Break on Through to the Other Side!

With Change.org as vanguard, online activism is flying on the wings of change

Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi 

It was October 2012. Winter was still some time away in Bihar’s capital, Patna. Like in the older parts of the city, Chanchal Paswan, 19, and her sister, slept on the terrace of their middle class home. Tired, she quickly slipped into deep sleep.

In the dark of the night, four shadows slipped onto the terrace and lunged on the two sleeping sisters. Chanchal and her sister were rudely woken up by the violent presence of the intruders. They began to scream. Their cries woke up their parents who rushed to the terrace. The boys, who tried to assault her, threw acid on her, which injured her younger sister as well. They escaped, leaving the two sisters howling in pain. The girls were rushed to the emergency ward of the Patna Medical College Hospital.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the perpetrators of the ghastly act were boys from her neighbourhood who had been stalking Chanchal. They would follow her on the street, pull her dupatta, pass vulgar comments and make obscene gestures. The four boys were arrested, but a long struggle had begun for the girl and her family of modest means.

Chanchal suffered 28 per cent burns that had disfigured her face and torso. The challenge for her and her family was to get her treated so that she could lead a normal life. This was easier said than done. Treatment involved reconstructive surgery; it was expensive and doctors at the hospital did not seem helpful. Her treatment was stopped midway and she got neither adequate compensation nor justice. Police seemed reluctant to record her statement. “My dreams were shattered after I had acid poured on my face,” she wrote in her open letter to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Video Volunteers, an NGO, got to know about her plight and put out a video about the trauma she was going through. An online petition platform, Change.org, noticed her case and decided to take it up and help her get justice. 

Change.org, the brainchild of Ben Rattray and Mark Dimas who initiated the concept in 2007 to “empower anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns for social change,” was started as a blog which actively became a petition website around 2010. What interested them most was that people started using the platform to address personal, social and political issues.

One issue that struck a chord was a petition asking the South African government to stop ‘corrective rape’ in the backdrop of a spate of brutal assaults on women. It generated massive support from outraged people who supported the petition and wanted to do “something” about it. This pressurized the government and it stopped this degrading practice. One success, and there was no looking back for the organization which started with three members, and today operates in more than 20 countries.

As a part of the expansion, the organization came to India in 2011 to see how the country “that is used to social action” would respond. India acknowledged its presence with the first petition asking Rahul Gandhi to meet Anna Hazare when he was fasting against corruption in Delhi. Though it gained popularity, Rahul did not go to meet Hazare. (Instead, as Hardnews reported in its many cover stories, Hazare became discredited in the following days, and his severely fragmented campaign’s links with Sangh Parivar forces became all too transparent.)

Soon after, there was another petition started by Akshey Kalra in Bengaluru against the Karnataka government which wanted to celebrate the La Tomatina festival, a replica of the Spanish festival where people get a massive collection of tomatoes, squish and crush them, jump and dance over them, and throw tomatoes on each other. He called upon people to join the campaign to force the government to ban such festivals. Reason: in a country where thousands die of hunger and malnutrition, this is outright unacceptable. People signed the petition, shared it. There were protests by farmers. Consequently, days before the festival date, it was cancelled.

The third petition, which was also a success, was about Arun Ferreira, a student of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and a human rights defender, who was arrested on September 27, 2011, without a warrant, outside Nagpur jail, moments after he was released after being illegally jailed on charges of having Naxalite links in 2007. He was also reportedly tortured. The petition, started by social activist Cedric Prakash, and shared by Tamseel Hussain, campaigner, Change.org, was signed by 6,432 people. The campaign helped in galvanising civil society and put pressure on the government. Ferreira got bail on January 3, 2012.

 Change.org, brainchild of Ben Rattray and Mark Dimas, initiated the concept in 2007 to ‘empower anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns for social change’

“Since then, we have come a long way,” says Preethi Herman, Director, Campaigns, Change.org India, who heads a four-member team of the organization in Delhi. “In 2012, we had around 15 victories. This year, we already have about six victories.” The platform, which operates on the principle of ‘people’s power’, has some petitions supported by Change.org. “As a campaign unit, we try to provide people with strategic and media support. We are never the face of the campaign. It is about the change people can bring about. It is what people feel passionately about and what impacts them,” she says.

In India, the organization, which had around 7,000 users in the beginning, has snowballed to 6,00,000 users, with around 600 petitions per month.

In July 2012, Stalin K, a documentary filmmaker, whose films have focussed international attention on caste discrimination and atrocities on Dalits, and have won awards, started a petition on Change.org against untouchability in the Karauli district of Rajasthan where Dalit women had to remove their footwear when passing by ‘upper caste’ houses. The petition garnered 5,480 signatures, backing the abolition of the feudal, casteist practice. After 65 years of the practice, it was abolished.

In August 2012, Sunita Kasera started a petition asking the Member Secretary, Rajasthan State Pollution Board, to shut asphalt factories that were polluting the air with cancerous dust in Karauli. Kasera mobilized 3,616 people through the petition, which forced the Rajasthan State Pollution Control Board to investigate. It was found that most of these factories were illegal and were crossing their pollution limit. A month later, the first factory was shut down in Asthal village (Karauli). On November 27, 2012, a senior environment engineer informed her that all the five factories had been sealed and would remain sealed unless they got licences and compiled with the norms. The Board told Kasera that it was due to constant public pressure that they were able to do this.

In December 2012, popular Punjabi hip hop star Yo Yo Honey Singh, whose perverse anti-women lyrics resulted in a huge uproar on social media, was supposed to perform at Bristol Hotel in Gurgaon. Hardnews published a report during the peak of the anti-rape protests, exposing his brazenly sexist lyrics. Meanwhile, Kalpana Mishra also started a petition on Change.org against him. In just about 24 hours, 2,633 people from across Delhi and NCR joined her. Honey Singh’s performance on New Year’s Eve was cancelled. 

Technology, particularly the Internet, has also given voice to the voiceless. It has created awareness. With the advent of the Internet in India in 1995, many letter writers/readers gradually shifted to this modern means of communication. (The government of India iswinding up its telegram services on July 14.) According to India Goes Digital, a report by Mumbai-based investment banking firm Avendus, the number of Internet users in India will reach 376 million by 2015.

Historically speaking, traditional education was only in the hands of the few, not just in India but also in Europe. As Eric Hobsbawm writes in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “Even on the eve of the Second World War, Germany, France and Britain, three of the largest, most developed and educated countries, with a total population of 150 million, contained no more than 150,000 or so university students between them or one-tenth of one per cent of their joint population.” With the spectacular expansion of the Internet in contemporary India, Internet users too got an opportunity to learn, educate themselves and participate in social and political affairs and raise their voices of dissent.

It also applies to the case of Chanchal, whose humble farmer father took to online petitioning to highlight the plight of his daughter. The concept of online petitioning, also known as e-protest, though a new concept, is gradually gaining ground in the Indian Internet scenario. With more people using the Internet as a platform for activism and discussion, a more formalized structure for online petitions has come up. PetitionOnline, thePetitionSite.com, iPetitions, GoPetitions and others are a few examples.

In December 2012, hip hop star Yo Yo Honey Singh, whose perverse lyrics resulted in a huge uproar in social media, was supposed to perform in Gurgaon. Hardnews published a report during the peak of the anti-rape protests, exposing his sexist lyrics. His performance on New Year’s Eve was cancelled 

With the rise of online social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in the later 2000s, there was an increase in visibility for such platforms. Avaaz.org, Greenpeace, Amnesty International are also online petition platforms, but what makes Change.org stand apart is its user-generated content. “Whether it’s a mother fighting bullying in her daughter’s school, customers pressing banks to drop unfair fees, or citizens holding corrupt officials to account, thousands of campaigns started by people  have won on Change.org — and more are winning every week. It gives a platform to people to choose the issues that concern them and make them heard,” says Herman.

With more petition platforms coming up, for individuals/groups doing full-time or grassroots social activism, online petitions are mere ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’. In fact, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS describes the term ‘slacktivist’ as involving “those people who support a cause by performing simple measures (and) are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change”.

Herman rubbishes it, calling it mere “generalizations”. According to her, the Delhi gangrape protests happened because people, especially the young and students, also highlighted the issue on social media and protested on the streets. Women activists argue that women’s groups were actively involved and they politically redefined the discourse on justice for women — whch was getting restricted in the apolitical revenge cacophony  of ‘hang them, hang them’. Journalist Namita Bhandare started a petition where she pinned seven demands. Most of these progressive paradigm shifts were given a voice in the Justice Verma
Committee Report.

“It is about being used to a certain concept. Online petitions are a bit misrepresented in people’s minds. They think it is only about people sitting somewhere, in the comfort of their homes, and doing stuff,” says Herman. “Almost all the victories we had, it was because people turned it into a grounded campaign. It was a combination of offline and online,” she says about the Delhi ‘rape
case’ petition.

To start a petition on Change.org, a user has to click on a prominent red button on the right side of the website of Change.org that says start a petition. Clicking on it will take the user to another web page, which asks the user about the issue and its importance. Once done with that part, the user is asked to log in either via Facebook or Change.org, add more details, and then the petition goes online.

The next thing is to promote it. As one gets more signatures, the decision-maker and those who are sharing/promoting it, whose email address has been given, keep getting mails. “The platform uses different tools to break the barrier between the decision-maker and the common person,” says Herman.

Stalin K started a petition against untouchability in Karauli, Rajasthan, where Dalit women had to remove their footwear when passing by ‘upper caste’ houses. The petition garnered 5,480 signatures, backing the abolition of the feudal, casteist practice

Meanwhile, the petition about Chanchal’s case, that was started around five months ago, received a massive response. It was delivered to the District Magistrate of Patna, Sharavan Kumar, with more than 63,000 signatures. On receiving the petition, Kumar promised to write to the district judge and public prosecutor and ensure a speedy trial. He said that police would record Chanchal’s statement under Section 164. Today, the petition has 70,000 plus supporters and is seeking 4,000 signatures more to ensure speedy justice for Chanchal.

Indeed, when an English daily ‘planted’ a brazenly celebratory and impossible story on June 23, 2013, about Narendra Modi doing a ‘Chauvinistic Rambo’ in the disaster-struck hills of Uttarakhand by rescuing 15,000 Gujaratis in a jiffy, it led to unprecedented outrage in the social media. Facebook was awash with comments that the newspaper wilfully succumbed to the cash-rich machinations of (“Fekendra/Feku”) Modi’s PR machinery. Change.org immediately started a highly successful petition, calling up the Press Council chairman to take action, both against Modi and the daily, for “masquerading paid advertisement as news”. The newspaper did a quick flip-flop the next day.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2013