In times when political crisis finds its way to college campuses, Teresa A. Braggs, amongst thousands of other students, chooses to stand up and ask for what should be their right. Through her public account on Instagram, she amplifies the voices of people across India who give live updates, so that she can report to her followers and offer help. Students like Teresa find themselves protesting, demanding justice, and raising slogans for justice because they consider it their civic duty as citizens of India. In their optimism, anger, power, and knowledge, they are attaching new meaning to patriotism.
The Beginning Of Teresa’s Journey On Instagram
Teresa uses her account to share informed posts on politics, mental health, COVID-19, feminism, Dalit Lives, and more. In her words, to “connect with people who are pissed off with the same things she is.”
“I began my account like anybody else, with 600 followers. I didn’t expect it to become a platform for others too. When things got bad, and college campuses were attacked, we got a lot of live updates from students from Jamia and Delhi University. My account automatically became a forum for them to communicate about the political situation. That space allowed me to share their stories with large groups of people at one time.”
Teresa also gave an insight into how activist accounts like hers collate resources. Noticeably, she had a different approach.
“There are times when consciously don’t talk about specific incidents. If I were a first-hand witness to what is happening, I would have something to bank on; but unless I know what I am talking about, I don’t want to open my mouth. I think that lends credibility to what I post. I like to get a sense of what’s happening before impulsively posting. I have a network of people I trust from different cities who keep me informed. I also follow some accounts which I know and trust, who don’t post things just for the sake of posting it, but because it makes sense.
“I don’t update my account constantly because increasing my followers and getting traction is not something I’m looking for. I’m just a student, and at no point would I call activism my profession. I am not constantly plagued by an itch to find content. I don’t want to keep looking for controversy. If there is something that’s going wrong and needs to be addressed, I will do the needful by sharing.”
On Feeling Mentally Drained On Social Media
Social media gives high exposure to news, whether misinformed or real. On being asked about feeling mentally drained as a result of absorbing and sharing stories all the time, Teresa told us how it is.
“I feel like it is not the activity of having to share it as much as the fact that there is bad news every day that can be draining. To be credible as a source of information, I need to have the same amount of freedom that I did when I had 600 followers. As I started gaining followers, I felt the pressure of being observed, like I need to constantly look over my shoulder. I’m consciously trying not to feel overwhelmed about how many followers I have.”
Strategy For Handling Hate and Trolls
It’s common knowledge that social media can be the brewing pot for threats and abuse. Often, situations get out of control to the point where people are forced to remove their accounts and succumb to the power of nameless faces spewing hate behind their screens. Teresa manages a public statement and is fully aware of the fact that she can (and has) become a target of online abuse. That is why she has adopted a diplomatic strategy.
“Being left-leaning, I have engaged with a lot of right-wingers through my account, instead of reacting to them impulsively. If somebody is targeting me, I like to personally message them so that we can have a civil conversation where we both listen to each other. When I converse with the opposition, my purpose is to create a dialogue, not change their beliefs. Sometimes, when I read people’s nasty comments, I understand that I need to cut through their anger to converse with them. I’ve tried to help them realize that ruining someone’s life is not going to help their cause.
“I try to maintain a concept of approachability on social media. And that comes from my privilege. I am middle class; I am English speaking, my parents have my back; that allows me to have a healthy dialogue with the opposition. I do not mean to pat myself on the back, but this has been a successful strategy for dealing with hate. After a point, even the nastiest of the lot stops coming again with new energy to abuse.”
Speaking Out Against Government Policies
Teresa’s bio on Instagram says that it’s good to be radical. While elaborating on that, she touches on the importance of speaking openly against the government and its policies. But she doesn’t want to be cornered into having a rigid political stand, an assumption that people make when they go through her page.
“I think my account can come across as an anti-establishment page. But I don’t have generic posts just bashing the government or the ruling party. Every time the government takes an action that I feel needs to be spoken out about, I direct my anger and critique to its implication, not towards a broad thing such as the ruling party. Because I do have to think hard about the possibility of my post or statement turning into FIR’s or threats.”
What Makes Students Protest?
Having participated in protests, Teresa believes that students yield the power to bring about change if they’re loud enough. In December 2019, she and nine other students were detained in Bengaluru when they were protesting against student brutality in Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia University. Teresa elaborates more on why students protest, even when they are at risk of being detained or worse, attacked.
“I think if you are a good student, it is very natural to want to question injustices. If you’re attaining an education, your mind is evolving. What sort of learning allows you to keep quiet when something wrong is happening? If you don’t feel that need, then that learning has failed you. Both as a student and citizen, you need to question always. Even the constitution says that you have to build a nation.
“Ironically, you have to be a ‘Karen’ about this. If somebody (the government) is not doing their job, you have to be like ‘I want to talk to your manager.’ You don’t protest because you’re Mother Teresa; you do it because you care about your personal surroundings. Not everything has to be selfless, but it’s clearly in my self-interest to talk about things that are making me or someone else feel endangered.
“An injustice to one person is an injustice to society. If not today, then tomorrow; if not me, then my children; if not my children, then somebody else. I don’t want to regret the fact that I didn’t speak up later in life.”
Being Detained As A Student
Towards the end of last year, the news saw an increase in reports of students being beaten, attacked, detained, and sent to jail. Having been arrested herself, Teresa sheds some light on how it felt and why detainment isn’t the worst thing to happen to a protester.
“I think being detained when you’re at a protest, it’s not so terrible. The fear of imprisonment and detainment has to go. Even though I was scared the first time I was picked up, I realized it was not a big deal after having gone through it. The government also relies heavily on this fear. Of course, it is not the best thing; it can potentially affect your higher education and career. But I still feel we should normalize detainment as a cost to pay for speaking the truth. Because then the people in power will know they can’t trust the quotient of fear to drive the behavior of the masses anymore.
“When I’m protesting, I am speaking for the truth, and the fact that I have so much to lose for speaking up means that the truth should be valuable to me. Because I don’t want to endanger my education, career, and family peace to say something that I don’t feel about strongly.”
Media’s Portrayal of Protests
“There is a huge misconception around protests that the media has built, and admittedly I have gone along with it. The first protest that we were detained at was against student brutality, and not directly the CAA and NRC, which is what the media fed on when it was featured in articles. What we wanted to convey was that the Jamia students were protesting for a noble cause, and so, the police entering their campus was unacceptable. The university, the place where we go to learn, has to be the safest place, more so than our homes. For students, there is no religion. It is the university that should be the temple.
“But for the media, it was a more catchy headline to show it as an anti-CAA-NRC protest. The protest that we were leading was against a fundamental thing that doesn’t sell. Now that we have had some time to reflect, we have learned from that incident. After all, even for protesters, there has to be growth. I can’t be the same person I was the first time I went to a protest.”
Getting Parents on Board
“I think it’s a journey to get parents to understand the importance of protests. I have learned that it is essential to meet them halfway. You need to realize that they have anxieties and worries which they are unable to express correctly, so it comes off as authoritative. It’s important to keep your mind open and try to understand where they’re coming from.
“If you feel like you need to go to a protest, do whatever you need to get there, even if it means lying to your family, professors, and friends. Later, if you realize you made the wrong choice, it’s still a lesson. As a student, you should have that itch to learn from your own experiences. You can’t get a feel of a protest through social media reports; you need to come to the ground to see what it is like. And once you get there, you get over your assumptions.”
On Performative Wokeness
With more focus on being politically correct today, a lot of people feel pressured to be “woke.” While it is good, even necessary, to be aware of the political scene and have a personal stance on it, faking it just for the sake of social media is unhealthy.
“I think people on social media need to get rid of that itch to continually post things so that others can see what they believe in. Why do you feel the pressure to be something on social media, when you’re able to ignore that child begging outside your car window on a traffic light? Why are we pretending? If you actually have the connections and network to do something about it, offer that.
“A lot of people feel pressured to be untrue to their instincts and be influenced by the trend going around. It’s good if you’re stopping yourself from saying something wrong to be politically correct, but you also need to take the burden of finding out why. People should let their thoughts, even problematic ones, out there, so that others get a chance to engage with it and conversations begin. That can prove to be a learning experience for everyone.”
Teresa A. Braggs takes pride in protesting, in standing up for what she believes in, and in being the voice for those who can’t raise their own. Click here to follow her on Instagram.