Culture, Conflict and Cyberspace: Towards a Bodo Digital Identity


This is the fourth and final research note from Ankush Bhuyan, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2016.

Framing Conflict: The Bodo Online Narrative

The Death Valley (2012) is a multilingual short film by Rajiv Saikia that aims to capture the 2012 ethnic conflict between the Bodos and Muslims, highlighting how innocent civilians from both sides are caught in the crossfire.[1] This fictional account tells the story of a Bodo man and a Muslim man who are on friendly terms. Their peaceful existence is disrupted when ethnic conflict erupts. The Bodo man is chased by a group of Muslim men before being brutally murdered while his Muslim friend is killed as he tries to save him. Afterwards, the women of the two families leave with their children because of the unsafe environment. But on the way their shared vehicle is ambushed by a group of men who are hunting down Muslims, and they start to indiscriminately shoot at the passengers, killing everyone except the woman wearing the Dokhona and two children who manage to escape. Before leaving, the men harshly reprimand the Bodo woman for trying to leave her homeland.

Fig. 1Fig. 1. Villages burning in the distant, a fictitious depiction of the 2012 ethnic clash between Bodo and Bengali-speaking Muslims. A screenshot from the short film The Death Valley (2012). See Pocket Films – Indian Short Films. “Short Film ‘The Death Valley’ | Pocket Films.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube. 27 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 July. 2016.

Shot with a digital camera, the online afterlife of this film on YouTube is a telling example of how identity and conflict change as they enter social media spaces. The comments section of the video stands in stark contrast to the message of the film itself, with many comments calling for the killing of Muslims and calling people from such places savage, while only a few focus on the loss of innocent lives. It is almost as though the tragedy portrayed in the film, when framed within social media, polarises opinion and elicits assertions of identities through a language of hate. In such exchanges, the ethnic conflict is almost devoid of any specific causation, just as the film itself glides over the role of the state, government, police, land distribution and historical injustices in bringing up and sustaining the conflict. Conflict is therefore naturalised, as a part of life, and social media users, from both sides of the identity divide, have no other way to express their reaction to such content but by looking at the conflict itself as the marker of their identity.

On 5th August 2016, there was a terrorist attack where a group of masked men opened fired at civilians in a busy market area in Kokrajhar, the administrative centre of the Bodoland Territorial Council.[2] The terrorist attack has been attributed to the insurgent group NDFB(S), which has subsequently denied any involvement. In this atmosphere of uncertainty over who committed these attacks, and with conflicting accounts and opinions in mainstream media, social media has once again emerged as a space to negotiate Bodo politics and identity. People are sharing posts where mainstream newspaper headlines such as “14 dead as Bodo men target Assam market” are circulating. Many are calling out such news headlines as anti-Bodo for not being able to differentiate between a terrorist group and a community.[3] Monjib Mochahari (2016) writes that “Among 14 dead, six of them were Bodos. For those who read the headlines, it misrepresents the community… Bodo is not a name of any terrorist group but a largest tribal community in entire Northeast India, whose political struggle for equality, justice and democracy has always been equated with violence by been intellectuals, politicians, media persons (sic).”[4] Also in circulation are unconfirmed links between the terrorist outfit and ISIS. This linking of the Bodo conflict with ISIS furthers the common stereotype of the Bodos as violent people who are to be blamed for the problems in the region.

Fig. 2Fig. 2. Screenshots of headlines that blame ‘Bodo’ men for the terrorist attack on the 5th of August, 2016. See Mochahari Monjib. Media Terrorism or Presstitudes: How Media Reported Kokrajhar Violence. The Password. The Password. 07 Aug. 2016. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

Fig. 3Fig. 3. An apology issued by The Hindu shared on the Facebook page, THE BODOS after people on social media criticised about the misleading headlines that malign the Bodo community. An open letter was written to The Hindu after which this clarification was issued. See THE BODOS. “#TheHindu has finally corrected it’s editorial blunder on Kokrajhar terror attack but not recognised misuse of the term #Bodo.” Facebook. Facebook. 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Just as in the case of The Death Valley, social media reactions in the aftermath of this attack indicate how violence, fear and conflict, whether real or imagined, are pivotal in bringing forth discussions and assertions of identity. In both cases, the Bodo identity assumes significance through the narrative of conflict, and this sometimes translates into a de-contexualising or re-contexualising of information and content, where not only is the specific post read through the paradigm of identity but a certain form of identity is reaffirmed through the specific framing of such posts. This dialogic relationship between online content and Bodo identity presents us with an opportunity to look at just how identities are generated, sustained and challenged in the digital world.

Digital Identity

Uddipana Goswami (2014) points towards migration as one of the key reasons for conflict in the Northeast.[5] Nandana Dutta (2012) also points at migration as a crucial aspect of much of the conflict in the region where hybridity is a constant threat.[6] Smaller ethnic communities blend with larger tribes according to the convenience of the moment leading to a tug of war between different ethnic groups over land and territorial domination (Bhaumik, 2009).[7] Identity and community play a key role because it has historically always been one community over the other that has tended to dominate the land and rule the people. Identity plays a differentiator of people not just in terms of cultural differences but domination as well.

Samir Kumar Das (2013) writes that “The newly emergent national, regional and global networks… produce both identity and difference- not only homogenizations but also heterogenizations albeit within a global ‘imperial order’. The low-to-middle ranking labour from the Northeast may have become part of the world labour market- ‘imperial order’ as they call it- but they are also not a part of it” (9).[8] Bodos are a community spread over the country in different sectors of work with great internal variations. The presence of a Bodo identity in social media, in this global network established by the ‘imperial order’ that Das writes about, clearly generates both identity and difference. In social media, Bodos irrespective of their immediate surroundings, physical and socio-economic location, engage in affirming a Bodo identity that is at once based on a certain etymology embedded in immediate ‘roots’ and ‘origins’, as well as an integration and blending of the specific identity with the neoliberal global narrative that is almost a precondition for accessing and participating in the online world. This duality is not unique to Bodo identity since much of the same has happened to other identities when members move to metropolitan cities looking for work and newer experiences as they become part of the modern world and engage with social media which is a component of this new lifestyle. In this sense, the Bodo identity online is not merely an automatic digitisation of any prior identity, but is a different patchwork of Bodo identity, generated in the online world because it is enabled by the online world. It is, so to say, a user driven digital identity which,[9] through the specific cultural or political content that is circulated, enables an assertion of choice (a prescriptive identity) as well as a negotiation of difference between the Bodo and the non-Bodo in the online world (a descriptive identity).[10]

Fig. 4Fig. 4. Search results of #bodoland on the popular image sharing social media website Instagram

What is the Bodo Digital Identity?

For me the term ‘digital identity’ captures the proliferation of the political and cultural content online, in this case, that has to do with Bodo identity and the struggle for a separate state where through the computer interface individual aspirations and larger aspirations of identification and recognition coalesce. But social media is a dynamic landscape. Geert Lovink (2013) has written that it is rather difficult to research social media because it is constantly changing and is fluid in nature, where he points that the problem is of disappearance rather than mutation.[11] Bernard Stiegler (2013) points that digital networks have redefined proximity and has turned it into what he calls trans-individuation where meanings are understood in a shared manner and the meanings evolve whereby triggering a process that transforms the network and the world.[12] The Bodo presence on social media is not a block of meaning containing fixed codes that indicate a stable Bodo identity. Apart from the language, rituals, the clothing, the political movement for a separate homeland, Bodo identity online seemingly fractures into multiple streams.

In the last two posts, by mapping the terrain on social media, I have attempted to capture some of these multiple streams by highlighting how a variety of online content focuses on different aspects of Bodo life. We have seen how there is a great proliferation of news and information related to the conflict and demand for a separate Bodo homeland, while there is also a correspondingly large number of posts and media on several cultural aspects of Bodo life, ranging from music to cuisine and fashion. However, as I have discussed earlier, the paradigm of conflict plays a critical role in assertions of Bodo identity. The widespread use of the term ‘Bodo’ in titling and captioning media circulated online indicates a desire to assert a specific Bodo identity, with both the political and the seemingly apolitical content driven by the same desire to create an online footprint of a user-driven Bodo digital identity.

While the online content about attacks, conflict and demands for Bodoland are fairly straightforward in being a descriptive attempt of asserting Bodo identity, highlighting the threats, fear, persecution and violence that Bodos are subjected to, it is the seemingly apolitical content that is more fascinating. Posts on recipes, fashion shows, rap songs or just pictures of friends out on a drive, when consciously titled as ‘Bodo’ or #bodoland and circulated online, serve to counter the stereotype that Bodos are a violent people. In highlighting the cultural intricacies of Bodo lifestyle, and in portraying the richness of Bodo tradition, such online content seeks to position this newly emerging Bodo identity alongside other ‘normal’ identities that are present online, and show how Bodos are unique but at the same time just like any other ethnic group striving to protect and preserve their culture and tradition. Conflict is key to understanding the proliferation of such media as on the one hand, documenting atrocities against Bodos serves to inform and warn the online community of the threat that Bodo identity faces, while the cultural content shows how not only are the Bodos not a violent community, but frames their neoliberal globalised ambitions of being successful and prosperous.

Fig. 5Fig. 5. An illustration of the map of Bodoland and Assam from the call ‘Divide Assam 50/50’ that was proposed in the late 1980s by Upendra Brahma. See BODOLANDOBSERVER. “Bodoland: The Burden of History.” bodolandobserver. 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 21 July. 2016.

Monjib Mochahari (2013) who has conducted a study on the news coverage from the region has found that 45% of the blame on the riots and violence is because of Bodo militancy.[13] He argues that the reasons for conflicts and violence is covered in the news marginally. Speaking to Mr. Mochahari who is one of the administrators of the Facebook page THE BODOS told me that social media has helped in reaching out to people and making the ground reality of Bodoland more visible to a larger audience who is interested.[14] In this tug of war between portraying a peace loving people versus a violent one, what emerges from social media is that Bodo identity is a product of its political-historical outcome which is varied in its aspirations. Social Media and cyberspace, in this context, is a unique process where the Bodo identity is undergoing a transformation into becoming a digital identity that is premised on conflict and the need to assert and make visible the life ad culture of a community that is denied its homeland in the offline world. It is the making of a virtual homeland, one where cultural content can be shared and secured for posterity, while at the same time is a space to galvanise opinion and concretise a specific Bodo identity that is persecuted.

Over the course of the last few months, I have spoken to people who are Bodo filmmakers, artists, students, writers, political and social media activists regarding their work and just in generally, their thoughts and perceptions that concern Bodo identity and films. However, I find it limiting to label people through their community because as I have come to understand that people are more than just the community they come from or the language they speak or the clothes they wear. Identity is a nebulous and slippery minefield of multiple codes and gestures that mutate and transform depending on the need. For me, this constructivist approach of understanding identity is the key question since what is that ‘need’ that triggers something that takes on the form of a collective conscious to become one against the other for it to become discernible yet not wholly comprehensible or tangible. In semiotics, a word comes to mean and be defined by what it is not, which in similar ways so is identity. The ramifications and repercussions of what-it-is-not is a long story that has caused many conflicts whose seeds were sowed in some crevice of history to germinate over the years and the fruits of it we continue to see today as it intertwines with other narratives that make it rather complex and difficult to see it as separate. The digital world has emerged as a new arena for the negotiation of identities and the Bodo identity, as it emerges into cyberspace, is bound to undergo transitions and transformations unique to the digital paradigm.

Notes:

[1] See, Pocket Films – Indian Short Films. “Short Film ‘The Death Valley’ | Pocket Films.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube. 27 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 July. 2016.

[2] See, Mochahari, Monjib. Ground Report: Photos Of Terror Attack In Assam, 14 Civilians Killed. YKA. Youth Ki Awaaz. 06 Aug. 2016. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

[3] See, Mochahari Monjib. Media Terrorism or Presstitudes: How Media Reported Kokrajhar Violence. ThePassword. The Password. 07 Aug. 2016. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Goswami, Uddipana. Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam. London, New York, New Delhi: Routledge, 2014. Print.

[6] See Dutta, Nandana. Introduction. Questions of Identity in Assam: Location, Migration, Hybridity. By Dutta. New Delhi: Sage. 2012. PDF.

[7] See Bhaumik, Subir. India’s North East: Frontier to Region. Troubled Periphery: The Crisis of India’s North East. By Bhaumik. New Delhi: Sage. 2009. 1-24. PDF.

[8]  See Das, Samir K. Governing India’s Northeast: An Introduction. Governing Indias Northeast: Essays on Insurgency, Development and the Culture of Peace. By Das. New Delhi: Springer. 2013. 1-16. PDF.

[9] The term ‘digital identity’ according to Wikipedia is a technical one for computer usage that allows a computer to identify interaction without human involvement, allowing computers to mediate relationships wherein the computer can represent people.However, I have taken the liberty of using the same to denote a group of people or a community in the virtual world leaving digital footprints to be read and understood as a form of identity in its own right.

[10] The term originally comes from the usage by Hal Abelson and Lawrence Lessig (1998) where they focus on individual identities that are unique. See Abelson, Hal and Lawrence Lessig. Digital Identity in Cyberspace. MIT.edu. 10 Dec. 1998. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.

[11] See Lovink, Geert. A World Beyond Facebook: Introduction to the Unlike Us Reader. Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives. INC Reader 8. Ed by Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Culture. 2013. EPUB.

[12] See Stiegler, Bernard. The Most Precious Good in the Era of Social Technologies. Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives. INC Reader 8. Ed by Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Culture. 2013. EPUB.

[13] See Mochahari, Monjib. The Politics of Media Representation of Bodo-Muslim Ethnic Clash in Assam. Journal of Northeast Region. JONER. Jan-Dec (2013): 33-46. PDF.

[14] Telephonic conversation with Monjib Mochahari 03 July, 2016.

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Published on: August 6, 2016


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