What change.org tells us about India

Online petitions can certainly help us understand what people want—the direction of aspirations rather than the bubble of individual desires

A quick look through change.org revealed an impressive array of causes that spring to life in the petitions.
A quick look through change.org revealed an impressive array of causes that spring to life in the petitions.

Months before the Orlando killings, a petition landed in my inbox. It wanted the government to amend a Raj-era law, Section 377, that criminalizes same-sex relationships, even between consenting adults.

“What does an MP do if Parliament won’t discuss his bill? Circulate a Petition! Please sign via @ChangeOrg_India,” said the petitioner, former Union minister Shashi Tharoor. “If enough of us speak up, we can make the Prime Minister rethink Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.”

Since the petition, Parliament has voted the bill down twice, and the nation of 1.2 billion continues to be weighed down by an antiquated legislation from 160 years ago, a law pregnant with Victorian morals.

I was one of the 66,521 people who signed the petition. I will continue to do so as long as this inequitous law remains in place in its current form. This month’s killing of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, US, by a man whose ex-wife described him as “mentally ill”, should make governments sit up and review their responsibilities.

What did the online petition signify? That the digital platform—connectivity, a computer and the Internet—is clearly becoming a powerful tool (even when it fails, or seemingly fails) of citizenry and citizen action in a nation that craves transparency, accountability, social justice and clean governance.

Change.org is a global movement—a digital crankshaft to move along the wheels of democracy by e-prodding the process of governance. Once elections are over, ending what is the most visible and celebrated aspect of democracy, governments in varying degrees tend to retreat behind opacity—a habit of privilege—gradually shutting out electors from the elected.

India, the world’s largest democracy, in particular has a need for constant vigilance against a widespread tendency towards corruption and corrosion as well as for constant renewal and refinement of democratic values and principles.

A quick look through change.org revealed an impressive array of causes that spring to life in the petitions.

“The Coconut Tree in Goa is no longer a tree. It’s Grass!” begins one. “The Government recently decided to reclassify Coconuts Trees in Goa. Now, cutting these trees does not require a Government permission...” Sign this petition to “help retain Goa’s beauty forever”.

This is an endemic problem. The past two years have been replete with government attempts to try and juggle with definitions. Not enough forest cover because you have allowed miners to move in? Never mind, redefine forests. Want to cull animals such as monkeys because farmers have encroached? Call these animals vermin. Job done.

Change.org was launched by Stanford University graduate Ben Rattray in 2012; but although it has a dot org domain name, it is actually a company. Rattray, however, stresses the essential non-profit character of the business model.

One of its best-known campaigns was led by a South African woman, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activist Ndumie Funda, against the horrific practice of corrective rape, where lesbians are raped to “straighten” them, a practice that has been reported in India as well. After Funda’s petition made its way around the world, causing outrage and prompting signatures in an astounding 175 countries, the South African government legislated to outlaw the practice.

In India, one of the more recent and high-profile petitions on change.org was over attempts to censor the Bollywood movie Udta Punjab—about drug abuse in Punjab. The movie has been cleared by the Bombay high court with a single cut against the 13 sought by the Central Board of Film Certification. I asked change.org India head Preethi Herman what this bewildering array of petitions told her about India.

“That Indians are a really active lot,” she replied. “That regular people, not just celebrities, are writing petitions, demanding change within the community and outside, demanding accountability, roads, water, teachers in schools.”

“That people want to reach out; that we Indians are not shy. Most people on the site are not activists, but people realize that using technology for democracy is an effective way to engage.”

I asked Herman to list out some of her favourite Indian “victories” (that’s what they call successful petitions), and it turned out to be a pretty formidable list. There are many—500-600 according to Herman—but one stands out. In July 2014, a six-year-old girl was raped by a school gym instructor and security guard. The incident sparked outrage in India, where 36,735 rapes took place in 2014.

Amid calls for hanging the rapists, a woman petitioned for guidelines to be drafted for the safety of children in schools. It attracted 200,000 signatures. “A minister called her and within a week, the guidelines were done,” Herman said. Who started the petition? “It was just regular person with a two-year-old child.”

There are 4.3 million Indians on change.org and a third of them have been part of a winning campaign, says Herman. I think it is quite likely that a large number of them are women, highlighting gender issues that would otherwise be ignored by authorities (simple things like safety from food deliverers).

Celebrity petitioners have included entrepreneur and lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar (petition on child sexual abuse); the Confederation of Indian Industry (pass the goods and services tax, end Parliament logjam); ex-banker and Aam Aadmi Party leader Meera Sanyal (remove coal mounds from Mumbai); filmmaker Onir Char (save indie cinema); Shashi Tharoor (scrap Section 377) and lawmaker Milind Deora (make Mumbai mayor accountable).

This virtual assembly of citizens, to my mind, complements the town square. But activists need to be wary of attempts to regulate, censor and watch over what they are doing online. The change.org petition on Section 377 failed in Parliament, but that’s not the point. The petitioner’s last mile cannot just be the Indian Parliament. The last mile is the creation of awareness through informed debate, which is one hallmark of representative democracy.

We probably won’t change the world through petition and prayer. But online petitions can certainly help us understand what people want—the direction of aspirations rather than the bubble of individual desires. In a perfect world of perfectly anticipated aspirations, leaders wouldn’t need to be petitioned with anything. We’re not there yet.

In the meanwhile, let a million petitions bloom.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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