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This project explored the relevance of new social media for intercultural and interreligious understanding, with a focus on how Facebook, Twitter,...



Lauren Reese

Lauren Reese graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with a Sociology major and minors in Justice and Peace Studies and Spanish. Funded by a U.S. State Department Boren Scholarship, she spent spring 2011 in Jaipur, India, where she wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.

Lauren Reese on the Complex Religious and Ethnic Identity of India

March 23, 2011

Upon my arrival at my university in Jaipur, India for orientation, I was welcomed with a strand of marigolds and small red dot on my forehead with sandalwood paste, known as a tilak, which represents the mind’s eye and is a sign of auspiciousness in the Hindu faith. Our first day of class was initiated with a prayer to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, arts, and music.

In my home-stay family, I’ve been taught to perform pooja, ritual prayer, in the incense-filled pooja room before the altar adorned with various colorful depictions of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu—the holy trinity of the Hindu deities. I have even gotten in the habit of touching the figure of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, which is placed over my doorway, in order to remove any obstacles that may come before me each day. From weekly visits to India’s scores of temples, to deity figures wobbling on rickshaw dashboards in place of hula dancers, the Hindu religion pervades numerous aspects of my daily life in India.

While I would never make the mistake of labeling India a Hindu nation, disregarding the many other religious communities found in India and promulgating the discriminatory ideology of the growing Hindu fundamentalist movement in India, the majority status of Hindus in India is repeatedly made apparent to me. But, as I am frequently reminded in my current coursework, India is far more complex than it may seem.

For example, it is difficult to understand the India of today without addressing post-1947 India and partition. The impacts of the division of British India based on religious demographics and the arbitrarily drawn borders that created Pakistan can still be felt in India over six decades later.

During a class excursion to Jodhpur, I witnessed these repercussions first hand. Since partition and, particularly, the Indo-Pakistan War in 1965, Pakistani-Hindus have been fleeing their country and seeking refugee in Indian cities close to the border, such as Jodhpur, in the state of Rajasthan. Hindus only constitute about 2% of the Pakistani population, with Muslims making up the majority. The growth of fundamentalist Islamic organizations and the agitation among the Pakistani masses as a result of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India has contributed to the discrimination and insecurity of Hindus in Pakistan and motivates them to relocate to India where they are no longer a religious minority.

In Jodphur, my fellow classmates and I visited a Pakistani refugee settlement about thirty minutes outside the city. With the help of an interpreter, I was able to interview a group of men from the settlement. I asked them about their lives in Pakistan. They recounted stories of violent mobs storming through their towns in search of known Hindu families. They also cited the 1992 destruction of a Babri mosque in India by rioters supporting the Hindutva (Hindu right-wing) movement as a catalyst for the discrimination they faced in Pakistan. Thousands of Muslims were killed in the Babri Mosque incident and, soon after, violence broke out in parts of Pakistan spitefully targeting Hindus.

The people I interviewed told me of witnessing their family members and friends being raped and tortured in the street due to their Hindu religious identity. As opposed to living in fear without the protection of the Muslim dominated Pakistani government, the Pakistani-Hindus I talked with had fled to India seeking a better life and security in India. Unfortunately, being part of the majority religious community in India did not completely rectify all their problems.

The refugee settlement was located in the arid, desert terrain where many sandstone mines can be found. Most of the men that I spoke with worked in these mines. The tedious manual labor of hauling and sanding large slabs of stone is dangerous work that can cause many adverse health affects. As a result, there are high rates of numerous eye diseases, blindness, and lung problems among these communities.

Similarly to the negative sentiment of some Americans towards the influx of Latin Americans seeking a better life and employment in our country, Pakistani workers face discrimination in the workplace based on their national identity. They are often accused of taking away the few available jobs from Indians. The Pakistani children who are fortunate enough to attend government schools are ostracized in the classroom and referred to as Pakistani or derogatory names. Children born to Pakistani refugees in India are still considered Pakistani citizens and thus, receive none of the privileges and rights that an Indian citizen would, despite the fact that they have never visited nor lived in Pakistan.

Moreover, these refugees are confined to their city of employment, be it Jodhpur or other cities in the state of Rajasthan or Gujarat, due to their temporary visa and pending citizenship process. Obtaining citizenship is a slow process due to the fact that Pakistani immigrants are viewed as potential threats to national security. On top of this, factor in India’s notoriously convoluted bureaucracy, and it is not surprising that the process for acquiring citizenship for Pakistani Hindus takes a minimum of seven years. While the persecution of these Pakistanis based on their religious identity is no longer an issue in a Hindu majority country, their relocation to India has produced additional hardships.

During my interactions with the refugees, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the Indian government and its inability to meet the needs of its people. I understand that the number of communities and identity groups in the vast country of India seeking acknowledgement and assistance from the government is outstanding. Yet, the plight of these Pakistanis is in many ways directly related to the nation of India since partition until the present: the decision to carve out a Muslim state from India in 1947, the growing influence of Hindu fundamentalist parties, the lack of effective government intervention and peace-keeping efforts following incidents of communal violence.

I felt that the very least the Indian government could do for an identity group now was to ensure that they finally had a secure home after partition failed to provide that. The experience in the Pakistani refugee settlement overwhelmed me with questions and concerns about democracy, identity, justice, and religious tolerance. I requested that my interpreter ask the refugees if they had any questions for me. In my frustration with the lack of justice, I was at a loss for things to say. Their first question was difficult, direct, and extremely relevant as a student of sustainable development and social change. They asked, “Why are you here? What are you going to do for us?” After a moment of reflection, I explained that I probably would not be able to do anything, at least not anything immediate or tangible. I explained that I am a student in India and my main goal is to listen and learn from others’ experiences.

By engaging with them, I will be able to use my voice to share their story and use the knowledge gained from this interaction to inform my understanding of social justice and my future actions. I am not sure that my message completely translated, but I gained a lot from stepping back and critically reflecting on my identity and my role here in the giant, nuanced country that is in India.

Lauren Reese on Social Media and Structural Change in India

April 21, 2011 | 3 COMMENTS

Since my last post, I have relocated to Bangalore, a big city in South India, for one month. During my time here, I will be investigating how information technologies, primarily the internet and social media, are being used for promoting structural social change in India. Unlike my fellow students who have chosen to do their field studies in rural villages in Himachal Pradesh, or to interview Tibetan refugees in remote areas surrounding Darjeeling, I am living in a service apartment (that I found on the Indian Craigslist) on the same street as the Indian headquarters of JP Morgan, Nokia, Cisco, and a handful of other multinational corporations.

Bangalore, the largest information technology hub of India, is comparable to New York City. To continue with this analogy, I am living on the “Long Island” of the state of Karnataka struggling to find a taxi that will take the “long” journey from Bangalore city to my apartment. I have ditched the salwaar kameez (traditional dress of women in India) for my business attire and Western clothes as I commute into the city each day to conduct interviews for my study project, and to attend a new restaurant opening or other swanky events one would associate with a modern urban area populated by successful, young professionals.

While I self-identify as a “city girl” and am unperturbed by the chaos, exorbitant prices, and the constant hum of traffic in a metropolis, I found myself in shock when I first arrived in Bangalore. This city represents a side of India I had not yet experienced. Many sites that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing on a daily basis in the northwestern state of Rajasthan are noticeably absent here.

I have seen few, if any, beggars or slums. The city’s waste management system seems to be functioning far better than other parts of India because the streets are spotless and the beautiful greenery of the city is well manicured. There are no cows roaming the streets. I haven’t been stuck in traffic even once due to a rogue camel or elephant-led wedding procession. Instead of agriculture as the main source of employment in the towns I lived and visited in North India, every other Indian or expat I have met in Bangalore work for a start-up software company or are involved in the IT industry in some capacity.

Over time, I’ve become more comfortable with my choice to base my research here. Bangalore is just another facet of the reality of this country. It’s impossible to deny the potential of India as a superpower when living in Bangalore. One can foresee how rapidly Bangalore will progress as more multinationals arrive to establish headquarters here, and the software and IT industries continue to boom due to the demands of the global market.

With this in mind, I’ve been challenged in my notions of social justice work, as well as in my research, to identify how social change can be facilitated by the assets of a modern city like Bangalore. These advantages include access to technology, connections with the global arena, increased literacy and education, and fluency in English. Thus, the focus of my research has expanded to explore how the privileges of a growing modern Indian city, specifically access to and expertise in the information technology sector, are being harnessed for the social good of the city-dweller, the slum dweller, and the rural farmer alike. What is required is a people-centric approach to utilizing these technologies that values the needs of all Indian citizens over the desires of corporations that have historically controlled the development of the information technology sector.

For example, I have interviewed the India Against Corruption campaign that recently organized nationwide fasts and nonviolent direct actions to pressure the government to adopt a bill that will create a separate government body, the Jan Lokpal, to preside over cases of corruption within the government and other aspects of society. This movement has been revolutionary in promoting civic participation and incorporating the average citizen in the drafting of a national bill. Also, it has relied heavily on social media for mobilization, inspired by the recent regime change movements in the Middle East.

Just today, I interviewed the creators of an online computer game for 12-13 year old low-income students in Bangalore. This game teaches students about social issues in urban contexts, and how to be active citizens by participating in the Indian democracy for positive social change. By harnessing the expertise of various software companies in Bangalore, this civic awareness “e-module” is currently being incorporated in fifty city schools. The plan is to launch this game online for all Indian students nationwide to access.

I also interviewed a member of the New Media department of Greenpeace India. He described ways in which online petitions, inspired by Moveon.org, and social media like Facebook and Twitter, have been used to raise awareness, and to mobilize direct action campaigns to stop destructive mining projects, the construction of dams, and climate change that negatively affect the Indian ecosystem and, in turn, its people.

The common challenge for these initiatives is to overcome the lack of accessibility of computers and web connectivity throughout India. Also, projects using information technologies for change must also address the lack of computer literacy and relevant content in the local languages. Despite these challenges, the innovative uses of information technologies, and new social media that I am discovering here in Bangalore reaffirms the power of online platforms to revolutionize the way we create and share information, connect, and organize to become catalysts for social change.

COMMENT FROM REBECCA KISSEL - MAY 24, 2011

Lauren, the research you did this semester sounds amazing, combining fast-paced social networking technology with social justice. It is unbelievable the power these tools can have, as shown through your research and the mention you made in regards to the revolution happening in the Middle East. Studying in the Jordan this semester, much of the Western media, as well as some Arab media, was talking about how the “Arab Spring” was also the “Twitter Revolution” and commenting on the various facebook events which have been helping to bring people to the protests. Though the protestors have very clearly demonstrated their determination in bringing change to their society, it remains unknown whether this revolution would have developed as quickly as it did or been as successful as it was in places like Egypt without these tools. They were not the main reason for the demonstrations, but they certainly played a large role.

Social networking has an amazing ability to spread information across societal lines. In India, this means that these projects can benefit all of India’s people, and in the Middle East, it has meant connecting with people in the larger cities as well as people in smaller towns and Bedouin villages. We had tea one evening with a Bedouin woman in the Jordan River Valley, and someone asked her what was better: life before the internet or now. Without even hesitating, she responded that life was better now, with the internet and all of the technology available today. With the social networking technology and other tools, we have the ability to reach even the most remote people and inspire positive change in society, whether it is teaching students the benefits of democratic participation in India or helping to bring people into the streets to call for democracy in the Middle East.

COMMENT FROM ANDREW MARINELLI - JULY 12, 2011

Hey Lauren! As a STIA major, I found your piece extremely interesting, particular to see how prevalent social media has become in our world today. It's incredible that all of the organizations, groups, and even individuals that you discussed in both your post (and Becky's comments) have been affected by the ever growing world of social media. What a lot of people don't understand is that social media goes far beyond the constraints formed by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other similar sites. Social media has a lot of potential for stimulating widespread reactions to very pertinent contemporary issues. Whether it be a large-scale awareness tactic, "virtual sit-ins", or the like, social media has the potential to play an enormous role in social justice.

India is known as one of the fasting growing countries in the world and its demographic is changing rapidly, and yet people have a hard time grasping this concept due to its perpetuated third-world characteristics. Although this is true is some regions, there are definite booming centers of IT throughout the countries that rival many of those in the First World. I for one find it absolutely amazing that you had the opportunity to experience this first hand--I find India to be a fascinating country on the world stage. In terms of technology, IT has become synonymous with India for years now and this does not seem to be slowing down any time soon. India, much like China, is considered a very influential country to watch as it develops itself in the international arena.

Your post made me think of an example of social media playing into social justice that I took part in in Brussels. There was a large student protest against the dissolution of the Belgian government with the slogan "Not in out name" where the students were protesting the inability of their current government leaders to effectively form a working coalition governemtn after the failed elections over a year ago. They see this as a threat to the future of Belgium as a united country--a problem they will then have to subsequently deal with. Since this was a predominantly younger generation protest, social media was heavily used and used very effectively. Almost every student at my university has access to a computer and the word about the cause spread like wildfire. This is only a micro example of what social media can due in terms of mobilizing people (especially the younger generations) in pursuing their own personal social justice agendas. I would be really interested in hearing more about the conclusions of your research when we're back at Georgetown!

COMMENT FROM LANE FELER - JULY 14, 2011

One of the things that truly astounded me about living in Sevilla was that in comparison to Madrid or Barcelona, it seemed to be a city dwelling in the past. Not just culturally, although for me, technology somewhat defines the growing connectivity of a global culture. My host family didn’t own a computer, and this seemed to be a common occurrence. They didn’t know how to read or write very well, and particularly amongst their generation, those nearing or “enjoying” retirement, this is standard. They boast virtually no computer literacy, and it is coupled with a general disillusionment with social change or political discourse post-Franco. They represent in my mind the “old” Spain, or perhaps a romanticized traditional Spain.

What was even more strange was the sudden emphasis of the younger generation on social media and revolution, particularly past May 15. All of a sudden, young people across Spain, Sevilla included, were gathering in the plazas to protest the current economic, political and social climate, and they were using social media to do so. The contrast between old and new, disinterested and invested, untaught and learned, sticks with me and comes to mind with your letter. You and I both participated in the fellowship that studied the relationship between NSM and interreligious/intercultural dialogue, and I find that living in a situation where the disparities in use and understanding are apparent raises more questions than I knew how to ask during our research. Many people I feel approach social media with the intent to understand how they can best use it, what are the personal best practices available; but when you raise the point about ensuring that everyone is able to use it, I find that this is sometimes an issue that is forgotten.

In a world that is dominated by technology, will those who know how to wield it be those in control? What does that mean for the future political or cultural climate? I can’t wait to hear all about the rest of your adventures, Lauren!