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Caste Based Communities on Orkut Mirror India's Splintered Society

One of the main themes of my research on digital activism is that social technologies are value-agnostic.

At each of the four levels of Content, Collaboration, Community and Collective Intelligence, social technologies can lead to both good and bad outcomes.

I have written before about Shiv Sena's militant approach towards Orkut communities critical of the party, its leader Bal Thakeray, or its Hindutva ideology. Caste-based communities on Orkut are another disturbing example of online communities mirroring the dysfunctions in Indian society.

Orkut Caste based Brahmin Community

For instance, there are more than 1000 communities for Brahmins on Orkut. There are 461 Brahmin communities listed under culture and community, 591 under religion and beliefs, 87 under activities and 117 under others.

One of the most popular Brahmin community, with 28, 726 members, randomly claims: “we r clever & hardworking. no one can fool us…” The Brahmans community with 41952 members and the Brahmins of India community with 30588 members are also very popular.

The other popular Brahmin communities are those for the various Brahmin sub-castes like Gawd Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) (12,189 members), Kokanastha Brahmin (4038 members), Deshashtha Brahmin (4083 members), Garhwali Brahmin (3067 members), Daivadnya Brahmin (2654 members) and Gaur Brahmin (2055 members). Another group, Brahmin Culture and Tradition is “dedicated to the purpose of uniting Brahmins to revive, preserve, protect and propagate the Brahmin culture to descendants without intimidation or dilution from anti-Brahminical forces.”

Interestingly, it seems that most of the threads under topics related to Brahmins have to do with defining the different types of Brahmins under various sub-castes.

There are also more than 1000 communities for Yadavs on Orkut, including gems like modern yadav girls and boys (5759 members).

Similarly, there are more than a 1000 Rajput communities on Orkut, including the Rajput the Royal Family community with 35,481 mebers, which asks people to join the group “if your soul justifies that you are Rajput both by soul and by nature.”

Orkut's Debut to Indian Diwali - 2006, Image by Brajeshwar from Flickr (cc licensed)

Orkut's Debut to Indian Diwali – 2006, Image by Brajeshwar from Flickr (cc licensed)

Dalits have about 200 mostly small communities on Orkut.

Perhaps, the low number of Dalit communities on Orkut says something about Indian society in general, and Orkut users in particular. Higher, more powerful, castes like Brahmins, Rajputs and Yadavs tend to have more money and easier access to the internet and old disparities are further accentuated by the internet.

Caste-based communities, however, aren't unique to Orkut.

Brahminsamaj.org is “a global platform for the Brahmin Community where you will learn, share and find lot of information, knowledge and fun.” Thambraas Muhurtham wants that “all Brahmins should come forward to marry breaking the sects and subsects within Brahmins, particularly Brahmins of Thamizhnadu.” It also points out that “the entire sects and subsects of South Indian brahmin population are totally vegetarians unlike certain brahmins of other parts of India.” A couple on the homepage of Marry A Brahmin claim that its “focused approach on Brahmin matches helped us find each other as true soul mates.” Brahmin Connections is “proud to present an opportunity and a platform to our young Brahmins and their parents to connect with each other across the world for the matrimonial purpose.” Brahmins Matrimony says that “it is the right place to search for your life partner!”

There are dedicated websites for sub-castes as well. Sakhdwipi aims “to provide a common forum for the Shakdwipis to know each other and interact with each other.” KeralaIyers aims “to delve into the history, trace the roots, portray the life of modern day Kerala Iyers, and chronicle the achievements of this community.” iKalyanam claims to be “the only exclusive site for Iyer matrimonials.” Shivalli Brahmins wishes “to bring together all Shivalli Brahmins residing in different parts of the world, through meaningful discussions about their traditions.” GSBMatch is a matrimonial website for the Gowd and Saraswat Brahmin community. ModhBrahmin.org and BrahmanSamaj.org claim that “history proves that the people of Modh Brahmin Samaj are very enterprising and very resourceful” and aims to “bring all brothers and sisters of Samaj close.” Jangid Brahmin Samaj is a community for Jangid Brahmins. RSBNet is “a single stop source of information regarding the origin, customs, culture, history of Rajapur Saraswath Brahmins.”

Similarly, there are dedicated websites for other castes as well.

Kayastha Matrimonial is a matrimonial website for the Kayastha community. Rajput Samaj is “presently predominately taking care of the Rajputs of Rajasthan” but in near future aims to be “taking care of the Rajputs living in India, Pakistan and abroad.JatLand, “the online home for the Jats” is especially proud of its wiki.

The Dalit community is fairly active on the internet, even though it's miniscule on Orkut. The International Dalit Solidarity Network, which has the most sophisticated of all these websites, “works on a global level for the elimination of caste discrimination.” Dalit Solidarity Network “brings together organizations and individuals in the UK who are concerned with caste-based discrimination.” Dalit India has “papers on various specific issues of the Dalits of India living in India and abroad.” Dalit Freedom Network “partners with the Dalits in their quest for religious freedom, social justice, and human rights by mobilizing human, informational, and financial resources.” Dalit Solidarity is “committed to the principles of justice and equality for all Indians, regardless of caste, race, gender or religion.” Dalit Voice claims that India is “the original home of racism” as Dalits and Tribals, who “constitute the core of India's original inhabitants”, are kept enslaved by “alien Aryans”. Dalit Education aims to “transform lives and communities through the Christian message.” Indian Dalit Muslims Voice is a platform to discuss issues concerning Indian Dalit Muslims. Rohit Chopra has written about the tension between the elite Hindu nationalists and the disadvantaged Dalits on the internet.

In terms of content, the majority of these websites are focused on matrimonial match-making, but several of them seek to build international communities based on caste affiliations and offer tools like directories, bulletin boards and forums to their members. I have also noticed a tendency to establish a rather embellished history of the caste, with detailed biographies of the important personalities belonging to the caste. Ashok Kumar at Express India has a great description of the common features on these caste based websites.

Not surprisingly, Facebook has only 46 small Brahmin groups, 60 small Yadav groups, 126 smal Rajput groups and 41 small Dalit groups. The absence of caste based groups from Facebook is in line with its cosmopolitan user base. Orkut, on the other hand, should be a little concerned about its tendency to attract loonies of all types.

In the end, however, the cosmopolitanism of Facebook is an anomaly, and Orkut's crude caste communities merely mirror India's splintered society.

Cross-posted at Gauravonomics, my blog on social media and social change.

  • http://www.solanasaurus.com/ Solana Larsen

    I think it’s interesting you consider Facebook more cosmopolitan and less “loony” than Orkut. As far as I know, there are lots of locos on Facebook. Could it not simply be to do with numbers? Is the lower number of caste-based group on Facebook in any way proportional with uptake of the network geographically?

    As you say, this kind of group behavior mirrors real life interaction in Indian society. I would agree with you that caste discrimination is wrong, but is it necessarily so different from other kinds of tribal/national/group/affiliation behavior on social networks? I guess it all depends on the tone in which it happens.

    I don’t think anyone I know has joined any “Caucasian” networks, but I’ve heard of a group for “African-American men who like Asian women”, and some crazy people called the Danish-Puerto Rican Society. On Orkut, I’ve joined “People named Solana or Solano”.

    Aren’t we all encouraged to self-define our identities online?

    • indian

      I am a little concerned about your attempts to trivialize the caste issue. I am not a loony or fanatic but until you have seen some of the things that go on india in the name of caste, you wont blieve how bad it is. Visit a typical village, observe how a Dalit gets treated – it is not something relatively benign like getting passed over for promotion. It is as bad as apartheid except that it has been going on for thousands of years

  • http://www.caribbeanfreeradio.com/blog Georgia Popplewell

    I, too, was interested to see Gaurav’s characterisation of Facebook as more “cosmopolitan”, though I assumed he was referring to the Indian context, i.e. that Facebook tended to attract Indians with a broader geographical outlook than the more “parochial” Orkut. Is that reading correct, Gaurav? Because I certainly take Solana’s point that there’s no shortage of loons of other nationalities on FB, including some who would gladly join a “Caucasian” group (though thankfully Solana isn’t friends with any of these).

    I’d also say that there’s a considerable qualitative difference between a caste-based network and a network for “African-American men who like Asian women”. The former is underpinned by an entrenched social reality, whereas the latter is more a question of self-definition, with the corresponding effect that offline impact of the former is likely to be far greater than that of the latter. Unless, of course, those Asianophile African-American males decided to get *really* organised. :)

  • http://www.preetamrai.com/weblog/index.php Preetam Rai

    1. I think you will see ethnicity/religion/ communities everywhere not just India.

    2. The number are not that large for these caste based communities vs. the number of Orkut users in India. Even if they seem large, I would assume that most got invited by friends and accepted the invitation.

  • http://gauravonomics.com/ Gaurav Mishra

    @Georgia/ @Solana: I was indeed referring to Facebook and Orkut in the Indian context, where there’s a distinct demographic difference between Facebook and Orkut users. The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women fits in with Facebook in India, while the caste-based communities fit with the dynamics of Orkut in India. I would even speculate that the same user would feel comfortable joining one but not the other on these two social networking sites. Perhaps, my use of the word “loonies” was based on my own bias against defining our identities narrowly based on caste etc.

    In the context of caste in India, I would argue that it’s bad and backward-looking, perhaps even pernicious, even in its most benign forms (marrying within the same caste etc). It is also obvious to even the most sympathetic observer that discussions around caste in India are far from benign. Discrimination and exclusion is an issue; the mobilization of caste based identities as political vote banks is another.

    @Preetam/ @Solana: Yes, such identities are still entrenched in many societies, not only in India, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dysfunctional.

    @Preetam: I would say that any Indian online community with more than a few thousand members is unusual, given how few of these there are. It’s perhaps interesting to think about why we are more likely to get an invite for a caste-based community on Orkut than on Facebook, and why the likelihood for a community like The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women is the opposite.

    Such differences between social networking sites are common. danah boyd has done some great research on the differences between MySpace and Facebook users in the US. Perhaps, someone should do a similar deep dive into Orkut and Facebook in India.

  • http://www.caribbeanfreeradio.com/blog Georgia Popplewell

    Thanks, Gaurav. I was in fact going to ask if there’d been any research on Indian social networking usage patterns along the lines of danah boyd’s. Would love to see this done for other countries as well.

  • http://www.solanasaurus.com/ Solana Larsen

    Yeah, it would be cool to compare different country studies. I don’t think there is necessarily anything intrinsic about the tools themselves (Facebook or Orkut) that determine the preference of one social group or another (or is there?). With the exception of poorly functioning software, it’s probably more a case of people simply flocking together with people in their own social networks. I know I used to spend more time on Orkut before all my (cosmopolitan?!) friends moved on to Facebook.

  • http://windyskies.blogspot.com Anil

    Interesting.

    The dynamics can be intriguing to say the least.

    Diversity ensures that one cannot follow every more and tradition that exists, gravitating people to those who share similar contexts, be it language, race, city, caste, culture, region, ideology and the like.

    All grouping is competitive in nature, a galvanisation to exploit, to avoid exploitation, to protect, to gain protection, to bargain collectively, to resist collectively and the like.

    The identity of the individual becomes the identiy of the group.

    Every grouping, be it of any kind, is held together by a culture, whatever that may be, which in turns ensures cohesiveness of the group, invariably gaining an exclusivity that becomes its defining factor to either \distinguish itself\ from the rest or \help retain\ its identity \in the face of the rest.

    At a subtle level it is a play of ‘survival’ and ‘propagation’.

    Birds of the same feather will always want to flock together :-)

  • http://gauravonomics.com/ Gaurav Mishra

    @Georgia/ Solana: My grand design for the Yahoo! Fellowship included a danah boyd type study for India, but I quickly realized that I liked writing journalistic posts/ articles better than doing academic research. In another life, perhaps.:-)

    @Solana: I think that social networking sites attract a certain type of community, as a result of their design/ features. For instance, in the US, MySpace allows for high creativity/ customization and attracts an edgy/ artistic crowd while Facebook focuses on privacy/ community and attracts a more preppy/ professional crowd. In India, too, Orkut’s feature of allowing users to browse through other users’ profiles attracts a different kind of community than Facebook. In fact, many Indian users who have moved from Orkut to Facebook (almost) look down on Orkut.

    @Anil: Yes, Anil, it’s natural to form groups around shared identities, for the many reasons you have highlighted. I am a little wary of narrow identities that we inherit by birth. For instance, I prefer to define myself in terms of what I do (marketer, writer, activist) and what I believe in (liberal, atheist), instead of what I was born as. I am OK with defining myself as an Indian, but certainly not as a North Indian (region), or a Bihari (state), or a Brahmin (caste), or (God forbid!) a Gaur Brahmin (sub-caste). I understand that other people need to define themselves more narrowly than I do, and I might be able to respect them in spite of it, but I certainly can’t identify with that sort of thinking.

  • SM.MK

    WHY NOT WRITE ABOUT THE DALIT WHO LINKED ME WITH YOUR ARTICLE?..HER WEBSITE IS http://creatingnewblog.blogspot.com/

    ATLEAST YOU CAN ENSURE THAT SHE GETS PUBLICITY AS SHE HAS BEEN CRAVING FOR IT FROM LONG AND YOUR WRITES WOULD HELP

  • Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » links for 2009-06-11

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