From Aristophanes to Ashoka: How Memes Became a Part of Indian Counterculture

In his recent letter to the students of Ashoka University, Pratap Bhanu Mehta unwittingly made them the successors of the Greek playwright Aristophanes.

Aristophanes was famous for using humour as a form of political criticism. When Mehta talked about the students creating memes to raise their voice against a perceived injustice, he merely pointed out that Indian students today are playwrights in their own right by using humour as a way to effect change.

I must confess that as a student at Delhi University, I am no stranger to protests and political activism. Just last year, when waves of protests broke out after the passing of two controversial pieces of legislation, I got to see just how strongly students could collectivise. All that was required for us to abandon classes, forgo lectures and move out of libraries were a few text messages and some form of spoken peer encouragement. Some of our professors also moved out in solidarity with us. However, I noticed an extremely peculiar thing: not every student participated. Surely, some abstained for purely ideological reasons but others refused to join in for fear of backlash.

The expectation to oppose something without expecting opposition in return is a utopia that political humour tries to realise. Humour gets the point across far better than rallies or protests ever could. Take for instance, a meme shared on the protests last year:

Image: Ankush_1107/

Disregard the factual question of parliamentary sovereignty for a minute and focus solely on the message that it conveys. A single image succeeds in not only capturing the creator’s frustration with reality but also the quiet optimism that lies underneath. It also furnishes reasons as to why the creator feels so frustrated with the current scenario. The meme artistically conveys a message which might get lost in the confused rancour and fervour of a protest. Unlike other forms of dissent, art or humour (in this case, a meme) requires little to no financial resources and hence, is an affordable tactic.

Political humour also serves a much more important purpose. It shapes opinions and generates awareness while somewhat defusing palpable tension. Humour prevents people from taking themselves too seriously and nudges them towards alternatives and correctives. Seen as less vituperative, it mitigates the personal costs involved for a person in joining a movement. This better serves to catch the attention of the fence sitters and helps in the numeric growth of a movement.

The pandemic, by making physical gatherings unviable, has made digital activism the norm. After all, protests and resistance will not stop since the issues that led to their birth have not been resolved. This calls for a new form of modus operandi on the part of the populace. Students, particularly, have risen to meet the challenge.

From Twitter storms and signing online petitions to government bills and open book exams, students have used digital spaces to protest what they deem to be unjust. By doing things like changing their profile picture in a Google Meet class to a form of protest art, they have also begun to reclaim newer versions of traditional spaces.

Also read: Meme and the Mahatma: Gandhian Silence and the Social Media Age

Indeed, memes have become both a form of political humour and activist art. According to Geoffrey Baym, online political humour arose as a result of a rise in digital technology since the 1990s. Additionally, the accessibility to online structures, accompanies by their deregulation, has made sure that people can both create artforms and consume the same.

At the very least, it helps in disseminating awareness amongst the politically inattentive. Memes take politics out of verbose newspapers and noisy debate rooms to Instagram and Facebook where most of India’s young spend their time. This trend has only grown recently when people have abandoned physical spaces and taken to the world of ones and zeros like a fish takes to water. To spread information digitally can thus, also be seen as a smart strategy.

In trying to make the world around them align closely with their ideals, students have always been a part of what is called “counterculture”. The term came to prominence in the 1960s as a part of the great cultural upheaval that the world was going through that decade. As a demographic, their values and norms have always markedly differed from those of mainstream society and as such, they have taken an active part in political movements – whether it be the pacifist anti-war movement or just one to secure more rights for the downtrodden. Now, they differ not only in their vision of what society looks like but also in their way of achieving change. The gamut of political instruments has expanded in the 21st century to include memes and other digital forms of political humour.

The students of Ashoka University and by extension, those in India seem to have had no problem in living up to these ideals. One of the foremost icons of the counterculture movement (and might I add, my personal favourite musician), John Lennon, once claimed to have found the best form of resistance and change in humour and non-violence. He said that humour and non-violence work precisely because the state and other authorities do not know how to respond appropriately – unlike in cases of violence. If Lennon were alive today, he would have commended the students for showing a higher degree of political wisdom. It is time we do too.

Aditya Nath is a second year student studying Political Science and History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.

Featured image credit: Aristophanes: Wikipedia; Ash0ka University: Facebook; Illustration: LiveWire