Maymay wahi banaenge I: Ambiguous politics in globalized and localized online memetic cultures

by Krishanu Bhargav.

This post will begin with an example, and it is hoped that the process of fleshing it out shall help in identifying the dynamic processes that are involved in defining a meme. These dynamics, it is assumed, will also help in understanding the way in which memes, as carriers of everyday banal humour, can also be deployed to create statements on issues of secularism and religious politics in India, and the ambiguity that can inhere to such efforts.

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Selection of memes:” heading_tag=”h4″ alignment=”left” main_heading_margin=”margin-top:-15px;margin-bottom:20px;”][/ultimate_heading]

A majority of the memes discussed here were shared and disseminated on Facebook pages and profiles, which also sometimes create memes with images and issues specific to the socio-political milieu of the region (it is usually quite difficult to locate the originators and the sites of origin of particular memes). Twitter, too, sometimes serves as a space where memes relating to developments highlighted in the news media are created with lightning speed. However, when it comes to global templates and trends in meme-making, Know Your Meme serves as an excellent reference directory for all things memetic on the internet, and recourse has been taken to this site whenever necessary in this post.

For this research, the internet shall be treated as an archive, especially where ‘memes’ are data that are ‘found’ rather than ‘made’ (Jensen, 2011). When researching online practices, online public discourse and digital artifacts such as memes, (Milner, 2012) argues in favour of an approach that begins with a wide-scale ‘exploratory orientation’. The research sites are then narrowed down by following a particular ‘discursive strand’, which in the case of this research would be memes featuring the commentary on secularism, religious pluralism and national belonging.

Hence, for this blog post and the project, a few Facebook pages have been chosen based on their relevance to the themes of this project and also the volume of online traffic these pages enjoy. Most of these sites usually enjoy a high volume of traffic in content such as memes, and have a huge number of ‘Likes’ and ‘Followers’, going into the hundreds of thousands. Another criteria for choosing them would also be the avowedly political stance taken up by these sites on many issues.

  • The Frustrated Indian[2]
  • Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy[3]
  • Aaji Haan[4]
  • Unofficial: Dr. Arnab Goswami[5]
  • Hindu Nationalist Anime Girls (although not a page with as massive a following as the rest, this page was selected for reasons elaborated later in this post)
  • History of India [6](memes from this page have been featured in the second blogpost)

Certain memes have also been sourced from the news articles (available online) because such articles often feature memes of a certain genre or memes on a certain event or person iterations of which have been found in the Facebook pages mentioned above.

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Politics of secularism:” heading_tag=”h4″ alignment=”left” main_heading_margin=”margin-top:-15px;margin-bottom:20px;”][/ultimate_heading]

Secularism in post-independence India has had a chequered past, conceptually, legally and as an everyday practice. In addition to the distinctions among the secular, secularization and the secularism that scholarship on the subject has posited[7], in Indian debates the principal questions have been definitional – does secularism mean a separation of the state with any religious institution or does it stand for equal treatment of all faiths in India’s multi-religious milieu (Chandhoke, 2010)? The legal and the popular discourses have had a strong accent towards the later, as provisions for the protection of religious minorities has also been sought. This treatment of secularism has been put into use in sampling the memes under discussion here, as the stances and commentaries these memes bear often reflect the tensions around a diverse religious and cultural milieu.

The ‘exploratory’ stage, as Milner puts it, involved determining that the sites mentioned above would be best suited to this project (the choices were also informed by my research experience of the past few years for my M. Phil. thesis). I used the Google Chrome browser’s DownAlbum extension to download all the images in these pages and then selected those memes that at least partially dealt with issues pertaining to the topic of secularism and a diverse religious milieu (this is the ‘discursive strand’ to be tracked for this project). Purposive sampling was carried out to select the images most pertinent to this project. As these pages were often avowedly political I eliminated those memes that dealt with topics such as corruption, environmental degradation. I also eliminated those images that were limited to being commentaries on topics such as secularism without being memetic (the limits of what can be considered ‘memetic’ shall be discussed further in this and subsequent blogs). Among the memes selected special attention was given to those memes that were part of a genre, such as the ‘nahi karni thi…’ memes or the ‘hotline bling’ memes as they seem to be the widely recognized and worked upon by users.A definitional instance

Limor Shifman defined an internet meme as follows:

‘A group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users’ (Shifman, 2014: 7-8)

This is a definition that is widely cited in the existing scholarship on internet memes, and is one of the most circumspect. If we were to unpack one of the memes already put up in this blog as an example, the definition would be further concretized:

This meme draws upon the controversy created by the Bollywood actress Kajol posting a video on Twitter, which celebrates the opening of a new restaurant by her friend in Mumbai. The video featured her enjoying a dish prepared with beef by the same friend (she clarified in a later tweet that it was buffalo meat, which is legally available)[9] . The video immediately went ‘viral’ as consumption and trade of beef has emerged as a sensitive issue, especially gaining strength over the past 2-3 years as cases of ‘cow vigilantism’ has increased, polarizing communities and leading to mob lynchings and loss of livelihoods[10] .

The form and content of this image draws from pop-culture (the question of ‘stance’ shall be discussed later and in the subsequent writings). The image on top is from the Bollywood film ‘Dhamaal’ which was released in 2009, and features

the actor Vijay Raaz (who plays an exasperating air traffic controller in the film)[11] . The text says “Do you see a bowl of beef right in front of you?’. The image below is that of Kajol speaking into a mike and the annotated text says (in reply to the first image) “Yes, (and) I have posted it on Facebook” (an obvious factual error as the video was posted on Twitter). The final image contains the punch-line (borrowed from the movie) which translates roughly as “shouldn’t have done that” (‘nahi karni thi’).

The line is the defining and typifying component of the meme. This meme follows an established template where ‘Nahi karni thi’ serves as the punch-line while the lines ‘Do you see….in front of you’ sets up the joke; the image on top and bottom remains the same, with annotational variations. The image in between is usually used to contextualize the meme. In Fig. 2 below, the meme admonishes the Indian rapper for remixing vintage songs (‘Do you see that old hit song’ -> ‘Yes, remixed that’ -> Shouldn’t have done that’). These images and others have been created with the understanding that it would be comprehensible to many others on the internet; those who come across the meme would be able to ‘read’ the meme and recall the humour infused in the original cinematic scenes, as well understand the different contexts in which it could be transformed (such as Kajol’s beef controversy, and remixes of the rapper Badshah). These readers may in turn carry out photo-editing operations on it and annotate it to make a meme on another issue.

Fig. 1: A meme on Kajol’s beef controversy in a ‘Nahi Karni Thi’ template

Source: Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy (Facebook page)[8]
[1] https://www.facebook.com/SusuSwamy/

Thus, many online ‘prosumers’ (producers + consumers) seem to share the cultural literacy to know that this is a trend and imitate this template with certain modifications to make various statements. The three (or more) images stacked on top of each other constitute a narrative. The stacked images are in the form of image macros, and in Ryan Milner’s tentative taxonomy of memetic content, this series of memes are of the ‘stacked stills’ type, which consist of images macros[12]stacked on top of each other which may or may not be annotated (Milner, 2012: 85).

Thus, a meme that came into being initially by drawing upon a popular cultural form (a Bollywood movie), that is avidly followed in many parts of India, and was used to comment upon everyday, banal issues such as a cricket team, career and work-life etc[13]. is repurposed to capture the hysteria surrounding the consumption of beef, as well as the broader implications of this to secularism in India. This is in keeping with Ethan Zuckerman’s ‘cute cats theory of digital activism’, wherein he posits that practices such as making funny memes can be channeled towards political ends using the same skills utilised towards achieving banal ends; the same ecology created through practices such as inscribing texts into edited photos of cats aimed at humorous ends (a popular form of memes) can be used to stage a socio-political commentary [14](Zuckerman, 2015).

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Significant obstacles have continued to challenge a secularist (in the sense of equal treatment of all faiths and freedom to participate in religious and cultural practices) milieu in India. The issue of consumption of beef has remained a major source of communal conflagrations, as there have been attempts by certain right-wing Hindu outfits propagating majoritarian ideals to forcibly or legally prohibit the sale of cow meat (this has also been a mode of political mobilization, electoral or otherwise, since pre-independence times in the form of ‘cow protection’). There has been an uptick in recent years in the number of cases where vigilantes have carried out violent attacks on members of minority communities suspected of consuming or trading in cow meat in the name of ‘cow protection’[15].

Fig. 2: ‘Nahi karna tha’ meme with rapper Badshah
Source: www.newsshare.in

Significant obstacles have continued to challenge a secularist (in the sense of equal treatment of all faiths and freedom to participate in religious and cultural practices) milieu in India. The issue of consumption of beef has remained a major source of communal conflagrations, as there have been attempts by certain right-wing Hindu outfits propagating majoritarian ideals to forcibly or legally prohibit the sale of cow meat (this has also been a mode of political mobilization, electoral or otherwise, since pre-independence times in the form of ‘cow protection’). There has been an uptick in recent years in the number of cases where vigilantes have carried out violent attacks on members of minority communities suspected of consuming or trading in cow meat in the name of ‘cow protection’[15].

The consumption of beef is also entangled with the caste-based hierarchy of Indian society[16], and the consumption of beef even among upper-caste Hindus has also been documented and studied[17]. While the meme in Fig. 1 is operating with a backdrop that has been determined by these historical processes and issues, there is an immediacy to memes that allows them to reflect the zeitgeist, even if partially. Stephanie Vie operationalizes the rhetorical category of kairos in Greek thought to better understand the impact of the ‘marriage equality’ meme that was imitated by many (usually as their Facebook profile picture) as well as being transformed, sometimes to serve entirely different purposes (Vie, 2014). Kairos refers not to a chronological notion of time but rather to a certain ‘timeliness’ of a text or gesture, a sense of the ‘right time’ or the most opportune time when it has the most impact upon those who reading it (Sipiora, 2002). For Vie, the meme allowed the exercise of critical faculties as it “involves reading even a simple Internet meme as a text with embedded and multiple meanings, depending on the audience’s understandings of and reactions to the text” and allowing those “reading” the meme to take a position vis-à-vis the messages of the meme (the capacity of memetic texts to create in-groups and out-groups shall be explored further in the later blogs). Even the casual transmission of this meme as something “interesting” or “popular” at the moment had the ultimate effect of creating a supportive environment for the LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Fig. 1 similarly allows its readers to position themselves vis-à-vis the image and the possible political stances it bears, with the immediacy and “timeliness” of the meme acting as a fillip towards engagement, imitation and further transformation at other such “kairotic” moments. This “kairotic” political engagement is also driven by the low “cultural latency” of online content i.e. the period of time for which digital content has an effect (Yakob, 2009).

This meme was sampled from ‘Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy’, one of the Facebook pages to be studied as a part of this project. This is not the only meme related to beef consumption and the hysteria surrounding it that the page had uploaded.

The memes in figures 3 and 4 were occasioned by the Bharatiya Janta Party government’s decision in Haryana to have roadside biryani stalls to be checked and samples collected from them to be tested for the presence of beef ahead of the Muslim religious festival of  Eid-ul –Adha in September, 2016[18].

Fig. 3:          Fig. 4:
Source: Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy (Facebook page)

Figure 3 seems to be an image of someone vomiting that has been repurposed through the textual annotations to seem like somebody is sniffing the toilet for the smell of beef in excreta; the meme follows the usual stylistic presentation of a ‘set-up’ line (‘Haryana Government sniffing whether’) followed by the punch-line (‘Beef biryani or mutton biryani’). Figure 4 features a meme which seems to set upon the ubiquitous posters or newspaper advertisements for jobs in India. As incidents of violence due to the hysteria over beef, cow meat and vigilante violence stemming from notions of ‘cow protection’ or ‘Gau Raksha’ proliferated, so did the memes:

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”‘Globalized’ iterations and ‘local’ contentions” heading_tag=”h4″ alignment=”left” main_heading_margin=”margin-top:-15px;margin-bottom:20px;”][/ultimate_heading]

The meme in figure 5 presents an interesting case. The two images on the left featuring Irrfan Khan are a re-creation of another meme template that is popular across the globe – the Drake ‘Hotline Bling’ meme. The meme usually consists of four panels (like in Fig. 5), with the panel on the top left a still from the Canadian rapper Drake’s music video ‘Hotline Bling’ with Drake’s hand gesture and facial expression apparently signaling dislike or disinclination towards something (contained in the panel on the top right) while the image on the bottom left captures an approving gesture from the singer in the same music video. In Figure 6, for instance, Drake seemingly expresses dislike for the online streaming service Netflix, while expressing approval of the peer-to-peer file sharing platform Pirate Bay.

Fig. 5

Source: Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy (Facebook page)

Fig. 6
Source: www.dailydot.com[19]

Fig. 7

Source: www.huffingtonpost.com[22]

The meme in figure 5 was a conscious effort by the online Indian comedy group ‘All India Bakchod’ to create Indian versions of popular internet memes with the Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan as part of a promotional drive for one of his films[20]. The original meme was quite innocuous, and was meant to evoke humour, as can be seen in Figure 7. However, due to the affordances of contemporary photo-editing facilities[21], the image was re-purposed to make a statement on cow vigilantism and the obsession with cows and cow meat in the national media and national conversations over concrete issues of unemployment, poverty, civic amenities or sexual violence; Irrfan Khan displays disinclination towards the latter, and displays a look of approval at the former. Zuckerman’s ‘cute cats theory’ seems to be in operation in this instance as well.

(To be continued)..

[1] A popular distorted pronunciation of the word ‘meme’ in Indian online spaces

[2] https://www.facebook.com/TheFrustratedIndian/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/SusuSwamy/

[4] https://www.facebook.com/AjiHaanLive/?ref=br_rs

[5] https://www.facebook.com/unoffarnabgoswami/

[6] https://www.facebook.com/RealHistoryPicture/

[7] See Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford University Press, Casanova, J. (2009). The secular and secularisms. Social research, 1049-1066.

[8] https://www.facebook.com/SusuSwamy/

[9] Hindustan Times Correspondents (2017) Kajol explains her viral ‘beef’ video: It was legally available buffalo meat, 01 May, [Online], Available: http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/kajol-explains-her-viral-beef-video-it-was-legally-available-buffalo-meat/story-0SgLycJ3NkBrz0NnGGY8yK.html [4 September 2017].

[10] See The Hindu Net Desk (2017) Prominent attacks by cow vigilantes since 2015, 29 June, [Online], Available: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/prominent-attacks-by-cow-vigilantes-since-2015/article19161871.ece [21 Semptember 2017]

[11] Here is a YouTube link to a clip of the movie that features this scene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EocHhTd6fqI

[12] Memetic images are often in form of image macros, a format where text superimposed on the image, usually on the top and bottom

[13] Arshpreet (2017) Vijay Raaz “Nahi Karna Tha” Dhamaal Film Meme That You Can’t Miss, 7 May, [Online], Available: http://www.newsshare.in/vijay-raaz-nahi-karna-tha-dhamaal-meme-3308.html [12 September 2017]

[14] Zuckerman noticed that more often than not, specialised digital tools meant to empower activists in political movements (especially in those countries where regimes impose stringent censorship measures) prove to be of limited assistance as compared to those tools and platforms that are used by individuals with only limited digital literacy. Zuckerman’s proposed hypothesis draws from cases such as Tunisia, where the France –based popular online video-sharing website Dailymotion was blocked by the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for hosting a video made through the remixing of an advertisement of Apple computers from 1984. The Apple advertisement video was based on Orwell’s 1984, and Tunisian activists had replaced a scene where Big Brother is seen instructing a docile crowd with that of Ben Ali. See Zuckerman, E. (2008) The Cute Cat Theory Talk at ETech, 8 March, [Online], Available: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/03/08/the-cute-cat-theory-talk-at-etech/ [9 August 2016].

[15] See IndiaSpend (2017) Cow vigilantism in India: 2017 sees 26 cases of cattle-related violence; most in 8 years, 29 July, [Online], Available: http://www.firstpost.com/india/cow-vigilantism-in-india-2017-sees-26-cases-of-cattle-related-violence-most-in-8-years-3869765.html [17 September 2017]

[16] See Ilaiah, K. (1996) ‘Beef, BJP and Food Rights of People’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 31, no. 24, June.

[17] See D. N. Jha (2002). The myth of the holy cow. Verso.

[18] http://www.firstpost.com/india/biryani-policing-ahead-of-eid-haryana-police-assigned-to-check-samples-for-beef-2995852.html

[19] https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/best-drake-memes/

[20] The comedy clip involved the recreation of several memes from what Whitney Phillips calls the ‘golden years’ of the trolling sub-culture, running from 2008-2011 such as ‘Success Kid’, ‘Condescending Willy Wonka’ etc. (Meme-making and trolling arose from the same corner of the internet, 4chan and its image-boards). Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3qoXx1zSaw

[21] These image-based memes and the period of their wide popularity coincides with important developments in the Adobe Photohop software. It was marketed ever since its inception in 1990 as a photo-editing tool for the ‘masses’. In 1994 Photoshop 3.0 included the features of adding ‘layers’. This enables users to work with ‘individual slices of the image that go together to make the final “sandwich” of the image’. As newer and better versions of the software started appearing in the market it became easier to tinker with images and still have an output of considerable quality. Photoshop 5.0 and Photoshop 6.0 enabled users to insert text into the pictures and Photoshop 5.5 had mechanisms to adjust image quality for usage on the internet. See West, A. (2010) 20 Years of Adobe Photoshop , 1 February, [Online], Available: http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2010/02/20-years-of-adobe-photoshop/ [27 December 2016]

[22] http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2017/05/17/here-is-some-meme-mania-with-irrfan-khan-and-aib_a_22094843/ . Biswa refers to Biswa Kalyan Rath, a popular Indian stand-up comic

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