The first time I heard about Roe v. Wade was three years ago, in class, when my professor emphasized how it became a turning point in the women’s rights movement in the West. None of the 40-odd students in that classroom had known about the trial before. All of the students, however, understood the significance of women’s right to bodily autonomy and its enormous role in gender justice. It feels surreal to see friends and neighbours learn about and speak in support of the Roe v. Wade ruling today, recognizing its immense importance and relevance.
What I also learnt in that class three years ago was the oppressive work conditions of women labourers in India who are regularly forced to undergo hysterectomies against medical advice. These women are found everywhere – in construction sites in cities, in the sugarcane farms of Maharashtra and even in the picturesque tea gardens of Assam. It is disheartening to see that the issue of reproductive rights closer home is not a part of our news reports, textbooks and dinner table discussions.
Current affairs and political discourse of the global West has always dominated social media in India, and even more so in the past few years. This is not to say that political developments in the West are a distraction – far from it, in fact. These developments not only directly affect the South Asian diaspora in these countries, but also often become the catalyst for change in the rest of the world. The historic Supreme Court judgement in Roe v. Wade itself, a couple of years ago, was cited as an example of reproductive justice that helped secure similar rulings in countries like Argentina, Colombia and Ireland. Many such progressive movements in the West are significant and when there is a threat to people’s rights in these countries, a global outcry is expected and warranted.
While the public support for Roe v. Wade is much appreciated, the dismaying oblivion to such issues closer home has far-reaching implications. Social media is a powerful medium to hold authorities accountable. Therefore, it is important that regional political discourse finds a place on out Twitter and Instagram circles as well. The lack of same often leads to selective activism that might as well be perceived as being hypocritical. Not very long ago, social media was rife with reports about the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, updates from which, Indian news outlets as well as many social media users followed diligently. On the other hand, activists back home have been working incessantly to raise awareness regarding the threat that coal mining poses to 800 hectares of forested land in Hasdeo, Chattisgarh. While the UN summit saw countries, including India, pledge to completely stop dependence on fossil fuels in the near future, the ground reality paints a starkly contrasting picture. However, there has been significant discussion only regarding the former while the more pressing environmental concerns in the country go unchallenged.
While leaders like Greta Thunberg continue to win well-deserved accolades, most Indians have not heard of indigenous activists like Hidme Markam who has spent the larger part of her life for environmental justice and safeguarding land rights for indigenous communities. Many movements in the West, such as the legalisation of homosexuality, have prompted similar social justice actions in India. However, it can be said without doubt that such news often overshadows more pressing concerns in our home country itself – case in point, the largely debated Transgender Persons Protection Act that many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community found counterintuitive and called for amendments. Their request garnered very less attention and the amendments have not been enacted in the three years since the Act was passed.
This selective discourse has a relationship with the freedom of speech and expression as well. In the recent past, we have seen a number of activists and scholars at home charged with sedition in their attempt to challenge or question authorities. India has also consistently fallen lower on the global Press Freedom Index in the past years. It can be said that the West holds freedom of expression in high regard, thereby protecting not only individual freedom of speech, but also press and academic freedom. Thus, activists, scholars, journalists and even laypersons may not be hesitant to put forth their opinions regarding the socio-political matters of these countries; as opposed to the situation closer home where dissenting voices may easily be quietened.
I am not, however, squarely accusing social media users of selective activism – there is also the issue of algorithms that dictate what we consume on the web today. The reasons for why certain news gets more traction than others therefore need to be understood. One explanation may be that the West is often idealised and seen as a ‘perfect’ place where social justice is the norm. Ripples in such seemingly ideal political fabric attract our attention because they are seen as anomalies. In contrast, we are aware that our own country is plagued with many social ills that may lead to a sense of hopelessness, or even compassion fatigue where one is left tired and disillusioned, thereby making us less responsive to such socio-political developments at home. While this selective empathy can be explained, it certainly should not become the norm.
While the excuse is easily available that there is little access to local news, we need to take it upon ourselves to constantly educate ourselves regarding the socio-political developments in our country. The social media algorithms, after all, are merely mirroring our preferences. The current affairs of our country are only a Google search away. Following local activists and scholars on social media, too, may help keep us up-to-date with the news. Platforms like the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI network) have been trying to bring to light the issues faced by various population groups in India. With this information available quite literally at our fingertips, indifference won’t do. People’s movements require people – not becoming a part of civic and legal discourses in our own country may adversely affect our own rights and privileges. Holding authorities accountable is requisite and any lack of efforts towards the same may gradually eat away at our constitutional freedoms.