Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sedition laws: India’s colonial-era threat to free expression

Aseem Trivedi’s arrest for his anti-establishment cartoons shocked and outraged India. Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code, under which Trivedi was arrested, is reserved for anyone who “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government,” with disaffection meaning “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity”. Although a majority of Indians found the cartoons crude rather than clever, public opinion overwhelmingly believed the cartoonist was well within his rights to publish them.

Trivedi has since been released on bail, but the incident has triggered debates about future of India’s repressive sedition laws. Even the Mumbai High Court lashed out against the police for arresting Trivedi in the first place, stating: “We live in a free society and enjoy freedom of speech and expression. Sedition is a pre-independence [law]…”

Cartoon by Aseem Trivedi, from
(Cartoon by Aseem Trivedi, from

The complex political layering of India often tosses up headlines where charges of sedition have been levied against persons who, by official accounts, seem to be sympathetic to anti-national elements. Take, for example, the case of Kashmir University lecturer Noor Muhammed Bhat, who was arrested in December 2010 for asking his students to translate the following lines from Urdu to English: “Kashmir is burning again. The blood of youth is being spilled like water. Kids are being beaten to death by police and forces…”. The paper was given to students at a time when the Kashmir Valley was reeling from pro-independence riots in the form of stone throwing from students, sometimes drawing police fire in return.

Bhat also asked students to write an essay on the topic “Are stone throwers the real heroes?”. Bhat defended his actions, saying he was merely drawing from newspapers, and posing a question which students were free to answer as they liked. However, the High Court termed his paper “seditious and rebellious in character.” Bhat was ultimately granted bail and released in January 2011, but not before he was barred from setting or evaluating exam papers for the next five years.

Contrast that with a case in south India this year. About 8,000 people, including children, have been charged under IPC Section 124 for protesting against the planned construction of a nuclear power plant in the fishing village of Idinthakari, Tamil Nadu. Their crime? As a sign of protest, on Independence Day this year, the villagers refused to hoist the national flag, and put up black flags instead.

For the hundreds of academics, teachers, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens who have been charged for sedition on the most dubious grounds, Aseem Trivedi’s predicament might, in the long run, be the turning point. Trivedi wasn’t protesting a particular project in a far corner of the country, nor was he caught up in an extremely contentious political hotbed like Kashmir. He was representing, visually, a frustration with government, politics and corruption that has been best captured by the India Against Corruption movement, of which he is a member. For Indians for whom corruption is today’s most important issue, it was easy to look at Trivedi’s cartoons and decide for themselves if it was really a case of sedition or an anti-establishment protest. There could have been no better trigger for Indians to understand what “sedition” meant and grasp the import of abuse of sedition law.

The court case has inevitably led to debate about sedition laws in the media and courts, highlighting the many others cases where people have been wrongly arrested. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous speech, made when he was charged by the British government for sedition in 1922, has been dug up and quoted by many columnists:

"Section 124 A… [is] designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence."

Was Lenin Kumar Roy contemplating, promoting or inciting violence when he wrote a book accusing Hindu extremists of violence against minorties in Orissa?  Was the Indian state’s controversial charge of sedition against Dr. Binayak Sen, the doctor and human rights activist who worked in the Maoist areas of Chattisgarh, legitimate? Sen, released on bail by the court that did not find enough evidence to support the government’s claim that he had been aiding Maoist rebels, has called the application of sedition “contrary to the spirit of democracy".

With the media and public-spirited Indians calling for a comprehensive examination and even repeal of the law due to its blatant misuse, it is worth restating that the right to free expression and peaceful dissent is a must for any democracy (freedom of speech is guaranteed as a fundamental right by the Constitution of India, albeit with restrictions). Sedition is a very serious charge that should never be levied against any individual lightly. The situation becomes even more urgent with the internet fast becoming the urban Indian’s vehicle of choice to debate and disagree.

The concepts of sedition and censorship need serious examination.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

India discusses proposals to regulate the internet

The Indian government’s proposal to the United Nations General Assembly, to form a 50-member United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) to “regulate” the internet has been met with controversy since it was tabled last October. On 19 September, one of India’s leading industry bodies, the Federation of Indian Chambers and Commerce Industry, FICCI, held a panel discussion bringing together government, business groups and civil society for the first time to debate the proposal.

Currently, a US-based nonprofit called the Internet Cooperation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) coordinates Internet domain names and IP addresses; with a sophisticated system of councils set up to address the concerns of various stakeholders (corporations, governments, Internet user groups, etc.) across the world.

Although the US government has no direct role in ICANN’s decision making process, many other governments have been increasingly uncomfortable with its seeming proximity to Washington. At the same time, governments have increasingly found that they need to rely on internet intermediaries (such as social networking sites) in order to censor content, and are looking for more direct control over these issues. The Indian press has questioned the government’s motives for the proposal, as it can be seen as taking internet governance away from multistakeholderism and the ICANN — and moving it more towards a bureaucratic, government-led UN committee.

Speaking on behalf of the government, Ambassador A Gopinath made a spirited case for the document at the panel discussion, emphasising that the CIRP is part of an effort to fill a need for “enhanced cooperation”, building on the political consensus achieved by the 2005 Tunis Agenda — the resulting document from the World Summit for Information Societies (WSIS), which was a series of discussions around bridging the digital divide. Even though Gopinath stressed that the CIRP would be transparent and multilateral, he was almost entirely drowned out by business voices as well as civil society members outraged by the government’s decision to present the proposal to the UN without consulting with them.

“CIRP seems like a solution in search of a problem,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an Independent Member of Parliament.

Industry expert Kamlesh Bajaj, CEO of the Data Security Council of India, stressed that while governments may choose to focus on trademark and intellectual property issues, civil society is concerned with civil liberties regarding the Internet.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, president of the Foundation for Media Professionals, pointed out that the fear that governments seek to subtly control what people read and watch is real.

Panelists and members of the audience also raised concerns about authoritarian governments using the 50-member CIRP to seriously limit freedom of expression. The consensus was that the Indian government had failed on two accounts: consulting industry and civil society groups before drafting the CIPR, and later, in adequately explaining why this was not done.

As the way forward, many speakers suggested that the Indian government either withdraw the proposal or seek to revise it after holding further discussions with the public. As Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society said, “the proposal would have won more friends if it was clearer about if it wants to regulate, and whom it wants to regulate.”

The government assertion that CIRP would be a “quick-footed and timely” decision-making body was laughed at because it would — by its own suggestion — meet for only two weeks in the year. Behind the scenes, sources suggest that the Indian government’s enthusiasm for pushing this proposal has waned, even at the highest levels. Perhaps this forum, which FICCI admitted was encouraged by the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, is a first step to revise this position.

Friday, September 14, 2012

India's telecoms revolution must be extended to all

Across the world, debates around freedom of expression have intensified, in part due to people’s increased participation because of the many avenues communication available today. Confidence seems to follow connectivity. But think of the people who remain disconnected — excluded from national and international discourse — because of the lack of wires and signals. As tempting it is to believe that the whole world is connected, the truth is very different, especially in developing countries such as India. The numbers speak for themselves.

According to the latest figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the total telephone subscriber base in the country stands at 965.52 million. This looks encouraging for a population of roughly 1.2 billion, until one considers the urban-rural divide hidden by these numbers. The overall teledensity in urban areas is an impressive 169.03 per cent compared to 40.66 per cent in rural areas. The majority of Indians, 68.84 per cent, live in rural areas. For a country that wants to reach 100 per cent rural teledensity by 2020   — this  ambitious target includes extremely remote areas — India has a long way to go.

The Indian telecoms industry has been viewed as a success story because of the rapid proliferation of mobile phones, largely through private enterprise.  But the future impact of the now infamous scandal, caused by collusion between government and big business, on further corporate investment is yet to be determined. The experience highlights the fact that in order to ensure universal access, the government cannot depend on the market alone. In fact, the government needs to review its track record and policies that guide connectivity, especially last-mile connectivity in India.
Indian telecoms have been tarnished by controversy at the highest levels with senior politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives fighting charges of corruption in court. The former Minister of Communications and Information Technology, A Raja, has been accused of favouring corporate telecom players by selling bandwidth at undervalued prices and by rigging the allocation process. The Indian media has closely documented the scandal. Ironically, the undervalued bandwidth spectrum led to stiff competition among mobile operators and lower prices for the end users.  However, the damage to the end users has been limited – as MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar puts it, these scams are seen as victimless crimes. as the impact is a loss to the exchequer, but not to service.

The Universal Service Obligation Fund, created by the government of India in 2002 to “provide access to telecom services to people in rural and remote areas of India at affordable and reasonable prices”, has not come close to achieving its objectives. USOF’s mandate was increased in 2006 to include mobile telephony and broadband. The idea was to encourage private players to roll out services in rural areas by incentivising it. Telecom companies are required to contribute five per cent of their adjusted gross revenue towards the fund. Their function of providing rural access is then to be subsidised by USOF. As of March 2011, the fund had collected $7.44 Billion USD of which $2.69 Billion USD has been spent.

In 2011, the Indian media suggested that private service providers who had bid aggressively to become USOF operators were now trying to escape their license condition to roll out rural telephony. News reports suggest that the reason was because they finding it commercially unviable, and would prefer paying a less expensive penalty imposed by the government for abandoning the project. The fact is that some of the villages that need to be covered have very small populations — ranging from 500 to 2000 people — making those geographies are very expensive to connect. As a result, the government is planning to use the USOF to roll out a National Optic Fibre Network to connect every panchayat by 2014, to further facilitate e-governance initiatives. The hope is that the government run Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) will successfully complete what the private companies found unprofitable — last mile connectivity.

The truth is that both the cases mentioned above, through government and corporate action, have resulted in intangible and tangible loss to the Indian public. By very rough calculations, it would appear that about 498 million residents of rural India are still living in the dark disconnected shadow of the digital era — an embarrassingly high number for a country that has aspirations of becoming a global superpower. And while the government’s National e-Government Plan promotes the idea of universal digital inclusion, actions on the ground need to mirror the ambition of policy documents.
Ultimately, the test of a healthy telecom sector should not depend only on its contribution to the GDP (which, in India, is around three per cent ). It should also be measured on the basis of the voice provided to every Indian, unfettered by geography and bank balance. The cost of delaying rolling out telecom services has resulted in widening the digital divide. Beyond the cities, we need to think about the village that barely has a landline connection, let alone a mobile phone.