09/01/2013 03:02 GMT | Updated 10/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Social Media and Protest - The Indian Spring?

The recent brutal rape and murder of the 23-year-old Indian student has ignited a spark throughout India which has been described as a new movement and an awakening to demand action, fairness, gender equality and above all safety for girls and women of India.

What has been striking about the Indian protests is that while they were led by both young men and women, who were educated, urban and middle class, they reached out and connected with others from a diverse range of backgrounds throughout Indian society. It is evident that India as a country is witnessing a significant technological revolution. It is estimated that the number of broadband connections in India is more than twice the size of the British general population. And there are 65 million Facebook users and an estimated 35 million Twitter accounts.

So - to what extent were the India protests organized by Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media? And were these mass protests the Indian spring? Well - going by the headlines in Indian newspapers, social media has played a significant role - 'social media feeds protests fire', 'social media turns pivot for Delhi protests' and 'The year social media came of age in India'.

The Times of India captured the social media zeitgeist in reporting the case of 19-year-old Sambhavi Saxena arrested during a protest in Delhi. On her journey to and at the police station, the 19 year old tweeted to India and the world to highlight her plight. Her tweets - "Illegally being held here at Parliament St Police Station Delhi w/ 15 other women. Terrified, pls RT" led to more than 1,700 people retweeting her SOS. According to Favstar, the social media analytics site, her tweets reached over 200,000 people. All this resulted in the galvanizing of civil society where lawyers and activists arrived at the police station to offer help and advice. Others condemned the police action through social media.

Over the last three weeks, Twitter hashtags like #DelhiGangRape #StopThisShame #DelhiProtests #Amanat #Nirbhaya #Damini have served as anchors to inform, educate and galvanize mass support. Significantly, virtual protests through hashtags such as #theekhai (Hindi for All is well) sought to humiliate and punish the lack of sensitivity and inactivity of ageing politicians. It is instructive to note that whilst two-thirds of the Indian population is under the age of 35, the average age of an Indian politician is 65. In the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks, the growing urban, young and middle class elite have demonstrated that they are agitated and feel under-protected. And they demand change.

Given the response of the Indian state to the anti-rape protests however, it is clear that such large and ongoing protests that have lasted several weeks served to generate real fear among the ruling class. The use of water canons, lathi charges, and tear gas were quick to be deployed on the streets of Delhi whilst the underground public transport system was shut down and certain city spaces became out of bounds. It is evident that the Indian state will have to work harder at engaging with its young, educated, urban population and recognize legitimate protest as pent-up frustration at the inefficiency and corruption of the system and not as a 'law and order' problem.

And what of the aftermath of the protest movement? Since the protests there has been a series of government announcements to revise laws on sexual assault and set up government committees to review safety for girls and women in India. Amidst this frenzied activity, the focus appears to be disproportionately on retribution in the form of harsher sentencing, for example from the current 7 years for a rape conviction to life imprisonment and possibly a death penalty. Similarly, given one of the six men charged with rape and murder is 17, the definition of a juvenile is being revised from 18 to 16. The danger of mass protest following a horrific event such as this high profile Delhi rape case is that politicians look for expediency to quell immediate public dissent. Indeed, it would be a missed opportunity if, in their desire for short-term quick-fix solutions, the overall infrastructures of inefficiency, corruption, and patriarchy were left untouched and allowed to continue to prevail.

History tells us that in a land in which Mahatma Gandhi successfully enacted mass protest in the form of Satyagraha, non-cooperation and civil disobedience to bind disparate religious and ethnic groups in eradicating British imperialism, the Indian state will do well to take heed of the voices of the protest movement in effecting real change in its institutions. It is only through such positive action that India can hope to be a participative democracy and govern with consent.