Amid NRC chaos in Assam, how widely circulated memes fanned regionalism and discrimination

"(The) Mia we want vs Mia we get" says the meme posted on a Facebook page that claims to promote satire from Assam. The images accompanying the caption depict adult actress Mia Khalifa  — and a group of (presumably) illegal immigrants crossing the border from Bangladesh into India.

The meme is just one among the many that have been doing the rounds in Assam, ever since the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of India updation drive kicked off in the state. The memes have ratcheted up even as the final draft of the NRC 2018 was released on Monday, 30 July.

The memes have captured (and fed?) the heightened tension in the state over the NRC and its recognition of 'legitimate' citizens. Exclusion and inclusion, it would seem, is not the sole provenance of the NRC — pages dedicated to memes have been doing the same thing. And what is visible to the casual sharer/observer is only the tip of the iceberg.

Prateek Hajela, Assam's chief co-coordinator of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), demonstrates how to check a name online on its website after the publication of the first draft of the NRC in Guwahati city in the northeastern state of Assam, India, January 1, 2018. Picture taken January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika - RC1883ABA7F0

In January this year, Prateek Hajela, Assam's chief co-coordinator of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), demonstrated how to check a name online on its website after the publication of the first draft of the NRC. REUTERS

What the memes look like

The memes in Assam grapple with multiple questions of identity. Several use stereotypical gender 'traits' as their focal point. Most of them are grammatically incorrect, racist, sexist, and are blatant about provoking regionalist aggression in this context. The speed with which these memes disseminate also allows dominant ideas of race, sex and gender to percolate in a space that is already riddled with social inequalities.

An example of the gendered memes are those modelled on the 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' format, which also use a sort of ‘‘hipster sexist’’ humour. A term coined by Quart (2012) in The Age of Hipster Sexism, it suggests that literary devices such as ‘‘mockery, quotation marks, and paradox’’ are used as a kind of distancing mechanism, lifting this ironic sexism away from ‘‘classic’’ sexism. A specific example of this is the 'starter pack' meme, which pitches "wannabe girl riders" against male bikers.  The female biking enthusiast is painted as inauthentic, while the man's genuineness is affirmed.

An example of the 'starter pack' memes

An example of the 'starter pack' memes


The dialogue that is generated around these memes is often polarised, or worse, is hidden under the guise of laughter. Quart noted that this kind of ironic sexism is so explicitly sexist that it isn't meant to be taken seriously. On closer examination, however, this is actually more dangerous than classic sexism because it somehow normalises misogyny. The administrators of groups/pages where these memes are shared may apologise for the sexist content — you'll often see disclaimers like “this page is meant solely for humour” — but this often ends up as a licence for cracking more insensitive 'jokes'.

Memes that 'object'ify 

A particularly interesting case is that of the 'gamusa' — the traditional Assamese hand towel that typically has a floral pattern.

In recent times, the gamusa has become the accessory of choice for political leaders looking to make a statement. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have sported the gamusa not just at political events, but even otherwise. Some Assamese spoke of this as a #proudmoment for the gamusa, as it was 'going places'. Yet, some years ago, the humble cloth had been an object of some hilarity online when a model was shown wearing a tube top fashioned from a gamusa. A row ensued over how the cloth has been ripped from its traditional roots. In the wake of the NRC drive, memes using the gamusa provoke/rouse regional sentiments: as a tool to inappropriately distinguish between locals and immigrants, or to disparage serious issues, like floods. Amid the ridicule and regionalism, what is passing unremarked is the gamusa’s increasing use as a prop.

Memes that use the gamusa

Memes that use the gamusa

The danger of memes

The connection may not be immediately evident, but the laughter generated in the online space by memes also ushers in a kind of selective public amnesia. Memes about the musician Papon forcing a kiss on a minor reality show contestant illuminate this point particularly well. Some memes depicted Papon's gesture as a new-age method of collecting 'guru dakshina'. Others dwelt on how those involved in the incident — the child contestant, the lawyer who filed a petition against Papon, the musician, and news anchor Arnab Goswami who debated the row on prime time — hailed from Assam, and yet were engaged in a 'civil war'. The context of the action — Papon kissing a child on the mouth — and its problematic nature, was entirely stripped in the memes.

Memes about the Papon incident

Memes about the Papon incident

Limor Shifman writes in Memes in Digital Culture (2013) that ironic (humour) can be “potentially more difficult to challenge and contest than explicit forms (of it), with the critic open to being positioned as having an unsophisticated sense of humour or, worse still, no sense of humour at all”. It is also important to note that once these patterns of humour are established, they do leave their imprint on the way regionalism is constructed. While monitoring the content of these memes may prove challenging, the way they make light of offensive issues must be further analysed. Else, the joke will be on us.

Updated Date: Aug 01, 2018 20:43 PM

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