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Participatory Internet Culture facilitating Ethnonationalism in India

The Frankfurt School, founded in 1923, constituted a group of researchers and scholars from the Institute of Social Research located in Frankfurt, Germany, who devised the ‘Critical Theory’. These Neo-Marxist scholars had critiqued the media for producing and reconfirming the powerful and dominant ideologies. Critical theory expounds on how power exerts itself in a given society and how the masses are duped into conceding to power by consuming homogenized products of the ‘cultural industry.’ Of late, however, revised theories of communication have discarded The Frankfurt School of Thought on grounds of not being inclusive of the audience’s perspective.

In this article, we shall have a look at how these critiques of power and media still hold ground in India, in correspondence to the influence that the digital media participation on the Internet has on the creation of a monolithic Hindu Savarna identity in the mainstream; representing and selling the idea of a ‘traditional Indian culture’.


The consumerist ‘Influencer’ lifestyle

Digital media platforms like YouTube and Instagram have given birth to the ‘influencer’ phenomenon, be that in the field of fashion and lifestyle or just entertainment. These influencers enjoy a semi-celebrity status with a huge fan following in their social media handles. Quite ironically, these influencers, staying heedless to their economic and cultural capital, neglect to utilize their impact to challenge the pre-existing structures of class and caste that they profit from, and instead, work on systematically sustaining those.


The ‘Desi’ culture & Western Gaze

India’s traditions, customs, and clothing have long been considered as constituents of an ‘exotic’ culture untouched by Western modernization. This Western gaze has thus influenced the kind of content that is created, which then claims to be representative of a ‘desi’ culture while only catering to homogenized upper-caste traditions and aesthetics. In their blogs, the fashion & lifestyle influencers associate ‘desi’ looks with that of traditional Indian silks adorned with lavish jewelry, symbolic of an intrinsic class privilege.

Additionally, for the desi portrayal of the Savarna women content creators, a typical docile, domesticated femininity becomes crucial for them to be regarded as ‘honorable' women; subtly and parallelly declaring caste-Hindu affiliation.

A similar pattern can be observed in the Indian diaspora having several Facebook groups titled “Subtle Curry Traits” and likewise. These ‘curry’ or ‘desi’ Indian images that are sold as tropes are only characteristic of the rich, upper-class traits across all communities in the diaspora.


The monocultural Hindu identity that alienates sub-cultures

The growth of this homogenized culture in the mainstream has given way to disregard lower-class subcultures. For instance, a simple YouTube search about ‘Traditional Bengali Dances’ would lead us to a number of videos, most of which would have a thumbnail resembling this:

The stereotypical red-white saree, as well as the Dhunuchi dance, had for long been constricted to the Bengali, Brahmin women who were the only sect of women allowed within the temple premises. The Dalit or Adivasi communities who have been persecuted by Brahminical powers for ages discover no spot in this portrayal of Indian culture. The notion of the ‘Indian woman’ is rather associated fully with visuals involving Savarna women.

Quite contrary to this reality, when digital media influencers, in their ‘cultural celebration’, adorn such upper-class traditions, they are looked up to as torch-bearers of multiculturalism by the masses. In fact, it is quite unlikely to find these influencers even acknowledge, let alone celebrate, representations of the Indigenous cultures.


The ‘nationalist’ IT cell and propaganda

New Media has the capacity to be increasingly participatory and inculcate wider discourses. However, we continuously experience the same ideologies of the ruling powers resurfacing through the media, while silencing the minority voices. Multiple examples of this can be found on social networking sites like Instagram which are becoming increasingly filled with entertainment pages like ‘Brahmin Meme Bhog’ and influencers like Hindustani Bhau. The hate peddled by such platforms is immeasurable and the propaganda, blatant. The Twitter trends too are often controlled and paid for, in order to keep people’s attention transfixed into select few issues.


In conclusion

The media, being greatly influenced by the coalition of religious dogmatism and neoliberalism, portrays profit, the advancement of majoritarian viewpoints, and the rejection of marginalized voices as its visibly defining characteristics. Adding to it, when digital media spaces get overwhelmingly dominated by upper class/caste elements, the democratization of media becomes a façade, and the dominant caste politics, overtly or covertly, find a way to the greater ‘Hindutva’ discourse on the face of India’s national politics. Our collective failure at problematizing and questioning these existent structures, hence, only pushes the ideological narratives further, aiding in the acculturation of the otherwise heterogeneous groups.


Key Takeaways:

  • Ethnonationalism, or ethnic nationalism is an exclusionary practice propagated by the ruling powers and facilitated by the mainstream media.

  • The ever-rising influencer syndrome is largely privileged and aloof from the ground realities of a majority of the population and caters to the aspirational entertainment of the middle class.

  • The hate peddled by paid trolls on the social media sites against minority voices and dissenters are also symbolic of the bigger structures of the divisive politics that run the country.

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