In popular memory and culture, the city of Bengaluru is projected as the face of the neoliberal development of India post the open economy reforms of 1991. Benjamin (2010) writes how the city holds a unique place in the imaginations of people desiring a modern and revived India. Along varying ideological lines, the traditional narrative of Bengaluru seeks to ‘legitimise’ its relation and past within a developmental paradigm where the summit of its expansion is the much-yearned-for ‘globally connected’ Information Technology (IT) economy. According to the widely held notion of the city, it is envisaged by policy and public perception as a favourable setting for birthing the ideal information society featuring all of the hallmarks of a “technological culture” (Kamath, 2018).
Behind the construction of the technocratic ‘smart city’ catering to a global-consumerist citizenry is the labour of the subaltern working class of the city who are often structurally invisibilized from the face of it. The rapid growth of the IT sector in the city has led to increased in-migration of the aspiring middle and upper-class citizenry across the country (Jha and Pushpendra, 2022), the rise of which is linked to the collapse and dissolution of the welfare-state structures. This emergent neo-middle class carries distinct political and ideological ambitions, spanning from its dominant stance on discarding state-led development to its allegiance to neoliberal free-market dependent goals (Fernandes and Heller, 2006).
This study is an attempt to situate how ‘older’ and ‘newer’ cultures of communicating resistance intersect in the production of subversive dissent that emerges from arenas of social, political and economic inequalities. We seek to understand and describe how new media aided by digital technologies gets ingrained in existing social practices among subaltern communities at the margins of Bengaluru, resulting in the formation of socially alternative practices which in turn govern the uses of digital communication technologies. It also seeks to articulate “the discourses, messages, and narratives of change that are articulated by the very people who are rendered invisible by the structures of neoliberalism.” (Dutta, 2012).
Restricting Resistance: The Subaltern and Revanchism
Neethi P (2020), in her study on Urban Undesirables focusing on street-based sex workers of Bengaluru, articulates that in the last two decades, the urban transformation has become an unfair and conﬂicting process in which the city and its various communities have been unevenly impacted. Preserving a public space has become growingly easier for ‘acceptable’ or ‘lawful’ users of that space, whereas the ‘undesirables’ are left to feel alienated, hassled, and undesirable in their daily lives. Government space construction, too, has played a role in introducing new kinds of systemic violence into the experiences of the disenfranchised (Burte & Kamath, 2017), who are portrayed as ‘the other’ as a result of sanctioned policies and state legislations. Additionally, the city bore witness to communal and exclusionary regulations being passed in the state, ecologically-harming drives being carried out at the expense of loss of natural habitation, and caste-based atrocities and majoritarian crimes taking place rampantly.
The study of this new information society in Bengaluru, the complicity of its consumerist, neo-middle class and the governmentality of the free market, makes it imperative for the application of Neil Smith’s (1996) concept of ‘Revanchism’ which is defined as the ‘attack and retribution against immigrants, the working class, women, and queer, the caste-margins, and in general, on the overall notion of a pluralistic society.’ The implications of regaining the public space from the underprivileged, marginalised groups, and radical movements who are forcibly expelled from it are the initial sites of the revanchist assault (Atkinson, 2003). Street clearance programmes displace the homeless, sending them to more remote and hazardous areas, making it harder for the impoverished to live in cities. In effect, revanchism—often referred to as the “vengeance” of cities—aims to drive out unwanted people while fostering a favourable reputation to draw rapidly mobile assets in an intensely competitive global environment (Johnsen and Fitzpatrick, 2010). Marginalised communities have been deliberately deprived of vital networks and prospects in both the formal and informal sectors of the city.
In March 2022, a Karnataka High Court ruling limited protests and processions in the capital city within and inside Freedom Park at Gandhi Nagar, Bengaluru. This new ruling serves as an institutional constraint on the physical arbitration of dissent by safeguarding the order of the neoliberal city. It discards people’s fundamental right to express dissent by separating their articulation of protest from the physical site of exclusion and exploitation.
Digital for Activism: An aid or an alternative?
The production of radical discourse on institutionalised inequality is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, at the heart of which is the way media institutions and actors shape public discourse around issues of social justice and inequality.
Ekta M, co-founder of MARAA – A Media and Arts Collective based in Bengaluru, speaks about the gentrification of commons, “The public space here in the city has shrunk to quite an extent today. And that has happened through the architecture and aesthetics of the city that caters to a certain kind of people based on their caste, class and other factors. You wouldn’t find street vendors being allowed to enter Cubbon Park. It has become increasingly privatised and polished for middle and upper-class entertainment. The access to it before wasn’t as surveilled before.”
The site of Digital, then, marks itself as a site of voicing collective resistance focused on mobilising identities and occupations against orchestrated alienation of the margins of the city. The Digital simultaneously becomes a site for producing open-access, alternative knowledge based on counter-narratives to the dominant ideologies shaping the governance of the state on matters of citizenship, labour, cultural identity, etc. Thus, by rejecting media produced by virtue of upper-class, upper-caste and urban characteristics under state/corporate ownership – the Digital becomes radical.
The relationship between technology and marginalised communities, however, is complex, often marked by a dichotomy between technology’s potential to serve as a tool for social change and its role as an agent of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. While technology has been used as a means of amplifying the voices of the marginalised and facilitating collective action, it has also been responsible for perpetuating existing power structures and exacerbating inequalities. Technological advancements such as automation and artificial intelligence have led to the displacement of workers, particularly those in low-skill jobs, further deepening existing inequalities and have been used to perpetuate structural forms of discrimination and oppression.
Dr Ram Bhatt – co-founder of MARAA – writes, “Workers and their labour are transformed in the age of technologisation. Attention to human subjects engaged in concrete everyday practices puts technology firmly back in the social domain rather than as something external. Bringing back the social element into technology raises the further question of how technological systems (practices and processes) play a role in shaping human activity and identity—whether it is based on the intentions of those who designed technology or the technical features that have been used in unanticipated ways with unintended consequences, or through efforts taken up by users who use technologies towards their own political, economic or cultural ends, and so on.”
Another Bengaluru-based organisation engaged with working class migrant populations from West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and adjoining regions is the Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network – MWSN. On how the workers use their phones and digital devices for resistance, Bikram, one of the core members of the MWSN, believes that their use of it is largely limited to the usual social media consumption. Mere digital access doesn’t necessarily translate to digital empowerment against marginalisation. The delegitimizing of disempowered identities and social groups online, through the spread of hate speech or disinformation, are orchestrated through the use of digital technologies by dominant groups.
Despite these challenges, activist networks working at the margins continue to hold the democratic potential of digital technologies in facilitating discursive empowerment among working-class populations and building networks of solidarity among subaltern communities pushed to the threat of disenfranchisement.
What the digital discourse production of activist groups in Bengaluru reveals?
This study constituted four civil-society activist groups in Bengaluru, who regularly engaged in interventions and confrontations across labour activism, counter-cultural dissent and ecological and rights-based resistance — MARAA – A media and Arts collective, Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network, Fridays For Future – Karnataka and People’s Union of Civil Liberties. Analysis of in-depth interviews and digital (social) media posts of the four groups revealed that the digital medium is often used as an alternative to both physical activism and the hegemonic discourses perpetuated by mainstream media, motivated by the interests of economic, social and political elites – reflected in its composition, structure and content.
Voices of resistance are increasingly expressed virtually due to increasing surveillance of physical forms of resistance in the city using ways of neoliberal governmentality, such as that of the conception of the ‘Smart City’. Activists expressed how digital spaces often act as ways of building solidarity with intersectional resistance movements, both locally and globally, through means of ‘sharing’ and ‘networking’. The study also found an informed sense of scepticism amongst activists revolving around the pitfalls of ‘performing’ activism in a growingly commodified and technocratic space.
The study of the patterns of digital media usage by the four networks revealed:
PUCL, a human rights activist organisation, uses the digital medium as a solidarity-building and sensitising tool to strengthen their engagement and groundwork with communities and solidify legal infrastructures that it has put to place over years of advocacy and interventions. MARAA, a counter-cultural collective, uses the digital space as a way of documenting resistance in the city, platforming marginalised voices and engaging in non-confrontational cultural politics.
Environmentalist group Fridays for Future Karnataka’s use of Digital Media lies in building infrastructures of interconnectedness with other people’s movements and causes and in knowledge-sharing activities for the wider public. Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network, a workers’ rights organisation, uses the Digital to voice resistance against the broader anti-working class economic policies and development models and to reclaim the public sphere with counter-narratives to exclusion.
Towards Intersections of Socio-Technological marginality
Bikram (MWSN), talks about the continuous contradiction that exists in the workers’ mediated experience of living in the technocratic city. “The process of complete digitalisation strengthens capitalist ideas of turning everything into consumable commodities, increasing alienation and dependence on digital products. This takes over human empathy. We see that happening in the gig economy. Workers are not treated as workers; they are acknowledged as ‘partners’ and symbolised in our apps as little toys moving around – these enable escaping the need for formalisation of the workforce.”
The four activist groups and organisations investigated in this research point to the changing cultures of dissent and resistance in neoliberal cities as that of Bengaluru which need to be studied alongside the transformations associated with technological structures in urban life, particularly among the working class and the subaltern communities. Their lives, partially estranged, emancipated and mediated through new working environments and new struggles, elicit a broader and deeper understanding of how their experiences are transformed in the age of rapid digitalisation (Bhat, 2022). The increase in the construction of gentrified ‘smart cities’ around the country accounts for a shrinking public sphere, the elimination of certain non-consumerist identities and the overarching surveillance of dissent, which must be comprehended along with the changing political economy of the state.
The findings of the study point to the need of a larger, intersectional understanding in understanding the ways technology-mediated environments shape the lives and labour of disenfranchised communities. The construction of the global IT city of Bengaluru has legitimised the creation of a monolithic identity marked by the accumulation of social and economic capital and has stripped away the possibility of rebuilding an alternative political conscience that questions the dominant model of development. Sustained critical efforts by civil society groups and activist networks hold key to the way subaltern communities in the city continue to place their ‘bodies in line’ and express their resistance to broader structures through interactions, dialogues, and the exchange of knowledge and resources.
About the author …
Sohini (she/they) is currently a Graduate Student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India, at the School of Media and Cultural Studies. Her prior training and practise has primarily been in developmental journalism and media research. Her interests lie in the intersections of Digital Platforms and Labour, Communication for Social Change, and the Political Economy of Media. She is also keenly interested in producing Media that are socially just and responsible and respond to the changing economic and political conditions widely by locating her inquiries through a lens of culture and identity.