"We want to move beyond atrocity and charity to ultimately find our own self-determination," say women and transgender people from India. Those of us who are far from Asia know little about their world and the deep significance of this statement. We are unaware that the heritage of the caste system still ravages people's daily lives.
Perhaps we can intuit that in India, in addition to the flourishing call centres that provide precarious employment to hundreds of students who speak very good English (and can therefore field complaints from service users around the world), there is a system that allows some people who are more privileged than others to advance in their careers, their studies, their life aspirations.
We suspect, however, that hundreds of years of structured injustice in the caste system still reproduce violence and inequality. That's why it's more than invigorating to learn about initiatives like Project Mukti, a collective that analyses caste violence, puts gender diversity at the forefront and questions the new gaps generated by the Internet to transform our digital horizon.
"Dalit is a term mostly used for the castes in India that have been subjected to untouchability. Dalits were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and were seen as forming a fifth varna, also known by the name of Panchama," says Wikipedia.
It is not our intention to explain or expand on the complex structuring of the caste system by which India is socially organised, and whose vestiges are still alive and violating human rights. However, we bring you good news about a Dalit Adivasi Bahujan group that is creating the future today.
They see it this way: "Caste apartheid is a system of oppression that disenfranchises marginalised communities of centers of knowledge, technology and media production, therefore locking us out of political power."
Within this framework, Dalit women, and/or members of other religions, gender and sexual minorities, find that the internet is also a harsh place where discrimination continues to take on new forms.
At the intersection of technologies and castes, Project Mukti proposes to deliver a final blow to the oppressive system and propose change using technologies: "We must have solutions that centre the opening up of knowledge and technology production for Dalits while also democratising access to technology that promotes FOSS [free and open-source software] principles and centres our safety so that we can be online without the fear of violence. We believe openness, transparency and education is the only solution to this systemic problem," they explain.
The media ecosystem, on the other hand, does not help in terms of how Dalits are depicted, either. "With Indian mass media being predominantly ‘upper’ caste, and very few elected officials and civic leaders being Dalit, our stories are rarely told and as a result, our issues rarely become subjects of national concern. Like everyone else, we believed the internet represented a more democratic and open space to tell our stories in our own voices. But as we began to make our voices heard and claim ownership of digital space, be it on social media or Wikipedia, we were met with immense trolling, casteist and communal remarks, harassment, politically engineered attacks and even threats of physical violence. This has abetted the culture of impunity around caste which contributes to its endurance in cultural and intellectual spaces to this day. It transcends the borders of India and plays out in every corner of the world,” they explain, spelling out the problem.
Project Mukti is led by Dalit Bahujan Adivasi women, gender non-conforming and trans people who are working to end caste apartheid in South Asia through a promise of openness and participatory innovation.
To counter the casted digital divide, they are building an incubator so that a new generation of Dalit activists, technologists, artists and healers can come together to identify their most pressing challenges and innovate solutions driven and directed by the community itself.
Their projects are rooted in FOSS principles, so that their vision of technology centres a commitment to universal access to knowledge, research and education. Mukti’s work is pioneering, with their initial programmes including the first national Dalit Wikipedia training initiative, the first Dalit women’s creation space, the Zindagee tech organisers fellowship, and a digital security training initiative.
In short, this collective (which also has wonderful posters and stickers against transphobia) is organised, shaped and created in accordance with a necessary objective: to disrupt the caste system and provide an alternative vision to the internet of caste apartheid. In India the new generation of Dalits wants to leap across the precipice of the digital divide and build an internet without prejudices, hierarchies or privatised spaces.