In the midst of Covid-19 and India’s lockdown measures, a Rajasthan High Court judgment went unnoticed on 7 April. The judgment effectively quashed the criminal case filed against journalist Anna M.M. Vetticad and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the matter relating to Dorsey holding up a poster captioned ‘Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy’ when he visited India in 2018.
The controversies surrounding Dorsey holding up the poster may have finally been given quietus, but larger and more uncomfortable questions remain. Questions that cannot be answered judicially and will determine the moral direction of India.
The poster and the FIR
Soon after the photograph of Dorsey holding up the poster, originally designed by social activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, was posted on Twitter by Vetticad on 18 November 2018, it created quite a stir. While some saw it as a photograph of a man holding a poster, privileged Twitterati hyperventilated at Dorsey for “demonology of Brahmins” and compared it with “what the Nazis did to the Jews”. Right-wing debaters on television, unhappy with Twitter as a medium, wondered if the government is “serious about [a] replacement” and why Dorsey “would align with any group”.
The Twitteratis’ case against the CEO of Twitter and the poster was that the slogan offended religious sentiments, targeted Brahmins – who are a ‘minority’ in India — and constituted hate speech against this community. Almost immediately, 44-year old resident of Jodhpur, Rajkumar Sharma approached the Basni police station on 19 November to register an FIR. In his complaint, Sharma alleged that Dorsey and Vetticad had “maligned the Brahmin society at large” and induced “religious hatred towards the Brahmin community”. The police initially refused to register the FIR, and Sharma approached the commissioner of police and then the local magistrate. Finally, the FIR was registered under the Indian Penal Code for offences including defamation, conspiracy and acts intended to outrage religious feelings.
Established sociological term
Quashing the FIR, the Rajasthan High Court has held that the term “Brahmanical Patriarchy” refers to a sociological concept, which has no direct link with the “religious sentiments of any section of society” and cannot be construed as ‘hurting the religious sentiments” or as creating “a religion based rift” in society It goes on to say that the poster conveys the feeling of “being strongly opposed to the Brahmanical Patriarchal system”. Although the judgment does not quote socio-political authorities, the logic it conveys is derived from the discourse laid out by Babasaheb Ambedkar and more recently, interpreted by feminist scholars such as Uma Chakravarti and Sharmila Rege. Ambedkar explained his position in 1938 as such:
“By Brahmanism, I do not mean the power, privileges and interests of Brahmins as a community. That is not the sense in which I am using the word. By Brahmanism, I mean the negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.”
Chakravarti defines brahmanical patriarchy as “the need for effective sexual control over women to maintain not only patrilineal succession but also caste purity, the institution unique to Hindu society”. Through her work, Chakravarti has sought to develop a feminist analysis of caste inequalities.
In her book Against the Madness of Manu, Rege speaks about the surge of Dalit feminist scholarship in unravelling brahmanical patriarchy, which builds on Chakravarti’s academic work. In no sense, can this seen as anything but an evidence-based and academically established sociological discourse.
Time to stand up
Although it is unsurprising that the entire controversy was manufactured by the Indian Right-wing upper-caste elites, it was shocking to see Twitter, as an organisation, unravel under the weight of these events. Twitter’s legal, policy and trust and safety lead, Vijaya Gadde, issued an apology and said that the poster was not “reflective” of the company’s views.
Twitter, like many other businesses in recent times, has largely remained silent about their social or political views. But Dorsey has taken political positions before. He has spoken on the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.
In India, it is rare for business leaders to speak out on political issues. We have not heard Indian business leaders articulate against the establishment position on Article 370 or Citizenship (Amendment) Act — Satya Nadella doesn’t count here. On issues involving the intersection of caste and gender, the silence speaks louder than words. What prevents our business icons from taking positions in favour of gender equality and social justice is not known.
Do they fear a backlash from the conservative sections, as witnessed in the Dorsey controversy? Have they been tutored to stay out of politically sensitive issues? Can we expect corporate and cultural icons to take a position on issues that affect the social fabric of India?
What irked Right-wing Indian Twitter was that a young and woke global business icon had taken a stand on a deeply divisive issue inherent to our country. What riled them further is that diverse, feminist and subaltern voices rose across Indian Twitter supporting and trending the hashtag #SmashBrahmanicalPatriarchy.
The high court judgment validates and empowers such voices. Now is the time to move the needle on addressing caste and gender issues across India, and for woke leaders, media bosses, corporate trailblazers and feminist influencers to confront brahmanical patriarchy within their organisations and society at large.
The author is spokesperson, DMK and Advocate practicing at the Madras High Court. Views are personal