Category Archives: Democracy

India becoming Blockistan

Censorship in IndiaIndia’s tryst with censorship isn’t old. Whether it was religious censorship by Muslim rulers, political censorship by the British, or later on all pervasive censorship by our own politicians, we have had a nice stint with ideas, books, newspapers, and these days Twitter accounts and websites being censored and blocked.

The current spate of censorship had been expected for a long time. People in the mainstream media have always been at loggerheads with the free spirit of social networking websites that empowers everybody to express opinions and spread ideas. Mainstream media is nothing but the government machinery to suppress information, twist facts, confabulate public opinion and keep people generally in intellectual doldrums. Discourse is highly biased and debate is one-sided.

Twitter and Facebook, and before these, blogs, on the other hand, are like a whiff of fresh air. Information no longer belongs to those who control the media. Everybody can become a publisher and everybody can broadcast provided he or she can log onto the Internet and express consistently.

As soon as the UPA government came to power (with the Congress at its helm, of course) it began to curtail the freedom of bloggers by blocking widely used blogging services such as blogger.com. Within a couple of days the government realised it’s not as easy as it had thought and subsequently, had to retreat. Ever since then, it has been working towards creating various embargoes on the Internet.

People in the mainstream media of course have been gleefully recommending the curtailment. Social networking and blogging continuously make their job hard. The moment they try to spread some misinformation, it is countered by Twitter or blogs with factually correct information, often posted by people close to the ground. This way, the so-called intellectuals who have been running their propaganda for more than 60 years, are unable to do so.

In fact, according to the grapevine, some of these journalists approached the Prime Minister Office and asked for help, and hence the current blocking of websites and Twitter handles.

The recent Assam riots between Bodos and migrant Muslims from Bangladesh and the consequent upheaval among the Muslim community members gave the government an excuse to tighten its leash on freedom of speech. Journalists like Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai started blaming the social networking websites for spreading hate messages. This was a totally falsified campaign as:

  • Twitter, Facebook and right-wing blogs had not instigated violence between the two communities in Assam
  • The doctored photographs of Rohingiya Muslims being killed in Burma first appeared in an Urdu newspaper, and again, Twitter and Facebook and nothing to do with it
  • The violence proceeding a Muslim gathering in Azaad Maidan, Mumbai wasn’t directly instigated by Twitter users as most of the rioters don’t use Twitter and Facebook
  • It has now been established that all the inflammatory material that appeared on various websites actually came from Pakistani mischief mongers and people currently being targeted in India had no hand in it

Nonetheless, Twitter accounts tilting towards the majority community began to get blocked. According to this report in Economic Times,

ET has exclusively accessed government directives blocking Twitter handles and web pages.

The directive to block 16 Twitter handles were part of the notification sent out by the communications ministry on August 20. Only one of the twitter handles—@PM0India (the digit zero instead of alphabet O)—bears resemblance to the prime minister’s official account ‘@PMOIndia’.

The Twitter accounts of two journalists—columnist Kanchan Gupta and television journalist Shiv Aroor—are among those that have been blocked.

The directives only say that it has been decided to block these accounts. It does not quote any sections of the IT Act or any other law under which the decision to block the websites has been taken.

The other twitter handles that have been blocked include

Dosabandit (@dosabandit), Eagle Eye (@eagleeye47), Twitanic (@anilkohli54), Sangh Parivar (@sanghpariwar), Amit Paranjape (@aparanjape), Sumeet (@sumeetcj), Pravin Togadia (DrPravinTogadia), Panchajanya (@i_panchajanya), Barbarian Indian (@barbarindian), Scamsutra (@scamsutra), Ekakizunj (@ekakizunj) and redditindia (@redditindia).

There are many people, predictably, trying to downplay the entire situation. Many condescendingly talk about “fake revolutionaries” who have got nothing better to do.

To an extent it is true. It is much easier to raise your voice and protest on Twitter. It is also true that most of the people would choose to remain quiet the moment they have to face physical repercussions of their opinions. But many won’t. There is a reason every journalist, every agency, every government and every business has an account on Twitter or Facebook, or at least they have a blog. Why? Because there is an audience. If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be blocked. They are blocked because they tilt opinion. Twitter handles of vocal journalists like Kanchan Gupta got blocked because they wield a certain degree of influence. They have a reach.

This holds true for many people using Twitter and Facebook and their own blogs. Right now most of the people cannot make sense of what’s going on. That’s why, despite having active accounts on Twitter and Facebook, they are constantly deriding their users.

It is not easy to block information these days. Blocked accounts and websites can be easily accessed if you want to access them. There are many ways you can connect to the Internet even if your ISP blocks you individually. International media is waiting for such news. In fact that’s why within a few hours the blocked accounts are being unblocked.

Are we going to follow the footsteps of Pakistan and China and turn into a Blockistan? No matter how much it makes some of the English-speaking mainstream journalists happy, blocking isn’t possible, at least sustained blocking. The Internet has empowered the silent majority and there is going to be a big backlash if the government, or another agency tries to take this power back. In what form this backlash is going to manifest? It remains to be seen.

Random thoughts on being an independent country

It’s been 65 years since India got its administrative independence. From a country being governed by the British, we became a country governed by our own. Looking at it cynically, from a country being looted by the foreigners, we became a country being looted by the indigenous.

This year it has been a semi-drought condition in the country and lots of news channels have repeatedly been showing images of semi-naked, emaciated, old or middle-aged farmers squatting on a parched, cracked piece of land, covering their eyes from the glare of the sun, hopelessly looking at the cloudless sky with their lifeless eyes. I told my wife, “These images were representative of an average Indian back in the 17th century, the 18th-century, the 19th century, the 20th century, and scarily, even now, in 2012, and scarier, even after 50 years, we will have these same images being attributed to an average Indian.”

We are still dying of hunger after 65 years. Garibi hatao still remains a political slogan and there is no collective embarrassment over this. People still eat poisonous roots because they cannot find proper food. There are more malnutritioned children in India than in sub Saharan Africa. According to World Bank, in 2011 32.7% people in India live below the international standard of poverty line, incidentally, which is much higher compared to our own planning commission that says that in order to qualify as a person living below the poverty line you should be unable to spend Rs. 27 per day. The international standard says it should be $ 1.25, roughly that is Rs. 70 according to current exchange rate.

India is a vast country. There are hundreds of ethnic groups that don’t seem to be able to relate to each other. Even in 2012, Karunanidhi is again trying to rake up the issue of a separate Eelam for the Tamils. We have countless languages and dialects. The caste system has kept our population perpetually divided. Our Malthusian population growth has ensured a cornucopia of scarcities no matter how much the country produces (despite the government). Within the first decade of our independence the Congress — the main ruling party — started indulging in politics of casteism and communalism that later permeated every aspect of body polity. Economic growth, social morality, public well-being, food security and education have never been at the forefront of the national consciousness. We can kill and die for religion and caste, but not for schools, hospitals and roads. So yes, conventionally speaking, many of these problems can be termed as insurmountable. Some would even say, despite these problems, we have come a long way.

Surely we have. Despite daily episodes of road rage, staggering corruption, near-absent infrastructure, collapsing moral values, twisted consumerism and an inveterate acrimony towards our fellow countrymen and women, we have come a long way. When India got independence, the world had no hope for the country, at least when it came to democracy. The experts predicted that the country would soon be balkanized. Maintaining a sense of democracy wouldn’t be possible over such a diverse demography that is perpetually in the grip of turmoil and hostility. In that sense, we have had successive elections, given a few exceptions here and there, massive booth capturing and poll rigging and all. Democracy has survived in India for the past 65 years and this is a big feat.

Fortunately for India, the people of the country have shown exceptional survival skills despite being ruled by perhaps among the most corrupt politicians and administrators in the world. You can also call it serendipity. The historical turn of events took such a shape that it was possible to make more money maintaining the semblance of democracy rather than turning despotic. Anyway, talking about the people. Whatever progress you see around you, can be attributed to 2 things: the law of probability and survival instinct.

We have a huge population in the country so all those people who have experienced success and prosperity can attribute much of their fortune to the sheer number. Our complete social fabric and administrative system is quite chaotic. Drive your vehicle on the road for a couple of hours and you will know what I’m talking about. Some of us survive and prosper simply because we are too many to be obliterated.

Survival instinct is the second attribute. A big chunk of our population, majorly coming from Hinduism, had been under various foreign rules for more than 1000 years. It must have been really crushing. Nonetheless it survived. Any other religion and population would have perished long ago. We Indians haven’t. No matter how pathetic our living conditions are, we go on living, and miraculously, we survive, propagate, and many of us, even prosper. So despite the fundamental image of India remaining that of a hopeless farmer squatting on a cracked piece of land waiting for the gods to show some mercy on him, some of us have used whatever scant opportunities have come our ways.

What’s been lacking? Why has India been so miserable all these years? Why after attaining independence we couldn’t even become a IInd world country, if not first world? What the heck went wrong?

I’m not a scholar, but my common sense says, as I do more and more reading, our founding Fathers invested very little in human development, purposely or inadvertently. Dynastic politics has ensured that no competent politicians can come at the helm of affairs right from the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru. They built monumental dams and nationalised behemoths but ignored the intellect. We had a very large population that was backward and illiterate. It needed to be educated. The imperialistic system of education needed to be abandoned in the favour of more holistic, purposeful education system. For more than 1000 years we had been under various foreign rules and that had taken a big toll on our intellectual growth and moral bearings. Everything was about day-to-day survival – looking at the skies for rains and trying to avoid crossing paths with social and political bullies. This is not a conducive environment for growth.

As a nation, we are not a proud people, and it shows through our jingoism and misplaced nationalism. As I have already said, we can kill and die for religion and caste, but not for schools, hospitals, and roads. Election after election we vote for corrupt and degraded politicians simply because they belong to our religion or caste. We don’t judge people by the work they do but by the religion or caste they belong to. In fact the moral depression has been so deep-rooted that people start making fun of people who actually want to do something constructive for the country. Spend some time on Twitter to get a taste of this moral depression and inferiority complex.

We got independence from the British in 1947 but we never got independence from our ignorance, indifference, backwardness and political immaturity. Over the millennium we became lazy and timid and our benchmarks became mediocre. We never got independence from our religious and caste biases. We have been a hodgepodge of ideologies and cultural idiosyncrasies, never truly becoming a nation. In order to become a nation we need to be proud of ourselves. We need to have a collective vision. And this vision needs to be among the masses, and not exclusively among politicians, intellectuals and think tanks. The day we decide that we need to have a collective vision, and then collectively start working towards it, we will be truly independent.

The new Twitter censorship policy might not be as bad as it looks

There is lots of buzz on the Internet regarding the recent announcement by Twitter that it would be blocking certain tweets in certain countries, although the same tweets will be available in the countries outside of the jurisdiction of those countries wanting to block that particular content.

In the beginning, as soon as I came across this news my first reaction was, “Whattha…” but then I did some reading on the issue and found myself agreeing to many commentators who, although cautiously, understand Twitter’s point of view and deem the development not as bad as it sounds.

The thing is, we don’t live in a Utopian world where freedom of expression and speech is available unshackled. It is not. While tapping on your keyboard, writing for your blog or for Twitter (or Facebook, or for that matter any publishing platform on the Internet) you may take your right to express yourself for granted, but your freedom ends where another’s discomfort begins, and this discomfort can be anything – political, social, ideological or religious.

In the current scenario the governments can block Twitter completely and this doesn’t work good for anybody. Countries like China can block Twitter for just a single tweet. There are many media companies that remove the content from their servers and it is available nowhere in the world. This is the worst case scenario.

Although it is a cyber platform, it works and operates in the real world. Also, it is not a non-profit entity. Somewhere down the line Twitter needs to earn money and it will be earning money via its presence in various countries, and when it plans to have presence in various countries it needs to comply with local jurisdictions whether one likes it or not.

While trying to comply with the local laws Twitter has very carefully drafted its censorship policy and has made censoring content a bit difficult. Particular tweets, while blocked in a country whose government wants them blocked, will be available to the rest of the world and you will also be notified when those tweets are blocked. At Twitter help Center they say:

Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.

We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.

I think this is a clever thing to do. The governments will have to follow procedures in order to block particular tweets. The same governments will not have an excuse to block entire Twitter at the drop of a hat. Twitter can always say, look, we’re complying with your local laws so you cannot block us.

The good thing is the transparency factor and also a clever way of keeping the content visible in the regions where the local laws are not applicable. Transparency in the sense that the content that is blocked will be marked as blocked content and as mentioned in the above quoted text from Twitter, all the requests to withhold content by particular governments will be listed at the Chilling Effects website.

Since all the Internet companies have to operate in the real world, they have to follow the real jurisdictions. Perhaps one day we will have utopia and the cyber world will be totally different from the real world, but right now everything boils down to the real world, where we all have to operate. Twitter is trying to comply with local laws as well as allowing free flow of information wherever it is possible. So far, it sounds fair.

Dealing with corruption at the local level

Since people are all of a sudden concerned about corruption “among us” ever since Anna Hazare began his anti-corruption campaign, we must come up with a workable solution to deal with corruption at the micro level, at the grassroots level where the everyday man has shell out Rs. 50, Rs. 100, or Rs. 500 to get petty things done, for instance, getting the voter ID card, clearing the police inquiry for the passport, getting a license, getting a birth or a death certificate, getting various sanctions and permissions while running business, for doing construction, et cetera.

I would suggest local bodies in the line of resident welfare associations. These associations do a great job of taking care of the everyday needs of their respective localities. Why can’t the same model be applied to some corruption-dealing procedures? Local groups can be formed that will make sure that citizens of that particular area don’t have to give bribes to policemen and other government officials. To some it may seem like a vigilante group, so we have to tread cautiously because you never know when things can get violent or when people start taking unfair advantage of such situations.

The problem is, it is a bit difficult to refuse bribing and still getting your work done. Since the entire command line is engaged in bribe-taking in most of the cases (in fact that is why people are able to take bribe with impunity and there is no redress for the victims). If a big group of people, say 10-15 can go together to a government office it will be awkward or difficult for them to ask for money.

Who is a patriot?

My good friend Abhishek asked in Twitter (@Abhishek_Rai), “Who is patriot?” I really don’t know what elicited this question in him. I’m assuming that he must had been reading various exchanges taking place on Twitter and elsewhere regarding the anti-graft movement being currently spearheaded by Anna Hazare and his team. Ever since he launched his movement people have been coming up with such existential queries.

Personally, I don’t have an answer, at least not a definite answer, but I thought, it would be a good writing exercise to explore this question: really who is a patriot?

I don’t know what prompted him but Samuel Johnson’s statement, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” is quite a known one. Of course he meant people who pretend to be patriotic. But some people take this statement to heart and actually feel apologetic about showing some regard for the country or the community, especially in India.

Coming back to who is a patriot? Does dying for your country make you a patriot? Does loving your country and declaring that love on a routine basis make you a patriot? Does dedicating your life to the betterment of your country make you a patriot? Does protecting your country against internal and external enemies making you a patriot? Does speaking up for your country’s underprivileged citizens make you a patriot? Are freedom fighters patriotic?

I think it is understandable that by definition all the traits mentioned above make you a patriot. But there is another trait that makes you (this is simply my opinion and I might be mistaken) a patriot but its feasibility depends on collective patriotism and not selective. Living a righteous life and achieving your full potential without harming people. When we all achieve our full potential it is always beneficial to the country.

Why I call it a collective patriotism is because simply living a righteous life isn’t going to get you anywhere if everybody around you is resorting to unfair means. You can become a saint and live an eccentric life, but you cannot live like a citizen in such an environment. For instance, Gandhiji wouldn’t have been able to practice nonviolence had there been a firing squad facing him. Yes, he could have chosen to not to react but people would say he simply died without putting up a fight. Similarly, living a righteous life while living in a corrupt society isn’t practical, and isn’t practically possible (I am not saying it’s impossible).

This brings us to the current state of affairs: Anna Hazare’s anti-graft movement. I have observed these types of reactions ever since the movement started:

  • People outrightly reject the entire thing as a farce
  • People, although find it in the right spirit, term it impractical
  • People have started their own smear campaigns because they strongly feel against the fundamental philosophy driving the moment
  • People are staunchly supporting the movement having full belief in the effectiveness of the bill being promoted
  • People are supporting the movement despite having some doubts about the bill
  • People are in different and taking it just as an ineluctable transcendental inconvenience

Since Anna Hazare’s anti-graft movement has metamorphosed into a people’s movement, are people not supporting it unpatriotic?

Again, this is just my personal opinion and you are welcome to correct me, people who oppose the anti-graft movement fall under the following categories

  • Highly opinionated people who believe that only parliamentary practices can redeem the country and rid it of corruption
  • People who don’t generally like mass movements
  • People who somehow cannot relate to the pathos of the common man
  • People who want to project themselves as elitists and hence siding with people who they think are elitists
  • People who think saying funny and smart-ass things against the movement makes them look cool

The last category seems a bit frivolous but spend some time on Twitter and you will get my point.

In the above list I haven’t included people (journalists, intellectuals and public figures) that publicly oppose the moment because they are affiliated to particular political parties and interest groups and hence are paid to run their own respective agendas or who are seeking one or another favor from the contemporary corrupt government officials and politicians.

Many among the people categorized in the above-mentioned list might be patriotic and they might also love their country to an extent of dying for their country, so simply opposing the movement doesn’t make them unpatriotic. For all you know, they might find people supporting the movement unpatriotic because they think that it’s the mob mentality that is driving the anti-graft movement.

Simply supporting popular movements doesn’t make you a patriot. What makes you a patriot is taking the right decisions when it comes the time to decide. And it doesn’t always have to be the right decisions because being “right” is quite circumstantial. So it is the feeling that lies in the crux of being patriotic.

A patriot also works towards the common good. He or she takes steps that are for the common good of the country. Referring to the anti-graft bill whether you support it for the common good of the country or oppose it for the common good of the country, you are a patriot.

And what about those who live a righteous life without showing active interest in the events taking place around them? Seeking your opinion.