Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tractors of Catalonia and the Kashmir Aazadi Discourse: The Technology Connection

Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad (PhD)

After a long struggle, the Catalan regional parliament last month on 28th of October voted to declare independence from Spain with 70 percent of the voters in favor in the 135-seat chamber. No surprise, that the Spanish Constitutional Court has termed this move as illegal and has promptly dismissed the local government with immediate effect. Spain’s allies like US, UK, Germany and France, it seems does not want to see what they call “more cracks, more splits”. Notwithstanding, the current stalemate, the intention behind writing this small piece is to flag out how a particular technology became a symbol of Catalonia’s push to secede.  

Weeks before Catalonia regional parliament voted to declare independence from Spain, I wrote a small article on September 8, 2017, published in a local Daily of Kashmir with the title “Technology is the way: Use it as a potent political tool” in which I argued with some cases that technological innovations are increasingly used by the suppressed communities across the world to disrupt the status quo by not complying with the rules of an ‘ordered’ universe that the rulers have crafted for them. From, Korea to Cuba and Kashmir, the struggle for freedom, as is flagged in the article, is dotted with ample cases where technological innovations have led to the political revolutions.

Certainly Cuba was a past spectacle and Catalonia the present. However, the connecting dots between the old and the new modes of revolutions are visible from the varying uses of the technology. In both the cases ‘disobedience’ and subverting the status quo is confirmed by inversely using the technology. Technology manuals are barely used and new functions are invented within a short span of time. To put it in a different way, technology assumes a different form and identity and steadily becomes more political and sometimes social too.  For example, when social networking sites in Kashmir were banned last summer, a 16-year-old Zeyan Shafiq from Anantnag developed Kashbook, Kashmir's own version of Facebook. Without any doubt this display of ingenuity was not driven by the market incentives or to gain social reputation; it was but a deliberate attempt to counter the Jammu and Kashmir government move to ban 22 social media services, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter. Indeed a simple and technical approach of noncompliance. Likewise, in 2011, the use of internet in the Middle East was so intense that the term Arab Spring became synonymous with “Twitter uprising” or “Facebook revolution”.

In Catalonia, a region dominated by farmers certainly used many tools for declaring independence from Catalonia but the use of tractors merits a special mention. In the recent uprising hundreds of tractors were used by Catalonians to either block the road or to counter the police movement. And this exceptional and innovative tool of protest was so powerful and successful that Tractors became a popular symbol of Catalonia’s push to secede’ and attracted global attention both in media and on social networking sites. For instance, Palko Karasz, in a recent New York Times article published on October 11, 2017, with the title ‘Tractors became a symbol of Catalonia’s push to secede’ contends that “In a region that draws part of its identity from the toughness of farmers, their tractors are now among the symbols of Catalonians’ fight for independence.” During the contentious referendum on independence, Karasz reports that the tractors were not only positioned outside polling stations as a line of defense against intervention by the Spanish police but were used for lending the mechanized mass support to its independence.

Karasz further writes that “Farmers in the rest of Spain and Europe have for decades used tractors in protests about the cost of gas or the wholesale price of produce. But, they (tractors), he writes, “have rarely attracted as much attention and popular support as they have in recent weeks in Catalonia. And even as the protest schedule is busy, so is the schedule on the farm.”

This fascination for technology and using it as a potent tool to liberate the oppressed classes might appear a new phenomenon, but creating new discourses and triggering new movements by using different technologies is essentially very old.  It was Karl Marx who first explicated in detail the cause and effect relationship shared by the technology and social structure and declared technology as the prime driver and shaper of the social structure. His argument that “the hand mill gives you the society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, the society with the industrial capitalist” has achieved supreme fame. To Marx, technology is the major and independent variable that truly creates colossal tremors in the society. These could be both positive or will have destructive consequences.

Without going into this technological determinism theory, the fact of the matter is that history of revolutions is dotted with multiple examples where people have used various forms of technologies in shaping the bigger political, economic and social discourses. It inexorably creates a new culture and in due course leads to new realities and new debates. Kashmir certainly is no exception. For example in eighteenth century, new weaving technologies were used to counter the barbaric Afghan rule. Nevertheless, in Kashmir, we still have a long way to go in solemnizing the marriage between the ongoing resistance movement and the technological innovation.   

Author hail from Halmatpora Kupwara, and is co-author of the book ‘Informal Sector Innovations: Insights from the Global South’ published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis. He can be reached at

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