If you scroll down (and down and then down) through @diary_of_jamian’s Instagram grid past the bloodied students, wrecked libraries, crowded roads and swarms of lathi-armed police, you can identify the moment this IG account about Jamia Millia Islamia – and the people whose lives it spoke to – changed irrevocably.
In the last week of November and early December, there are memes and jokes about student haunts only Jamia students would know. A meme referencing Friends; another post of a short video of Shah Rukh Khan, the tone of the caption openly indulging in the pride we all reserve for famous alumni. There is also a liberal scattering of protest posts – reiterating that students are often the first ones to push against the institutional impositions that bind us all. It’s routine. Meaningful to those inside it, unremarkable to outsiders.
Not even a month later, the account is one of many that have taken on national importance, setting off events the world is watching.
Social media as a tool for politics jumped into the spotlight with the way Twitter was used for the “Arab Spring”, and in the years that have passed, it’s become clear that even if platforms like Instagram might not be causing this upsurge, they give people a way to document, and be present in the movement even from afar. And as the platform of choice for students, Instagram has become the place to connect, and support the protests.
In the past one week, the police and Modi government’s violent reaction to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the north east, then in Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University has sparked off a national wave of protests – galvanising students across campuses, giving Opposition parties a toehold to launch their own massive political rallies, making protesters out of Indians who could put up with demonetisation and the abrogation of Kashmir but draw the line at a bill that denies Muslim refugees sanctuary, and possibly opens the door to strip Indian Muslims of their democratic rights.
On 19 December, thousands of Indians are going to march to demand, once more, all together this time, that the Act be scrapped. To understand how we got to this moment, open Instagram.
Away from Twitter’s troll brigade, boomer-infested Facebook, fake-news-WhatsApp and an often unsympathetic national media, young Indians have used Instagram for much more than simply bringing attention to the police brutality that occurred at Jamia and AMU on Sunday. They’ve gone well beyond it, adapting material about the CAA and NRC for the ’gram, churning out guides for physical and mental safety while protesting, coordinating everything from therapy to housing for displaced students through the platform. Seamlessly folding the political parts of their lives into the personal archives they maintain online.
When scores of Jamia students found themselves either evicted from their hostels or just too scared to stay on campus, Sweta Dey, a BEd student at the university, started putting out her phone number on social media platforms, organising housing for her fellow students.
Dey’s call for hosts flew out of Delhi circles almost instantly, landing on my Instagram through Kolkata-based influencer @karunaezara’s Instagram stories.
Having worked round the clock, Dey summed up her efforts, “Classmates who are living in Delhi welcomed all and I maintained a list of people in one sheet, updating as soon as more people were calling and told me they are willing to help.”
People across the city, including the Miranda House hostel and groups of Ramjas students, have taken in students who can’t go home or needed a few nights before they could arrange tickets to return to their hometowns.
It’s a straightforward gesture but it speaks volumes in support of the students, validating their worth as humans and citizens at a time when it would be easy to criminalise and shun them as trouble-makers.
Others, like Durgesh Ojha, a fifth-year student in psychotherapy are offering counselling services to anyone who needs them over phone and Instagram. He is part of a collective, QACP, that offers help to those feeling overwhelmed and traumatised by the CAA, NRC and the Trans Bill.
The list Ojha appears on carries phone numbers and IG handles, with instructions to use #SOSJamia or #SOSAMU when they reach out, allowing people to seek help in whichever way they feel comfortable. In the end, it also includes contact details for two doctors, Dr. Shah Alam Khan at AIIMS and Dr. Ahmed at Jamia, who have instituted open door policies for treating injured students.
On the phone, Ojha described his and his peers efforts as a straightforward attempt to help in any way they could. He said, the thing to be particularly mindful of, in times like these, is panic – if you’re out protesting and panic sets in, you need to have ways to deal with it, and if need be, remove yourself from the situation.
His point, about being on the frontlines not being the only way to show support, is exactly the sentiment that led lawyer Abhinav Sekhri to put his number out on social media posts via a friend’s account. Sekhri said he took the decision to offer legal help because “I wasn’t in a position to physically go to Kalkaji and NFC that night [Sunday], nor am I the kind of person to manage working at the frontline” but he knew friends and families would be affected and set about helping the way he knew best.
He is not alone. In addition to the lawyers present with detained Jamia students on Sunday night, others have come forward, listing their names and numbers through large Instagram accounts to get the word out. AIB’s Rohan Joshi also listed a lawyer’s name and number, encouraging people to get in touch with her for legal help.
Once a need is identified, a host of individuals with the specific skill pop up almost simultaneously. Others have compiled and circulated a list of dos and dont’s in case of detention by police. On the eve of the first wave of protests, several circulated an Amnesty International poster crammed with tips for going to protests.
Artists and creators have gone beyond getting people out the door, and turned instead, to deepening knowledge about the Act and NRC. They’ve flooded the platform with several infographic-style explainers on what the two things together mean, where they (don’t) fit into the Indian Constitution – ensuring, essentially, that this mass momentum is based on a mutual understanding of the idea of India.
Instagram has unwittingly (for social media giants would never do this on purpose) given protestors, writers and creators a platform to develop an aesthetic for the movement, which may sound trivial but ensures memorability at a time when we are lurching from one crisis to another at an improbable speed. (The Ayodhya verdict was just a month ago, Kashmir was abrogated four months ago, the general elections were in March this year.)
The distractions are piling up, we need touchstones that rise above words to remind us why we’re fighting – and we have them.
We are going to remember the already-iconic image of a hijab-clad woman holding an armed CRPF soldier in place with nothing but her rage and a single finger in the air. We are also going to remember the blank red of Kashmir’s abrogation, the fires in AMU, the chaos of Gauhati.
And people issue constant reminders about the other parts of the country, reminding others through text, visuals, newspaper headlines that Kashmir is still muzzled, that Tripura is facing violent protests as well.
There is other protest art, some sharp and witty, some resolute and unflinching. All of it bracing, reminding everyone who comes across it of the human cost and struggle that comes with protest.
We aren’t just coordinating protests through social media, we are learning how to protest through it and educating ourselves about what we’re protesting for and against.
This post from @diary_of_jamian shows peaceful protesters parting to make ways for an ambulance, the caption advises readers on how to maintain peace while protesting, to return to campus if things seem to be turning violent and to be very careful about the kind of slogans people next to them are raising – in order to avoid giving the “BJP IT cell” fodder for a video.
The idea that there are many ways to protest, and of encouraging others to join the effort in whatever way they can is what solidarity looks like.
There is no belittling or shutting out of those who can’t turn up on the streets, there are simply suggestions on what they can do instead. On Instagram, you can find a record of this movement, depicting the many ways in which protest is created and maintained. We will remember what we’ve learnt there.
We paid witness when Sudan protested, we are watching Hong Kong, we have seen Kashmir vanish, caught brief, terrifying glimpses of the north east and Aligarh in the past week. We remember what happened at JNU. We remember the gang rape in Delhi in 2012. And if even one of us remembers, we can remind others through our words, images, voices, faces. We have learnt through the archives we maintain online. That is perhaps why this government shuts the internet down, not just divorcing us from each other but also from an alternative history.
The Internet, in its vast permanence and anarchy, isn’t just crucial for propelling movements forward and disseminating dissent, it’s also essential for maintaining a record of these events and the ideas fuelling them. Especially now in the absence of official record-keeping. So we can look back, learn and then go forward.
Nobody seems to understand this better than the Modi government, whose IT cell’s efforts have hampered such solidarity from forming on virtually all forms of the internet. Instagram is not far behind, hashtags are already filling up with memes about paid protesters and photoshopped pictures. But for the ones that started there, there is no unlearning what they’ve just learnt – both in terms of the information and the organising.
Every wave of dissent creates protesters, accidental and otherwise, and the younger they are, the better their memories, the greater their capacity to learn. Instagram, as other new technologies have already, may disappoint in the medium to long run, but this is not about the platform, it’s about the people using it. They’ll be around for a while and they’ll know how to organise and remember these events and the much longer history of this country. Maybe we won’t remember 2019 for the rise of authoritative governments but for the impeachment of US President Donald Trump and for the fierce pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong, Sudan, Chile, Lebanon and India.