New Delhi, India – Women journalists and activists in India have hit back after Twitter apologised for a photo of its top official holding a placard that criticised the patriarchy propped up by India’s caste system.
The placard that read “smash Brahminical patriarchy” referred to the highest Hindu caste and its alleged sanction for patriarchal oppression of women.
Many Twitter users branded Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s holding the sign as “hate-mongering”.
The controversial photograph was taken during Dorsey’s recent India trip when Twitter hosted a closed-door discussion with a group of women journalists and activists.
The poster was handed to Dorsey by Sanghapali Aruna, a Dalit activist. Dalits fall at the bottom of India’s complex, and often brutal, caste hierarchy.
On Monday, Vijaya Gadde, a top Twitter official, apologised on behalf of the company following a massive backlash from mostly upper caste Indians, who were incensed by what they read as “hate speech” against Brahmins.
I'm very sorry for this. It's not relective of our views. We took a private photo with a gift just given to us – we should have been more thoughtful. Twitter strives to be an impartial platform for all. We failed to do that here & we must do better to serve our customers in India
— Vijaya Gadde (@vijaya) November 19, 2018
On Wednesday, a group of journalists and activists who were at the meeting with Dorsey accused Twitter of “misrepresentation and half-truths”.
A statement issued by a group of women journalists and activists said the apology came as a “disappointment to all of us dealing with abuse, harassment and legal threats”.
“This is also in sharp contrast to Twitter’s strong stand in favour of women and marginalised communities in other countries,” it said.
“We call on Twitter to step up and not capitulate to bigotry, disinformation and bullying and to address in serious terms the problem of trolls threatening the life and liberty of scores of women and marginalised communities online,” the statement added.
Divided over a placard
Frequent instances of so-called “honour killings”, where young inter-caste couples are killed, most often by irate upper caste families, are a reflection of just how tightly caste holds India in its grip.
A recent Reuters poll said India is the world’s most dangerous country for women while Dalits have suffered thousands of years of exclusion and extreme poverty.
“Traditionally, Brahmins have had power and privilege over others and had control over knowledge, resources and women’s sexuality. That power hierarchy is still intact,” Aruna, founder of rights group Project Mukti and who gave the placard to Dorsey, told Al Jazeera.
“Lower-caste women and those from minority communities are vulnerable to injustice and oppression from upper caste men in positions of authority,” she said.
On the other hand, Indians sympathetic to Hindu nationalists, like journalist Chitra Subramaniam, said the Twitter CEO’s photo with the placard was “an incitement to violence”.
Woke up Tuesday morning to see Brahmin names floating around on my TL. If Smashing Brahminical Patriarchy is not an incitement to violence, what is? An influential platform like @twitter must be responsible. @TwitterIndia
— Chitra Subramaniam (@chitraSD) November 20, 2018
A government official said the placard was “a fit case for registration of a criminal case for attempt to destabilise the nation”.
Do you realise that this picture has potential of causing communal riots at a time when several States are going to Assembly Elections in India. Even now an apology is not offered. Actually its a fit case for registration of a criminal case for attempt to destablise the nation.
— Dr. Sandeep Mittal, IPS (@smittal_ips) November 20, 2018
T V Mohandas Pai, former finance chief at software company Infosys, accused Dorsey of “hate-mongering” against Brahmins.
Religion and caste often clash violently with women’s rights in India.
In recent weeks, conservative Hindu groups have prevented women from entering an ancient Hindu temple in southern India, defying a Supreme Court order that lifted a centuries-old ban on women devotees.
Social media and far-right groups
Twitter’s apology has sparked outrage over the perceived inability of social media giants to stand-up to far-right bullying in India.
“Jack wasn’t advocating any campaign. The poster wasn’t trying to create animosity between groups. Twitter had no reason to apologise, except they feared a backlash from the right-wing and the government,” Tejas Harad, editor at the Economic and Political Weekly, told Al Jazeera from Mumbai.
Dorsey had also met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, during his India trip.
— jack (@jack) November 13, 2018
“The poster upset many because upper castes in India don’t like to publicly acknowledge the caste system. It embarrasses them,” said Harad.
Meanwhile, Twitter said it is committed to remaining “apolitical”.
“We are proud of the fact that Twitter is a platform where marginalised voices can be seen and heard, but we also have a public commitment to being apolitical. We realize that the photo may not accurately represent that commitment and we apologise for any offence caused,” a Twitter spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
But Twitter’s apology and its distancing itself from the anti-caste placard, has left many disappointed.
Twitter wimps out. Pathetic. They ought to be ashamed https://t.co/dUIvE80yNf
— Mihir Sharma (@mihirssharma) November 20, 2018
“These platforms back movements against oppressive structures if it benefits them. Take the case of feminism. Twitter had introduced special emojis for the #metoo hashtag. Is the feminist movement not political?” asked Harad.
Analysts point out that social media channels have given its users a platform to be heard and a role in catalysing democratic voices in many parts of the world.
“Twitter’s apology itself is a political stand,” said Aruna.
“Our communities need to be protected from any kind of hate speech and bullying that can translate into physical violence, including lynching. We don’t want India to be the next Rakhine state.”
Earlier this year in the US, Twitter faced criticism for “verifying” and handing out “blue ticks” to several hate groups and white supremacists.
Twitter, like other social media platforms, is struggling to curb online hate in countries like India, home to its fastest-growing user base.
According to networking giant Cisco, India’s internet market will exceed 800 million by 2021.
Meanwhile, online hate against critics of the government or right-wing groups has reached unprecedented levels in the past few years.
“Twitter accounts which repeatedly spew hate, post death threats – no action is taken against them. So many anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit messages go unpunished. Criticise upper-caste oppressive systems, and you are swiftly apologising for it. This is worrying,” said Harad.