Facebook, Orkut and the caste system

MUMBAI, India — A man who goes by “hemant” types out a question: "Are you embarrassed that you are from the scheduled castes or scheduled tribes?"

One by one, members of the online community of SC and ST, which compose the lowest castes and groups in India, begin responding:

“Rajni”: “No my dear i never felt ashamed due to my caste.”

“Mr”: “When I was an innocent school-going boy, I feel embarrassed to reveal my caste due to discrimination and my helplessness, later during my college days I started coming out of the closet and was very aggressive to those who criticize me.”

An apparent outsider, “Arun,” responds: “You people cannot compete on your own. You people do not have strength of character, therefore you people are ready to bow your head down and beg. Beggars cannot be choosers. You are low caste because you people compromise on your self respect.”

The ancient Indian custom of caste has made its way into the modern world of social media.

Social networking site Orkut — the most popular social media platform in India — is not only a place where young, urban Indians can connect with friends like Americans do on Facebook. It's also a platform where they can meet others in their caste. While fights like the one “Arun” instigated occur, the users mostly engage in benign discussions and debates on various caste-related issues like marriage, religion and politics.

Orkut users can choose from literally thousands of various communities that relate to caste, such as Brahmins of India, The Great Marathas and i love intercaste marriage.

In the community Brahmin, which has more than 35,000 members and represents what is considered one of the highest castes in India, users vote in polls on everything from “Is the Nature of brahmin girls are bold or r they shy in nature?” to “what should the brahmins do to stay ahead in this globalised world?”

Some of the most active polls center around the controversial issue of India’s reservation system — a quota scheme that holds government jobs and university seats for those who come from the lowest castes and classes. In a poll on whether Brahmins should be included in the reservation system, a user named Deepak writes, “No we dont require any reservations. Brahmins r d best in the world.”

In other communities, members play games such as listing their favorite proverbs from their caste’s language. They join forums to debate their religion’s history and why cows cannot be eaten. In the “Dalit Feminism” community, a user named Hannah writes why she believes Dalits, considered a low caste, need their own feminist movement.

“It’s need is more nuanced than just to exist as a response or challenge to ‘elite’ feminism, which is composed of only, well usually, women from dominant castes and upper classes,” she writes. “Dalit feminism must exist also because it is a response to patriarchy within the dalit context.”

So what's happening here on Orkut, Facebook and other social media sites in India? Some argue the country's young people no longer feel comfortable talking about caste in public. Instead, they retreat to an anonymous online world to debate and discuss issues.

“Social networking sites are giving [youth] a platform to discuss caste,” said Sunil Gangavane, of Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR), who is conducting research on how caste identities are reproduced on Orkut.

Gangavane said students in Mumbai rarely discuss caste among themselves. Yet Gangavane said that online, young people seek out caste-related communities and engage in debates related to those identities.

Not everyone agrees.

Social media expert Gaurav Mishra said Orkut and similar sites do not increase caste discussions. Rather, they accurately reflect that Indians still very much identify with their caste and want to form groups around them.

“Surprisingly with urbanization, with education, with more people traveling and getting exposed to other cultures, these divisions have not really gone away. Caste even now — even in urban, educated India — is still an extremely big issue,” said Mishra, CEO of online marketing firm 2020 Social. “So therefore it is not surprising given how deeply entrenched caste is in Indian society that it manifests itself online also.”

About 45 million of India's 1.1 billion people are active internet users, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India. Orkut claims to have has 13 million active users.

The PUKAR researchers said they have seen an increase in caste activity on Orkut. Over a four-month span of following the activity of 32 caste-related communities, the groups’ total memberships have grown from 445,000 to 485,000.

Facebook also has groups that represent castes, and they appear to be multiplying. In June, there were less than 50 Brahmin groups, according to Mishra’s research. A search today finds more than 300. This is most likely because Facebook, though not as popular as Orkut, has seen a steady growth in popularity in India, as reflected in a comScore report posted on techdusts.com.

As more Indians go online, and the internet reaches beyond the most urban and educated layer of society, caste activity will become only more prevalent, Mishra said.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Hanna_India

Email: hingber@globalpost.com