Last month, after the Madras High Court handed to Yuvaraj, prime accused in the murder of Dalit youth Gokulraj, several online ‘fan pages’ dedicated to him expressed disappointment with the verdict.
Yuvaraj, who is from the dominant Gounder caste, was convicted on June 2 for abducting and murdering Gokulraj in 2015 on the suspicion that he was in love with Swathi, a woman from Yuvaraj’s community. Gokulraj was beheaded and his body was found on a railway track in Namakkal.
When the high court upheld the session court’s verdict, Yuvaraj’s supporters said the judiciary had “failed the Gounder community”.
Esakki Muthu, the BJP’s social media in-charge in Tiruchendur, took it a step further and tweeted, “If 100 Gukulrajs are rejoicing that one Yuvaraj has been arrested, thousands of Yuvarajs are outside.”
Muthu was arrested and released on conditional bail. The party state vice-president Narayan Thirupathi told TNM that the BJP cannot take responsibility for an individual’s post.
“These tweets and statements are from the individual’s name. The party will never encourage or accept such statements,” he said. “In this social media era, it is difficult to keep track of what someone is saying. The concerned district leaders will take action on them if they have done something wrong.”
But Muthu’s tweet is just one of many other posts on social media warning that the government may have convicted one Yuvaraj, but many more like him will rise.
Pages valourising Yuvaraj cropped up after his party – the Dheeran Chinnamalai Gounder Peravai – began fanning casteist flames in the Kongu belt of Tamil Nadu. The pages initially amplified his opinions but, over time, produced a volume of posts, stories and videos that encouraged others to emulate the acts of a man convicted of murder.
For example, a story posted by an Instagram page, kongu_samugam, on June 2 hailed Yuvaraj for wanting the “social fabric to remain intact in a time when money and power were valued”. The story also said, “We will always follow your path.”
The page has over 6,000 followers. It contains several posts praising Yuvaraj and calling the courts “biased against him because of his caste”.
Another page, gounders_of_dharapuram, with a little over 2,000 followers, posted a story on the day of the verdict, saying: “Do not be happy that you have arrested one Yuvaraj. Remember that there are many Yuvarajs on the outside.” Like kongu_samugam, the page has consistently been posting videos and pictures in open support of the murder convict.
Instagram stories posted by Gounder caste pride pages after the high court verdict on Yuvaraj.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are home to multiple pages that profess caste pride. Many of these pages aim to make people proud of their caste identity, appeal to them to marry within their own castes, and share video clips of prominent caste leaders with heroic, “mass appeal” background music.
Online caste pages reflect larger social issues
While a fraction of online caste pages express open support for a man accused of murder, most of them seem innocuous on the surface. Some of them have hagiographical portrayals of popular caste leaders like Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar and ‘Kaduvetti’ Guru, while others have laments of men who are unable to find suitable brides within their community.
But they can be seen as an expression of the larger social mindset on issues like marriage, kinship and ownership of property, among others.
Karl Marx Siddharthar, advocate and author of Uncaste: Understanding Unmarriageability, is of the opinion that caste pages online are a reflection of society’s general opposition to exogamy, or marrying outside one’s caste.
“These online caste pages, especially those started by members of the Gounder community, make no mention of actively committing caste crimes,” he said. “They also proclaim that they follow ‘pira jaadhi natpu’ [friendship with other castes], but this does not extend to kinship or marriage. These pages are popular among the community because they appeal to the community’s sentiments of endogamy [marrying within one’s caste]. Even Yuvaraj is glorified and treated as a hero for the same reason.”
The 21-year-old admin of a Gounder caste page told TNM that Gounder culture is “different” from “other” cultures and they do not want inter-caste marriages to take place, especially between Gounder women and men from other castes. According to him, such marriages would “ruin the social fabric of the Gounder community”.
“We praise and glorify Yuvaraj because he protected our culture. That is why we show him as a ‘hero’ in our pages,” he said. “In real life, Yuvaraj does not discriminate against people from any caste. He only tried to protect Gounder culture, he did not do anything wrong.” The 21-year-old, who is a college student, is convinced that Yuvaraj is “no murderer”, but is unable to explain how exactly he “protected” Gounder culture.
Rise of online caste pages
Anti-caste activists are of the opinion that with the anonymity that comes with social media, it is easier for people to express hateful opinions online because there are often little to no repercussions.
Shalin Maria Lawrence, a writer and anti-caste activist, feels that the rise of jaadhi sangams, or caste associations, plays a role in the growth of caste pages on social media.
“There has been a significant rise in the number of these associations in the last 25 years or so. These associations travel to various districts that have a large population of their caste and teach caste pride to the young children there,” she said. “ Since these children have access to the internet, they share what they were taught, and that is how these caste pages are formed.”
Many of these pages become platforms for people from a single caste to organise offline events that aim to promote caste affinity and pride, especially among the youth. Shalin said these real-life events are usually planned on Facebook groups dedicated to these castes.
“Sometimes anti-caste activists are targeted online by these groups,” she said. “For instance, if a caste group based out of Villupuram is targeting an anti-caste activist in the same district, they will feel threatened, even if they may not physically harm them.”
Kowsalya agreed. She has been a vocal anti-caste activist after her husband Shankar, a Dalit man, was killed in 2016 by henchmen hired by her family members, who belonged to the dominant Thevar community. Giving the example of an event that took place in Madurai where several caste associations within the Thevar community participated, she said, “How will these caste associations organise these events? The internet facilitates this. In meetings like this, people passionately speak about how one must be proud of their caste and not allow inter-caste marriages.”
However, the 21-year-old admin of the caste page disagreed that pages like his are casteist. He said the intention behind his page is to educate Gounder youth about the caste’s cultural practices and history.
But the bio of his Instagram page says “Kongu Vellala Goundergal mattum” – only for Kongu Vellala Gounders, which is a sub-caste among the Gounder caste. When asked about this rule, he said, “I started this page to share historical information about the Gounder community. I am not running this page to gain followers, but I want people from my caste to know their history, which is why I added that in the bio. The page is for people from the Kongu Vellalar community.”
Do caste pages have an impact in real life?
Kowsalya said caste pages have the potential to harm people in real life because of the content circulated there.
“Sometimes, pictures of people who had inter-caste marriages are shared on these groups and they are subject to abuse,” she said. “This can put the couple in danger because their contact details and residence might also be shared on these groups.”
She also said the present narrative around Yuvaraj is worrisome, because pages try to portray him as someone who is innocent and naive.
“Even in our case, when Chinnasamy came out of jail, many caste associations welcomed him with garlands,” she said, referring to her father who was the in Shankar’s murder. “There are caste associations that give public speeches about how they will be able to fight cases legally if someone commits a caste killing. I think these online caste pages are the starting point for such groups since they help gather people who attend these meetings.”
However, Kathir, the founder of Evidence, an organisation that works for Dalit rights, said such pages cannot really mobilise people.
“If you look at these videos on social media platforms, there are comments opposing such content,” he said. “As far as I have seen, there is little chance for these casteist groups to mobilise their force in real life. Such emotionally charged content, like that in support of Yuvaraj, is shared by people impulsively. It rarely materialises into something real.”
What does the law say?
Presently, there are no laws that address casteism in online spaces. While people have been booked for using casteist slurs or for content that can provoke violence between two or more caste groups, subtler casteism in these pages go unnoticed.
Subash B Mohan, an advocate in the Madras High Court, explained how mobilisation on the lines of caste is not a crime.
“But casteism is an experience that can be manifested into a reality. Mobilising against members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes should be an offence, but the existing law is individual victim-oriented rather than community-oriented,” he said. “In some cases, a community is the victim of casteism but since there is no single victim, it might be more complicated to file a complaint. This applies to online caste pages also.”
Lawyer Manoj, who has worked on similar cases, said online pages are able to get away with casteism because they come up with clever ways to use derogatory terms against people from marginalised communities.
“Some of these online caste pages refer to Dalits as ‘blue sanghi’, which does not look like a casteist slur,” he explained, blue being the colour associated with BR Ambedkar. “Another popular one that is specifically used for Dalit Christians is paavadai.” A paavadai is a skirt but is used here as a reference to the white robes worn by Catholic priests.
Manoj added, “While these terms are not derogatory in general, within the context of caste, they are offensive. However, no action can be taken against people who use such terms online since they are not conventionally recognised casteist slurs.”
Both Subash and Manoj agreed that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act must address casteism in online spaces, despite their subtlety. Subash said Section 10 of the Act – removal of a person likely to commit offence – should apply to online spaces too.
“People running caste pages should be blocked and their pages should be removed if they post casteist content,” Subash said. “Such pages create a sense of fear among members of the SC and ST community, which is an offence, and must be punished for the same.”
How to rein in casteist content online
Anti-caste activists and online anti-caste pages suggested diverse measures that can be used to tackle casteist propaganda on the internet.
The admin of pondy_dank_memes, an anti-caste meme page, said one of the most effective ways to tackle online casteist content is through humour.
“This might sound exaggerated but anti-caste meme pages play a major role in turning caste pride into a laughing stock,” he said. “Sometimes, people are afraid of being proud of their caste in public forums mostly because of the ridicule they might face online. I think these anti-caste meme pages will be able to somewhat nullify the casteist propaganda, especially directed at youngsters, through humour and memes. It is appealing to the youngsters since it does not take a preachy tone.”
On a more serious note, Kathir said the government must be proactive and closely monitor these online caste pages. He also said legislative measures would help. “The SC/ST Act must be amended to include a section that provides punishment for valourising people accused of caste crimes, especially on social media,” he said.
While Shalin also strongly advocated for the government and the cyber crime wing to keep a check on casteist content online, she said social media’s content moderation policies must be “modified to accommodate casteist slurs in regional languages”.
“If that is not done, there is little use in reporting the casteist content on these platforms because the AI might not pick up on these things,” she said. “I believe that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram must identify caste pages and remove them if they post harmful content. What we do to tackle casteism in real life must apply online as well.”
Given these concerns, there is an urgent need for the law to formulate ways to address such cyber violence. Content moderation policies on social media platforms must also include casteist slurs as a separate category so that online caste pages can be kept in check.
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