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.