads, “Two kickass Punjabi girls smashing the patriarchy one post at a time”. A diaspora page, it posts on #browngirlproblems in the subcontinent and abroad. Then there are pages such as Mad Mughal Memes that may not be overtly political (posts about the seemingly wonderful nature of biryani far outnumber political messages) but take pot-shots at contemporary trends. Sometimes, they serve as current news commentaries. For example, a still from Mughal-e-Azam, where Emperor Akbar glares at Anarkali, while Prince Salim looks on, has been given contemporary captions: Akbar is the government, Anarkali represents students of JNU and Hyderabad University dancing with abandon, while Prince Salim, who can only look on, is the news anchor Ravish Kumar (for often showing student movements across the country in a sympathetic light on his news show).

There is political humour beyond memes and graphics. Hashtags — phrases preceded by a hash sign on social media to point to a development — are often a source of mirth and occasionally of introspection. As a recent — and what many thought condescending — hashtag #TalktoaMuslim began trending, the retaliatory hashtag #talktoabrahmin took over social media. “It gets so lonely when you’re born superior #TalktoaBrahmin,” tweeted journalist Tanika Godbole.

So who are the people using satire as their placards on the Net? Most keep their identities under wraps, but many are believed to be techies in India, or of Indian origin. Sassy Bahujan Memes was started by a techie, working in a prominent IT firm.

“Wasn’t it Foucault who said that everything is political? Be it your choice of language, the food you eat, the books you read… and now the memes you share,” says the admin of Sassy Bahujan Memes. “So, this is definitely ideological warfare couched in humour.”

Payel Majumdar Upreti

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Published on August 10, 2018
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