Mumbai (The Hindu): While no one was watching, groups of people in the Maratha community were quietly at work. In city after city, district after district — Aurangabad, Ahmednagar, Osmanabad, Jalgaon, Beed, or even in ‘mainstream’ Pune and Navi Mumbai — lakhs turned out on the street in protest marches. Youngsters, people of royal lineage, men, women, almost everyone was part of this wave. The Maratha community was known to be populous and politically influential, but how did the marches accomplish such huge feats of mobilisation?
The answer was efficient, carefully planned behind-the-scenes organisation through social media that touched people across the spectrum, including those typically left out of the ambit of protest. Two things stood out: those powering it were young, and they were using a medium they were most comfortable with, one they knew had the reach —marketers have often used social media to reach the country’s far corners.
Here’s how the team doggedly went about the mission.
A system was set in motion in every district. The plan included setting up Facebook pages for each region, each getting inputs from a central page. Whatsapp groups were created in every district, and members were encouraged to form more such groups with relatives, colleagues and friends. These groups received daily messages about the legacy of Marathas, the reasons for protests, and about the gang rape and murder in Kopardi that triggered the protests.
The campaign’s reach was phenomenal: it touched over a crore on Facebook, and there were thousands of Whatsapp groups with lakhs of members between them.
Holding it all together were a dedicated team of over 2,000 volunteers, with representatives from every district, making sure all members were kept informed and that the self-imposed rules were followed. The core group worked in shifts. Some exclusively operated and monitored messaging tools and platforms; others focussed on content writing; there was even a dedicated caricaturist.
They used Google Maps to inform every group within each area about meeting points and routes, even parking facilities. The remarkable lack of violence or even noise and littering was because of the regular messages stressing the importance of maintaining the decorum the organisers sought.
Mukund Solanke, an engineering student, says, “Messages could have been tampered with in the course of sharing, but the original message was always available on the Facebook page, where tampering wasn’t possible. We used all possible means to avoid communal tensions and because of us, one news channel stopped broadcasting wrong news.”
Another feature of the movement: the absence of visible leaders jostling to be seen by television cameras. “The protesters did not let any particular leader lead,” says Kiran Patil, a cinematographer, who served a volunteer in the social media team. “They saw it as a march for the community. We too made sure the cause remained top priority and not an individual.”
Mr. Patil described the reach of the campaign: “I come from Akola. The messages which were sent from us had penetrated to small villages in the district. Such was the enthusiasm that those messages were read out to senior citizens from mobiles by the village’s youngsters.”
This outreach beyond urban areas was particularly effective in bringing in a section of the population often overlooked in popular agitations: women, younger women in particular. They did not have to attend any public meeting to find out about the plans for protests; they got all the information they needed on their mobile phones. Priyanka Memane, an engineering student in Pune who volunteered for the team, is happy about that. She is also very proud of her mother, who has a medical problem which makes it hard for her to walk for more than 15 minutes. “She was so inspired by the campaign that she participated in the Pune rally. She walked for a cause.”
But social media was not just used for organisation. It played another big role: countering what the organisers felt was bias and under-reporting from the mainstream media.
When over two lakh Marathas walked in the first silent march in Aurangabad, the Mumbai- and Pune-based media largely ignored it. Such news reports did note the event but grossly understated the numbers, estimating the crowd at around 25,000.
Pratik Patil, a journalism student, squarely blames the mainstream media for creating rifts between communities. He says after the Kopardi rape case, the agitation sought a safer environment for all women, not just the Marathas. Yogesh Bankar, a student of communication and also part of the social media team, says, “Had it not been for Maratha organisations who first went there and came with a ground report, no one would have understood the severity of the crime.”
And while the morchas’ main demands — for Maratha reservation and amendment of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — got media space, the protestors also asked for the implementation of the Swaminathan Commission report on the farming sector. “But that did not get highlighted in the mainstream media,” said Mr. Bankar, “probably because it does not have higher TRPs [television rating points].”
To counter the perceived bias and misinformation by the mainstream media, they used social media: to circulate photos of the massive crowds; to share drone videos which captured the length and strength of each morcha; if television channels were not covering the rallies live, the movement used Facebook Live or YouTube live to livecast.
A higher purpose
The rallies are now over. There is a sense of accomplishment over and what have they achieved. “For the first time, the community stood united,” says Santosh Gaikwad, an information technology professional in the social media team. “We showed our power, to the Shiv Sena and the government. For the first time in many years, the saffron flag does not belong to a political party but to the entire State.
In the two months after Aurangabad, the core team worked out of the movement’s headquarters in Pune. While that virtual ‘war room’ is no longer in use, the campaign continues. The focus, though, has shifted. The vast network is being used by Marathas across the State to discuss, debate and share new ideas for social change and the betterment of the community.
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