An introduction to "epistemic violence"
Lived experiences of online access from the standpoint of the marginalised in India
Written by: Abhay Xaxa
Edited and reviewed by: Rohini Lakshané
Editorial inputs by: Shobha S V and Tanveer Hasan
Adivasi: Literally means "original inhabitant". The term refers to the population originally inhabiting mainland India, comprising nearly 700 big and small communities, making up 8.6% of India's total population (Census 2011).
Ambedkarism: It is an ideology/ philosophy inspired by the works of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar based on the broader ideas of social justice and equality in society.
Bahujan: Literally means "the majority of the people" in many Indic languages. In the Indian socio-political context, it may be understood as a political ideology denoting "unity of the oppressed masses", that is, of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Castes (OBC) and persons belonging to minority communities.
Dalit: Literally means "broken people" in several Indic languages. Dalits are people who have historically experienced caste-based violence and discrimination due to their inferior position in the caste hierarchy.
epistemic (adjective): Relating to knowledge or to the
degree of its validation
(Oxford English Dictionary)
In general, "epistemic violence" refers to forms of knowledge that inflict harm on their subject. This learning module helps the reader understand the phenomenon of epistemic violence and how it is related to the representation of marginalised groups on the Internet from the point of view of those who are directly affected by epistemic violence.
eat or be eaten;
in the human kingdom,
define or be defined."
As a result of massive Internet penetration in India in the past two decades, online spaces are playing a critical role in the production and circulation of knowledge about the various dimensions of the life of different sections of the society. The privilege of having access to information and the ability to define or change narratives based on that information were the hallmark of dominance. Dominant sections of the society maintained and perpetuated inequality based on caste, class, gender, religion and ethnicity by controlling all systems of information, ranging from the media to academia. Groups and communities historically regarded as undeserving and underclass were systemically excluded from gaining access to knowledge and information. On the other hand, a process of relegating the same groups to the position of mere subjects of research and enquiry dehumanized and stigmatized them through dominant or patronizing narratives.
With the advent of the Internet, these processes transformed drastically. The online space democratized social relations to an unprecedented extent. People who had been historically denied access to information because of their gender or social or cultural backgrounds were able to become actively involved in the processes of the production and dissemination of knowledge and information. Affordable access to the Internet removed some barriers to the inclusion of marginalized communities, especially Dalits, Adivasis, ethnic and religious minorities, and women. This presented an opportunity for marginalised communities to own and produce counter-narratives, which are gradually chipping away at the dominance of privileged sections of the society.
The proliferation of the Internet in different parts of the country also enabled the birth of several social, cultural and political movements of historically marginalized groups. These groups are increasingly becoming aware of their loci and the issues that critically matter to them in terms of governance, social issues and inequalities and their basic human rights. In addition, people from marginalized sections are able to identify similar issues that other groups experience, which has been leading to horizontal solidarity among diverse sections of the society.
However, the Internet is also used being by privileged groups to perpetuate their dominant discourses over those of the marginalized sections of the society and further dehumanize them. The initial phase of digital divide between the privileged and the underprivileged has gradually grown into "digital social inequality", where one section of the society is able to transfer their social dominance to online spaces. These digital citizens are able to maintain and improve their social and cultural capital via ways in which social hierarchies on the ground are mirrored onto spaces on the Internet. As a result, the historically marginalized communities such as Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities often find themselves excluded from online spaces.next: How is epistemic violence defined?