New Delhi: On the Facebook group “Mumbai Terror Attacks: I condemn it” (membership 35,166), a new condolence message was posted on 15 June—mourning not a victim of the attacks last year, but the defeat of the Indian cricket team in a Twenty20 match.
A year is a long time in social networking. Facebook groups that sprouted like mushrooms last November, decrying political opportunism and the Centre’s weak security measures, have now become semi-comatose. Offline, citizens’ groups have similarly turned muted, or they have tried to storm the political establishment they once decried.
Until last November, Sathya N., 21, worked at Nirmal building, Nariman Point, near the Trident hotel in Mumbai. After the three-day carnage, when many of her friends were talking about participating in candlelight vigils or meeting groups of people hungry for change, Sathya was busy signing up with online groups forbidden by her parents to participate in the marches.
Sathya joined as many as four Facebook groups. “There was so much raw emotion around those days,” she says over the phone from Mumbai. “I found it easier to deal with my feelings by taking part in online discussions and urging friends to join these groups.”
But by February, things had changed.
“When I look back, I feel if I had not been working in that area at the time, I don’t think I would have been so traumatized or willing to seek out strangers on the Internet to express my feelings,” she says. “Now that emotion has sort of died down.” Sathya hasn’t posted a message on these groups in the last nine months because she says “there has not been much activity on these anyway”.
Evidently, Sathya is not the only non-active member across these groups. Many have seen no activity from members since December; those that have, are littered with off-topic posts. These Facebook groups have thus turned into platforms for random discussions unlinked to 26/11, its impact on Mumbai, or ideas that can bring about the change they once sought.
Among the last few posts on “E.N.O.U.G.H.” (857 members) was an open letter, written on 2 December, to L.K. Advani, asking him to stop “pretending that you care about this country”. On “People Against Terrorism—We Must Take A Stand” (1,997 members), the last post from 27 April talks about why people must vote. “Mumbai Terror Attacks: I condemn it” includes a 27 March post discussing India’s fear of Pakistan; on 11 August, a post advertised a business opportunity for all Mumbaikars.
Protest march: A peace rally organized at the Gateway of India on 3 December 2008. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
On “One Million Strong for Bombay” (23,601 members), a 9 October post concerned the activist Hansel D’Souza, chairman of the Juhu Citizens’ Welfare Group, the Citizens’ Consensus candidate for the Andheri (West) assembly constituency; an earlier post involved the schedule of the Jazz Yatra. On “The Black Badge for Bombay” (853 members), the last post, from 31 August, wonders if Pakistan is a pawn being used by China against India.
“The idea behind ‘Black Badge for Bombay’ initially was to keep the pressure on so that the reaction to the attacks in terms of government preparedness results in concrete action,” says Somasekhar Sundaresan, the group’s creator. “The government has now set up a combat force in Mumbai, which was the stated immediate objective of this movement and pressure group. After that, we needed to move on.”
Sundaresan admits that the posts have not been updated more frequently because he hasn’t worked hard enough to get people interested in newer issues. “Most of my discussions about civil rights movements are restricted to five or six friends who are members of this Facebook group too,” he says. “It is easier to talk to them because I meet them professionally and personally often.” “The Black Badge for Mumbai” has also been unable to organize offline meetings.
What these groups lacked, according to Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, was a dedicated team to keep the momentum going. “They don’t have intelligently incremental action points that keep their audiences increasingly engaged,” he says in an email interview. “The creators often underestimate the importance of offline activities that will keep their audiences motivated. Finally, many of them take their membership for granted and don’t bother sending regular updates or even an occasional thank you.”
It was perhaps the need to sustain momentum that drove some of the offline citizens’ groups into the political sphere. Anil Bahl allied his Let’s Rebuild India with the Professionals Party of India. A group called Jago Mumbai turned into the Jago Party, which fielded a candidate in the Lok Sabha election from north-west Mumbai. (He lost.) “We decided that we couldn’t do anything alone,” says Bhuresh Barot, a working member of the Jago Party. “You need to be in power to do anything.”
As his party’s south Mumbai coordinator, Barot witnessed a rapid dissolution of voter outrage back into voter apathy; in the Lok Sabha election, the turnout stood at 43.3%. “The main reason seemed to be that voters thought they already knew the ideology of every party,” Barot theorizes. “And they decided they simply didn’t have faith in the candidates.”
Residues of faith do remain, however, in the power of social networking. Ruben Mascarenhas, a 22-year-old member of the Yuva Satta movement in Mumbai, believes that intelligent use of social networking sites to generate awareness is what will eventually usher in many revolutions in the country. “Post-26/11, I realized that online activism is not just about the euphoria that comes with creating a group or having 500 people sign up in a matter of days,” Mascarenhas says. “You also need the energy to sustain these groups.” He says he knows now that creating online groups with fewer but committed individuals, who give ideas and work on them, is a better model to follow than signing on strangers who will invest just a few minutes online.
The 26/11 online groups lost their followers, Abraham argues, only because “there was no unified vision of where these groups wanted to go. Properly designed advocacy efforts on the Internet such as that of Michael Geist from Canada, who managed to block anti-consumer changes to the copyright law by using a Facebook group, will and can work”.
That may be true. But it may also just be as Barot says: “People got busy. This is Mumbai. This is a fact of life.”