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Experiments in Change


December 4, 2013

The longtime climate change activist talks about online organizing in the Global South and the incremental nature of political change.

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Like most meaningful political ideas, Jhatkaa, India’s new online organizing start-up, arose from a place of dissatisfaction. Founder Deepa Gupta had long been involved in environmental justice and led the Indian Youth Climate Network from Delhi, but it was at 2009’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that she became truly aware of just how difficult it was to move the gatekeepers of change. “It wasn’t really the negotiators who made the decisions, but our politicians back at home, and even the politicians don’t make the decisions based on what the public wants; they’re usually also very vested interests,” she told me over Skype recently. For Gupta, it all boiled down to a fundamental question: How did such a small number of people with those vested interests get to act on behalf of a much larger group of citizens who actually gave a damn?

Jhatkaa is Gupta’s attempt to alter that equation. Launched in October of 2013, the group is composed of a full-time staff of four and a handful of part-time volunteers. The only Internet activism outfit based in the Global South, it’s attempting to build traction and craft campaigns around hot-button political issues, and then use the media to garner national support. Call it the MoveOn.org of India. Gupta no longer devotes all of her energy to one particular political issue—climate justice—but instead is focused on timeliness: who’s talking about what, when, and how. Currently, the organization is invested in four campaigns: two on sexual violence, including one to suspend a judge who says that girls who have premarital sex cannot be raped; one to fix potholes in Bangladore that have led to a number of traffic accidents; and another to get Oxford and Cambridge Universities to drop their lawsuit against Delhi University for selling affordable photocopies of textbooks to Indian students. It’s advocacy work that uses social media as a starting point in the hope that, slowly, people will become open to more demanding and longer-term activist commitments—that they’ll ultimately move offline and begin to mobilize their own communities.

And it’s precisely the type of online organizing that’s become immensely popular and controversial in recent years. Derided as “clicktivism” by its critics, this type of online rabble-rousing is made for Twitter and Facebook, and was called out in 2010 by The Guardian for “ruining leftist activism.” But Gupta, who was once deeply cynical of e-activism, now sees its merits. What can an online organizing outfit actually do other than gather thousands of email addresses for petitions? That’s what Jhaktaa is trying to figure out. The goal is for small, digital actions to impact lasting change. But it’s not easy.

Jamilah King for Guernica

Guernica: Tell me about this start-up and why you thought it was important to create.

Deepa Gupta: When I was in university I got involved in climate change issues and dived in pretty deep. I was working with a group called the Indian Youth Climate Network for a few years. For me, the climate negotiations in Copenhagen were devastating, like they were for many other people. But they were also a wake-up call on how decisions really get made. That realization was powerful for me because I’d spent some time engaging with hundreds of thousands of people on the [climate change] issue and seeing how quickly, when someone understood the issue, they were willing to take action by either working on solutions themselves or raising more awareness. And [still] the decisions aren’t actually happening in the interests of the public or the environment. Why is that?

One reason was that the government, or political parties, or corporations, is a lot better organized and better funded, whereas a lot us just don’t self-organize, we just don’t have the institutions to do so. I decided that the way I wanted to make change, moving forward, was by helping people self-organize so that their collective power could also have a large influence—by enabling them to pool their resources, be that their voices, their money, whatever it is to be able to make an impact.

I wanted to use digital technology to bring people together around the issues they care about the most. And by this I don’t mean “all people.” I’m talking about progressive issues, which means it’s not all Indians, it’s a smaller category of Indians [laughs]. So I spent the last few years kind of experimenting and figuring out a proposal and putting Jhatkaa together. We launched a couple of months ago, but it’s really a pilot. We’re just in the beginning of all the experiments we’d like to run and are figuring out how we bring together Indians on progressive causes to make shifts on some of these issues.

It’s a really big experiment. This kind of organizing hasn’t really been done in any Global South country and the key difference is the type of corruption we have and the way our democracy functions. And I’m still not sure, I don’t know how we’re going to do it. We’ve already started working on some campaigns and I sometimes wonder, “How the hell do we even get this simple thing done when there are so many levels of opaqueness in our governance?”

Oftentimes, when we talk about the empowerment of people, we talk about it from a financial empowerment perspective. But I think political empowerment is equally important.

Guernica: Why do you think this is important to do in the Global South?

Deepa Gupta: I don’t know if I can call it more important in one place or the other—it’s important anywhere. Oftentimes, when we talk about the empowerment of people, we talk about it from a financial empowerment perspective. But I think political empowerment is equally important. There is a correlation between poor countries and a lot of corruption and dysfunctional governance. I think that good governance is a really big part of us tackling a lot of the issues we face in the Global South. A key part of that is a sense that my voice can make a difference, or my actions can make a difference.

Guernica: So tell me exactly how it works. What do the experiments you’re doing look like?

Deepa Gupta: Take sexual violence, for example. We have two campaigns running in that area. One is a very specific campaign against a judge in a fast-track court who made a sexist remark, saying that if someone engaged in premarital sex, they shouldn’t come crying rape later on. [It's] an indication of his bias and his inability to objectively see cases of rape, especially when there’s women who are not married.

We thought about the big-picture issue of sexual violence. One of the big issues is that only 20-something percent of all rape cases actually convict the perpetrator. So there’s a very low rate of conviction, which is a structural problem that we have. We realized that here is an example of that actually playing out, here is a judge who regularly makes those kind of comments in court and out of court, and we think that we should have a system where both the police and judges are a lot more sympathetic to the victim and don’t necessarily look for reasons to acquit the person who has engaged in sexual violence.

The first step is analysis. Seeing the issue, thinking that it’s important right now, doing an overall analysis, and saying that it does fit into the broader analysis of what we would like to see change in the world.

So the first step is analysis. Seeing the issue, thinking that it’s important right now, doing an overall analysis, and saying that it does fit into the broader analysis of what we would like to see change in the world. Once we agree on that, and that usually takes a day, maybe a couple of days, to figure out, then we do one of two things. We will draft a petition to then start pushing out to our small audience of friends or the community that we have, and we’ll also try to see if we can push our response out in the media. This is something we’re getting better at doing quickly—responding once the story becomes news and saying that this is Jhatkaa’s reaction to a particular issue. And we’ve set up this call number for people who support our position on it. Then we wait for the public to respond.

For the judge campaign, we did those things and what happened was, a week later, there was a gang rape in India. We decided that more than anything we needed to impact the cultural mindset that structural violence is acceptable in certain contexts. So we launched another campaign side by side [called End Rape] that was more focused on cultural change—just getting people to sign on in solidarity to show that they agreed with our position that sexual violence is unacceptable under any circumstance. The hope is that as we grow, we can offer people more community-building opportunities, ways to engage their community on the issue and maybe start their own local groups.

Guernica: I know it’s very early, so it’s hard to tell, but what’s been the response so far? Are people surprised by what you’re doing?

Deepa Gupta: There are people who are signing and there’s people who leave [online] comments in support of what we’re doing. We have a sense that, yes, there are people who are aligned and who are very passionate and who are responding and participating, but I haven’t really called up anyone on our list and asked them what they think so far. I just think when someone is receiving our communications on an online medium, the way they perceive us is a lot more ambient. It’s not like, “Oh, here is Jhatkaa, a regular entity in my life, like a friend.” I don’t think that anyone has a personal relationship to us yet just because we’re so young.

Guernica: I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the criticisms of online organizing, like that it’s a little bit too fleeting and doesn’t effect systemic change. But one of the things that I really appreciated when I read about Jhatkaa was that you talk about capitalizing on moments. And using those opportunities to engage people politically.

Deepa Gupta: I come from a background of that same skepticism.

Guernica: So how did you rationalize that skepticism with the excitement around doing this?

Deepa Gupta: I actually wrote a blog about how I didn’t believe in online organizing before I did this [laughs]. I should try and see if I can find it. The work that I did previously was so powerful because we were in communities and I could see how people were transforming through our participation, and I couldn’t understand how a digital medium could facilitate that. And to be honest, I still don’t think a digital medium can facilitate deep, emotional change and shifts within people on its own.

Different people are at different places and they want to be engaged at different levels.

What changed for me was realizing the amount of reach a digital medium can have and recognizing that different people are at different places and they want to be engaged at different levels. There are a lot of people who just don’t want to volunteer, they don’t want to spend more than five minutes of their day doing something for the world. I have many friends who are like that as well. They’re happy for me, but they’re just like, “I’ll sign the petition but I don’t really want to do more than that.” And so what I realized was what a digital medium allows me to do. It allows me to cast my net wide and be able to attract everyone who is interested at any level.

Guernica: How did you fundraise to get this off the ground? It seems like a massive endeavor.

Deepa Gupta: With great difficulty [laughs]. Basically, it just ended up being me asking everyone I know for money. We did a crowdfunding campaign on Start Some Good through which a lot of my friends and family and extended community donated, but a lot of it was reaching out individually to everyone I knew who could donate some amount more than 10,000 rupees. It’s been pretty hit and miss. I’ve also started reaching out to people with an existing history of donating, but it’s just far harder to justify to a random person that they should fund me. A lot of times they don’t know me, they don’t know my work. But we have over two hundred people who’ve donated to help get us off the ground.

Guernica: What’s your end goal?

Deepa Gupta: More than anything, I think our team and I are very clear on the type of change that we want to create. We’re very clear on [the fact that] we want to see a future where there are citizens who feel empowered and like they can make a difference. When I think about it in my head, I can imagine in ten or twenty year’s time there being hundreds of thousands of people who are very involved in their communities in local politics and citizenship because they realized that their voices could make a difference because they saw change happen from their participation [in Jhatkaa].

We’re inspired by that vision, but at this point it’s just so hard to tell how it will play out. So it’s really interesting being in this place of uncertainty. I have so much faith in us because I know we’re ready to try whatever it takes, but what I can’t tell anyone is how it’s going to happen.

G

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