An ill-conceived attempt by the government to impose censorship in cyberspace, where the tech-savvy urban middle class usually gives vent to its anger, has misfired.
Taking advantage of the concern that arose in the country in the wake of exodus of people from the northeastern states who are working or studying elsewhere in the country as a result of panic created by motivated Internet propaganda, the government asked social networking sites to block prejudicial material. The list of accounts and pages it supplied included some that contained criticism of the ruling party but no exhortation to violence.
There had been violent protests in Mumbai and Pune against the attacks on Muslims in the Bodo areas of Assam. Later, following rumours of possible attacks, northeasterners in Chennai and Bangalore rushed to railway stations to board home-bound trains. Attempts by the authorities to dissuade them from leaving failed.
Sectarian elements have been using the Internet for some time to promote divisive ideas resulting in polarisation of the society on communal lines. One of the groups active in social networks comprises members and sympathisers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whom critics have dubbed Internet Hindus. Their popular themes include the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir following the rise of extremist violence and infiltration of Muslims into the country from Bangladesh.
After Muslims came under attack in Myanmar recently, some groups in India took up their cause in social networks. Gory pictures from elsewhere were posted on websites and spread through mobile phones to inflame passions. After the Assam clashes morphed pictures were distributed to exacerbate feelings further.
The government tied itself in knots by offering unconvincing explanations to justify the censorship attempt. It said its cyber security agency had identified the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami, a banned Bagladeshi outfit, and the Popular Front of India, a New Delhi-based oraganisation of Kerala origin, as the sources of the objectionable material. It also claimed the offensive stuff was uploaded from Pakistan.
Both the PFI and the Pakistan government denied the charges. Later the government said it only had the URL of the sites which hosted offensive material and did not know the identity of the account holders.
At the instance of the government, social networks removed or Internet service providers blocked more than 300 web pages with communally-sensitive content. In an attempt to limit flow of information through mobile phones the government directed telecommunication companies not to allow more than five text messages a day. The limit was later raised to 20.
Sixteen Twitter accounts were blocked. Among them were those of a few high-profile Hindutva advocates. Inexplicably, the Twitter handle of a minister, who was using the medium to defend the government action, also disappeared. The network restored his account and tendered an apology for the interruption.
Cyber warriors quickly launched a vigorous counteroffensive. Posts and tweets protesting the government’s repressive steps and comparing them to the 1975 Emergency measures flooded the networks. Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said only accounts used to post inflammatory material were blocked and there was no need for others to worry. However, the protesters were not pacified.
The government also received some gratuitous advice from the United States administration. WikiLeaks’ tormentors in Washington asked New Delhi to respect Internet freedom.
The government soon realised that its knee-jerk reaction to the communal propaganda in the social networks had done more harm than good. It reversed some of the steps.
Technical experts sympathetic to the government’s effort to check incendiary propaganda said it was perfectly in order to take steps to eliminate hate material from cyberspace but the authorities had handled the matter ineptly.
While reiterating the concept of Internet freedom, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, with their bitter experience of China, have been ready to cooperate with the government in keeping out objectionable content. They certainly do not want to lose the huge Indian market.
In going at the social networks the government is barking up the wrong tree. The real problem is not what is going on in cyberspace but the fragmentation of Indian society as a result of the alarming growth of religious, regional, linguistic and other identities, promoted by diverse forces, including political parties and the media. Concerted efforts are needed to strengthen forces of unity.
The exodus of northeasterners may have been triggered by malicious rumours but the government must face the harsh reality that it is unable to inspire confidence in the people, especially minority groups of every kind, about its ability to ensure peace and justice.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 28, 2012.