Social Media as Proponent of Politics, Ideology – Then and Now

By Jayanta Bhattacharya

Photo: Camilo Jimenez

Social media (SM) has been used as a vehicle to propagate beliefs and visions since the days of yore. The avatar may have changed, so may have the hands that drive them, but the show did go on then too – as it goes on now. However, SM administrators can now be unknown faces or even “bots”, but back then the actors could not remain anonymous.

Actors? Yes, then the platform was better managed through “mass organisations”. Propaganda then rode on the success at the proscenium. The target group (TG) was limited in comparison to today’s avatar. It was best exploited by the Leftists of those times. Remember Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA)? The behemoth was led by stalwarts like Prithviraj Kapoor, Utpal Dutt, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar, among many others.

In fact, IPTA is celebrating Salil Chowdhury’s birth centenary on November 19, 2025, under the aegis of the Salil Chowdhury Foundation of Music (SCFM), Social Help & Education Trust. SCFM is chaired by the eminent composer’s daughter, Antara. Musical shows, workshops, music competitions, seminars, plays, and other activities will begin a year earlier to culminate in a grand finale with the centenary celebrations.

IPTA was formed on May 25, 1943, when India was under British Raj. The National Conference at (then) Bombay’s Marwari School, where it was formed, was presided over by Prof. Hiren Mukherjee. The IPTA website quotes Mukherjee’s address thus: “Come writer and the artist, come actor and the play-wright, come all who work by hand or by brain, dedicate yourselves to the task of building a brave new world of freedom and social justice.”

Social Media then

Significantly, the first National Committee was headed by the trade union leader Narayan Malhar Joshi as its president. Joshi had earlier co-founded the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in 1920 with Lala Lajpat Rai. A decade later, he left the AITUC to form the All India Trade Union Federation (AITUC), the labour organisation of the (then undivided) Communist Party of India (CPI).

With its goal at bringing “cultural awakening” among citizens, IPTA promoted themes related to the Indian freedom struggle. Later “people-oriented”, “songs/stories of life”, “art for social cause”, among other concepts, were strengthened.

Members popularised “Jansangeet” (or people’s music) that spoke of “freedom”, “equality”, and “humanity”. Spartacus, John Henry, Paul Robeson, Che Guevara, among others, came to be idolised through plays and music and soon attained iconic status. The songs and dialogues reverberated in neighbourhoods with regular street-corner plays and roadside meetings being held across states.

Among the first street plays was the one held on the 1943 famine that ravaged the Bengal province under British India.

Incidentally, the origin of IPTA followed the first Progressive Writers Association (PWA) Conference in 1936. Left writers still reminisce about the presidential address of Munshi Prem Chand in the foundation conference of PWA in Lucknow.

Many writers and poets like Hameed Akhtar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai joined the Association. Among several prominent members through time were names like Kaifi Azmi, Amrita Pritam, Bhisham Sahni, Habib Tanvir, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Mulk Raj Anand, and others.

The ‘other media’

The movement gained ground and continued after Independence. It went on through the 1960s to the 1980s. Some referred to it as “the other media” that propagated a message, different from the mass media. However, the effort started disintegrating before the turn of the century. Some blame this on its inability to adapt to the changing times, failure in drawing newer talents. While others claim that political masters took the centre-stage, over cultural artists. Then there are some who say it was a combination of many issues, but that it perished due to stagnancy.

Efforts at the use of the “other media” have always been there. There were the “little magazines” – as these were called due to its size which was sometimes half of the regular A4-size paper. These were brought out as alternate literature – in small numbers – printed or cyclostyled.

Then there were wall-magazines or propaganda material in the form of a newspaper stuck on walls. In the absence of printed material, wall writings also came up to catch the eyes of the sundry traveller.

Similar exercises have been carried out in several states and various regions in India. Messages have also been portrayed through dance, illustrations, mime shows, etc. The history of such creative renderings are as rich as are vast and may sometimes differ even from district to district.

However, the number of people reached through such exercises were limited.

Cut to the present. A person now can “manage” over a gross of SM handles which together can draw millions of followers. Aggressive and provocative statements that play with the emotions of people help in traction. Such attempts were done subtly earlier.

The new “SM handler” may remain anonymous while carrying out a mega-campaign. And the audience today is counted in millions, not in hundreds as in an auditorium or a theatre.

Left-leaning activists admit that SM today is technology driven. And blame it for a “digital divide”, claiming that not everybody has equal access to technology.

But it does have the power to influence public opinion. It is like a megaphone in every hand and the results depend on how effectively it is used. Thus, misinformation and disinformation are used indiscriminately to drive home a point.

SM’s popularity has forced the mass media to rediscover and reinvent itself. The change happened and is still happening. And the change is fast. For better or for worse? That’s another story.

Jayanta Bhattacharya is a Senior Journalist based in New Delhi covering Politics, Conflict, Farmer’s Issues, Human Interest Stories.