Comparative literature studies to researching and teaching gender, sexuality and digital media; Kolkata to London; and now a step into the UK general elections arena on a Labour Party ticket – Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta has been on the move. He has also been collaborating with Varta Trust on its research activities.
Pawan Dhall caught up with him on his recent visit to Kolkata. Edited excerpts from a conversation over coffee on May 4, 2017:
Pawan: Tell us something about your Kolkata roots and your work.
Rohit: I was born in Calcutta in Bhowanipore, 29 years ago (laughs)! I moved to UK eight years ago, first to do my Masters at the University of Westminster, and then I stayed on to do a PhD at the University of the Arts London. In between I also did a post-graduate course in teaching in higher education.
Post that, my first lecturing job was at the University of Southampton, where I taught global media studies and currently I’m at the Institute of Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University, London. So that’s kind of my professional background. In India, I have my mum and dad and my sister.
Pawan: I’ve always been curious about media studies. What do they include?
Rohit: See, when we talk of media studies, we’re talking about quite a range of forms of communication really. In the early years, we were talking about print books and newspapers and newscast [radio], followed by public service broadcast like television, films and now, of course, we’re talking about social media, interactive forms of media.
But also you have this new concept called ‘convergence culture’, which talks about how actually all the media are converging. If you consider your mobile phone, you’re not using it just for communication anymore, you’re using it as your newspaper; you’re using it to buy tickets. So my work is kind of aimed at the interstices of various old and new media.
Pawan: In a way there’s a marked shift in the way people perceive media – television, for example, at one point of time would have been just a box which provided some information, but now it has become a marketing tool.
Rohit: Oh, absolutely! If you go back to the early cinematography Acts, and if you think about the first television that came to India in 1959 through a UNESCO grant, it was a Phillips TV, it was very educational. I think the first television show was called Krishi Darshan. It was for farmers, how you can get better seeds and so on. And then it became a kind of a community technology you sat around, you went to these telly clubs where you could watch television. It was something that was consumed by all.
Over time it has become much more entertainment driven, and in the last several decades, we have seen advertisements coming in. But never forget, and this is where my research comes in, at the end of the day all of these forms of media are being used for propaganda’s perspective, or even if not propaganda, to push certain agendas and narratives.
Pawan: Last year I worked (on behalf of Varta Trust) with you on a Wellcome Trust-funded research. This was a study on the scope of using digital media for sexual health outreach among queer people in India, Bengal in particular. Today we’re going to have a launch of the study report, which is called Social Media, Sexuality and Sexual Health Advocacy in Kolkata, India. Can you tell us a little bit more about the study?
Rohit: The study looked at how we can use social and digital media for sexual health advocacy programmes. If we think about the kind of population groups that we’re targetting with sexual health messages, the kind of groups we’re trying to sensitize, they’re migrating. They’re no longer cruising in the parks – they’re all moving on to your phone or computer screen. At the same time then sexual health outreach also needs to be targetting the same populations, in these new areas (see inset below).
So the whole purpose of the study was to find out what kind of skills are required in terms of digital literacy, what is already available in terms of technology, how we can harness that to the best of our ability, and trying to see whether we could then make a case for having a sustainable form of digital outreach programme that could be rolled out over here in India. The aim was also to create a kind of a tool that could be presented to policy makers to say this is what needs to happen.
Pawan: So far, HIV interventions in India, at least in the last decade or so, have all been very much under government control. In the earlier years of HIV or sexual health interventions, civil society – CBOs, NGOs – were doing many things on their own. The problem then was that these efforts were not streamlined. Now the efforts have been streamlined and brought under government influence, but a lot of the creativity in my opinion has been lost. If we’re going to present the issue of digital media to policy makers, are they going to be creative about it?
Rohit: Oh, they have to be very radical about this (laughs)! There are two issues over here Pawan. The first issue is of course this – by streamlining what has happened is everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet; we’re all having to say the same thing. I’ll go back to the example of the Terrence Higgins Trust (see inset). When they’re doing intervention in a site like BBRT where everyone is looking to have unsafe sex, they’re not preaching about protection as it’s not going to work. What you do over there in a space like that is say, right, you can do that but make sure you minimize your risk in such and such ways.
So when we’re targetting different populations and spaces, we have to keep in mind how we customize the interventions . . . I think the same thing cannot be used as a template for every single community that we work with.
The second point you’ve made is, and this is where digital media comes in, if we’re presenting the issue of digital media to the policy makers about how we can make it work, let’s not forget that a lot of the people we spoke to in our Kolkata study were worried about surveillance by the government. Especially in the current climate – Section 377 and so on. So we must think about what we can do to minimize the risk of surveillance, and ensure privacy and safety, which are very valid concerns of many of our service seekers.
Pawan: You’ve had two book releases more or less at the same time. Your second book is called Digital Queer Cultures in India – Politics, Intimacies and Belonging. Can you tell us about the second report?
Rohit: This is my first monograph and I’m really proud of it. The book emerges out of my PhD and there are four main issues that I talk about in it.
The first one is queer and digital intimacies; I talk about how intimacies get played out on our mobile and computer screens. When I talk of intimacies, I’m not just talking about erotic intimacies or sex, but intimacy that comes through things like going online to ask for help, make friends, or build a community network. For me it’s important to understand what we think of intimacies. I talk of intimacies through friendship, community, and love, of course. But there are certain differences when queer intimacies play out on digital media – digital intimacies as I have called them.
The second chapter is about ‘effeminophobia’ and misogyny within gay men, and if you go into any kind of social media site such as PlanetRomeo and others, the number of profiles that say “effeminate men stay away” – you see that there is a bias against feminine men. So my question is whether these particular sites are actually constructed in such a way that allows these kinds of things to appear. Is it the less checks that go on in these sites? Also what is the language of discrimination that happens within these spaces?
My third chapter is about class. Today just before this interview, I gave a lecture at Jadavpur University where I said that if we go back to Section 377, what is it that a lot of people said we’re fighting for? We’re fighting for the right to consummate love in a private space. Isn’t that class bias that only certain people have access to privacy? Of course, I’m not saying the petition was exactly framed in that fashion. But class is something that we often don’t talk about in relation to sexuality and gender. So in that chapter I kind of look at how class plays out within queer communities, and talk about some of the queer parties that have taken place in this city and again in the way class and caste intersect with other issues of sexuality.
Finally, in my last chapter I talk about activism and protest cultures, and I pick up two important case studies. The first one was the TV9 episode in 2011 (see inset). This television channel in Hyderabad went on to PlanetRomeo website and then stole its data [on gay men]. This brought up new issues around privacy, surveillance, safety and so on. But also what was very interesting was how digital and social media were utilized by the queer community to challenge this. So the community used the very device which was being used against it to challenge TV9. And if we think about it, TV9 had to apologise, they had to keep on showing the apology, and that [apology] still exists in the digital space! I think that was quite a big victory.
But those were heady times, post-2009, and then we kind of moved into the sadder part of 2013 with the recriminalization, and I use that term broadly. And over there I talk about the ‘Global Day of Rage’, which I think was a fantastic initiative that took only three days – three days after December 11, 2013 we had one of the largest protest movements that took place simultaneously in 36 cities across the world!
Pawan: Yes, it spread like fire.
Rohit: Absolutely, you know the virality of that, the way in which it was promoted, the way in which things came together, I think again digital media allowed that kind of thing to happen. So I kind of also talk about that – I talk very specifically about the London ‘Global Day of Rage’ that I co-organized with Sunil Gupta, Charan Singh, Rahul Rao and others.
My larger discussion in the book is that when we talk of queer cultures today, we can’t talk of them as just physical and digital because they co-exist simultaneously.
Pawan: What inspired you to take up study, research and teaching on media studies?
Rohit: I think media is a powerful tool, especially in the ways in which it can shift narratives. Look at what’s happening in the UK – the ways in which the left and Labour Party are being vilified by the media, think about the ways in which the media, and even social media to some extent, helped someone like Trump come to power; the ways in which the media has made scapegoats of certain communities, the growth of Islamophobia, transphobia, refugee-migrant xenophobia, all of these the media have facilitated. So I was really interested to know the mechanisms that go on behind it.
Pawan: Brexit, Trump or things happening in Turkey or even India, did you see undercurrents of these developments even earlier?
Rohit: The interesting thing again of digital and social media was it was always used by the underdog in a way. It was seen as the alternative media, so when you did not get attention on mainstream media, we on the left were using alternative media to get our message across. What we now see is the right is using those very tools and weapons against us. I find it quite interesting, and again that has played a huge role also in the rise of far right parties across Europe, the election of Trump, Brexit as well as in the current French elections [this interview took place before the final round of the recent French elections].
Pawan: You’re planning to contest the general elections in early June in UK as a Labour Party candidate. Do you see this in continuity with what you’ve been doing – as an academic and researcher?
Rohit: As an academic we’re trained to be critical, to critique our structures, hierarchies; we’re trained to be activists in certain ways. Alongside being an academic I’ve always been an activist. For instance, I write about minority cultures. So for me it was a very natural step to take.
I joined the Labour Party with lot of hope and aspirations that in 2015 we would have a Labour government. The Labour Party’s values are very much my values in terms of wanting to work with everyone, be the voice of reason and social liberalism, and around last year I started getting much more active as a Labour Party activist. I stood to be the Chair of my Labour Party board, and I also became the Secretary of the Newham Fabian Society.
I wasn’t planning to stand as a parliamentary candidate. I was thinking of contesting for the council elections in 2018. But when Brexit happened, it was absolutely devastating for an internationalist like me and all that followed was absolutely unacceptable to me.
I have made England my home for the last eight years, and as an academic I also think it’s a civic duty for us to be engaging with the public. That was the reason I threw my hat into the ring, not expecting necessarily to be selected. So I was pleasantly surprised when on the 30th of April I got a phone call from the Labour Party asking me to stand in the West Hampshire seat. It is a very tough seat, but I will try my best.
Pawan: You said the Labour Party and the left thought process believes in being the voice of reason. Given the kind of media environment we have, how are you going to take on this challenge because in all the information and post-truth explosion, will people have the time to read and listen?
Rohit: It’s a bad fight, we’re up against big media conglomerates and oligarchs, and these are the people who do not want us to succeed. Even an institution like the BBC has been extremely biased. For a public service broadcasting television to be taking sides in a general election is appalling, whereas, say, Channel 4 has been giving much more balanced views.
The answer to your question is, it’s difficult! These are the big media that people are going to be watching, this is what is going to influence people. But that should not stop us. It might take many, many years but I think our progressive message is going to go out. We will have to gain the trust of people, and we will have to explain to them how biased media works, which is very similar to India as well.
Pawan: My last question is on India. Given the current political scenario at the state and national levels, what implications do you see for equality on grounds of gender and sexuality?
Rohit: I think there has already been a setback. I’m not saying the Congress was perfect at the Centre, but I think there was much more engagement with these issues. What we have seen with the current central government, they don’t care and they have taken a very anti stance against any kind of equality campaign.
I think the current political climate is not in our favour – across the Global North and Global South, we’re seeing a resurgence of the right, in some cases the far right. It will take time, but I think we will have to keep the fight on. We will have to get our message across. I think we will have to work with a plethora of left parties to make sure we get our progressive message out there against any more furthering of this kind.
Pawan: Thank you so much and best of luck!
Rohit: Thank you very much!
Read about the Kolkata launch of Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta’s books here – Digital Media, Queer Lives and ‘Indian-ness’.
Main photo courtesy: Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta