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Opinion and Editorial

Indian voices cannot be silenced on the Net

Allan Jacob (Senior Editor) Filed on January 15, 2020 | Last updated on January 16, 2020 at 10.24 am

The country has enforced the most number of online shutdowns in the world, which is against democratic ideals

India may be the world's largest democracy but it also has the dubious distinction of being the biggest perpetrator of internet shutdowns in the world at the first sign of dissent and disorder.

Last week, the Indian Supreme Court, while ordering the central government to review restrictions it had imposed in the newly created union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, said cutting off the internet was against the constitution and that the decision trampled upon fundamental rights which included freedom of expression.

The issue in focus here is the online communication network in the territory which the government had snapped ostensibly to maintain public order. It was a draconian measure to quell social unrest even before it had begun and to choke digital terrorist activity in the territory. I cannot say the preemptive strike against the Net made the problem go away after Jammu & Kashmir's special status was stripped following the abrogation of Article 370 last August, but it has kept the social and political pot boiling for five months now.

Previously, governments found it convenient to shoot the messenger if the message was unpalatable. The messenger was the fall guy, now the medium itself has been silenced to ensure the message cannot get out and upset the status quo which is akin to throwing the baby out of the bathwater.

It's not just information that has been blocked but also the transactional ability of the people as most businesses are going digital. New Delhi has flaunted its digital India credentials assiduously but extreme measures like blocking the internet have sullied its image and begs the question: what or who is the government afraid of? Technology, the spread of information, or the people themselves? Impending terror attacks or unrest is but an excuse that holds no water.

Data reveals that the Narendra Modi government has switched off digital connectivity at the smallest sign of trouble the most in the last decade. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, Net connections have been deliberately snapped on an industrial scale in different states for various reasons a whopping 370 times. A war against information on the online medium is being waged, though many die-hard supporters known as bhakts will raise decibel levels online and off it through trolls and deny this vociferously - the cult of oneness and order will not suffer a different point of view.

Interestingly, the figure ties in with Article 370, a number that speaks volumes about rising intolerance of dissent in the country. The shutdowns peaked at 134 in 2018; last year it was 109 while it was just six in 2014.

The rules of this game for mass control have been redrawn in the technological age as information becomes easily accessible to people. Often it is used as an instrument of war by governments on its foes and its own people. Imagine an army starving the people of a city that is resisting its advance.

Denial of the medium for information and communication shuts them out from talking or venting their frustrations even when their daily lives go downhill and their freedoms are taken away from them. Failure to listen to the common angst when there are so many channels for communication on the Net will only doom governments who fail to envision the future and the inroads made by technology.

Information is knowledge. It is power and that power is a tool for transformation (or damnation). Suddenly, elected governments have realised that by killing the very medium through which people derive their power and galvanise themselves into blocs, they can direct the narrative to suit their short-term interests. The medium has become something of a living, breathing organism through which the lifeblood of modern democratic dissent flows. The medium is indeed the message and by denying the masses that ecosystem to air their views, the new ruling saffron elite in India believes they have the upper hand in this perception battle that is dangerously become a sort of civilisational war.

However, in the Indian constitution, freedom of the press has not been expressly spelt out. Article 19(1) covers freedom of speech and expression. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the constitution, in 1950 had clarified that the individual or a citizen had the right to freedom of expression, and this is what the Indian Supreme Court had raised concerns about in its ruling last week when it called for a review of the curbs in Kashmir. Some may argue that other countries have also snapped internet connectivity when protesters hit the streets in pursuit of democracy and human rights. Venezuela, Sudan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Indonesia and others have also pulled the plug on online connectivity to curb criticism from the people. India, an established democracy, does not have to resort to such drastic measures that tarnish its democratic credentials. In a democracy it is foolish to expect people to support government policies with one voice. Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator claims that such government-backed Net blackouts have increased the level of violence four times over when the networks stayed on.

Essential services that require the Net have now been switched on in Kashmir, and government-monitored online kiosks have been set up. Controls are still in place but the Supreme Court's intervention proves that institutions of democracy may have some spunk left in them to come out in defence of the constitution which guarantees freedom of expression.


Allan Jacob

A news junkie with an abiding interest in foreign affairs. I'm a keen follower and learner of the media and how it will pan out in the future when the common man and woman will themselves be journalists and not just sources of information. Lead a team of bright journalists who are driving the change and have their feet on the ground.

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