Shooting the messenger in India – RTÉ World Report/PBS Mediashift


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Waiting inside the train station at Bangalore (Simon Roughneen)

BANGALORE – The Indian Government has gone on the offensive against internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter after political unrest in various parts of the country, demanding hundreds of pages be removed or blocked.

On August 15th, India’s independence day, Indian northeasterners began fleeing Bangalore, the country’s southern IT hub and 5th largest city, after a series of widely-disseminated text messages threatening Assamese and other ethnic groups from the northeast of the country. Attempting to stop bulk messaging, authorities restricted text messages to five recipients.


On the platform at Bangalore train station were hundreds of people from Assam state and other areas of India’s northeast, a remote part of the country almost 2000 miles away. The region is mostly surrounded by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Burma and is linked to the rest of India only by a narrow strip of land nicknamed the chicken-neck.

The scene reminded of an old newsreel from World War II Europe, or, more aptly, from the separation of India and Pakistan in the late 1940’s when around 25 million people took flight amid chaos and bloodshed as the contours of the new states were drawn up after British withdrawal.

In July, fighting started in the northeast between local ethnic groups and Muslims – which some Indians say are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – killed 80 people and forced 400,000 more from their homes, most of them Muslims.

On August 11, a march in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, ended  in a riot, with 2 killed and dozens injured when Muslims there protested attacks on Muslims in the northeast and on Muslim Rohingya in Burma.

The SMS scare in Bangalore came next, but who sent what and why has never been clearly established, though three men were subsequently arrested in Bangalore on suspicion of mass-forwarding threatening text messages.

A lack of confidence in police, perceived racism against northeasterners – some of whom appear east or southeast Asian and are sometimes called ‘chinki’ by other Indians– as well as political discord ahead of elections next year all contributed to the exodus, it seems.

Real or hyped, the scare was enough to prompt panic among some of the 300,000 or so northeasterners who study and work in Bangalore. Several I spoke to at the city train station, waiting for an 11.35pm train to Guwahati in Assam state, a 2 and a half day journey, said they hadn’t received or even seen any messages, but the rumour mill went into overdrive and their parents in the northeast urged them to come home, temporarily at least.

Government reacts

The text messages were said to be from some of India’s 170 million or so Muslim population, the world’s 3rd largest after Indonesia and Pakistan – and the Indian government at first sought to blame Pakistan for fomenting the exodus by whipping-up anger among India’s Muslims.

The Indian Government urged the northeasterners to stay put, even as the exodus spread to Pune, Chennai and other large cities in the south and west where northeasterners work. India has around 750 million cellphone subscribers, the world’s second biggest market after China, and the government’s nationwide restriction seemed an over-reaction given that the exodus was confined to a few cities.

In a country of 1.2billion people – the world’s 4th biggest economy measured in purchasing power parity terms – the government is worried about a recent economic slowdown. Growth is at its lowest since 2003 and foreign investors are complaining about hazy rules and red tape. India Inc. feels it needs to nip any political unrest in the bud, with foreign investment dropping by 78% year on year according to June figures.

Apparently with public order in mind, the Indian Government began blocking websites and pages said to contain inflammatory content, even as the exodus slowed over last weekend.

Asked about concerns that the government’s web crackdown could damage the county’s IT-friendly image and cause more problems for cities like Bangalore, an IT and outsourcing hub, Nishan Shah, of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society in India said that the government is trying to figure out how best to react to the transition from an era when news and information was carried via broadcast and print.

“In the older forms of governance, which were imagined through a broadcast model, the government was at the centre of the information wheel, managing and mediating what information reached different parts of the country. In the p2p world, where the government no longer has that control, it is now trying different ways by which it can reinforce its authority and centrality to the information ecosystem. Which means that there is going to be a series of failures and models that don’t work,” said Mr Shah wrote in an email

Overdoing it?

However for a country’s that has long styled itself as the world’s biggest democracy, and is home to some of the world’s biggest selling English language newspapers, the last few days have seen the government take a forceful line against internet giants such as Google and Facebook that some feel threatens freedom of speech.

An April 2011 law says that the government must give 48 hours notice before blocking pages, as well as an explanation for the block in each individual case. “Every company, whether it’s an entertainment company, or a construction company, or a social media company, has to operate within the laws of the given country,” said Sachin Pilot, minister of state in the Ministry of Communications, speaking to media about the recent restrictions.

There’s more to the backstory than just the 2011 IT law, however. Prior to the recent exodus from Bangalore and the government reaction, Google and Facebook were facing charges for allegedly hosting offensive material.

But now international news organizations have taken a hit as well. Among those affected by the block were Doha-based news agency Al-Jazeera and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and stories on sectarian fighting in Arakan in western Burma, where Buddhist Arakanese have clashed with Muslim Rohingya, with the flare-up catching the attention of Islamist groups elsewhere, including India, were blocked in India. ABC said on Friday that “In relation to the particular blocked ABC content, we are surprised by the action and we stand by the reporting.”

A Google spokesman, speaking by telephone from Singapore about the Indian Government’s recent blocks, said that the company abides by the law of the land, in India and elsewhere. “We also comply with valid legal requests from authorities wherever possible, consistent with our longstanding policy,” he said.

All told, 80-100 million Indians are online, and India has the world’s 3rd biggest number of Facebook users , but that 53 million make up just 4.5% of the country’s 1.2bn population.

Twitter has 16 million accounts in the country. By Friday, a stand-off between New Delhi and Twitter saw around 20 twitter handles blocked by Indian ISPs, on the orders of the government, with threats that the government could block twitter completely.

The hashtag #GOIblocks gets around 10-12 tweets per minute – going by a quick scroll through just now – from users protesting the government’s measures. However, caught up in the dragnet so far are accounts with little apparently to do with the Bangalore exodus. The Indian opposition said that the blacklist is partisan, while other commentators see the government as over-sensitive, using the pushback to put a block on an account parodying the country’s prime minister for example.

Adding to the irony – though it is not clear whether by accident or design – the Twitter account of Milind Deora, the country’s minister of state for communications and IT, and a vocal proponent of the recent blocks, was taken down by Twitter for 12 hours before being restored – along with an apology by Twitter.

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