Arbitrary recourse to internet curbs

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Government snapped mobile internet and broadband in Valley on the eve of the polling in Srinagar on Sunday. The Government rationale, according to DGP S P Vaid was that suspending internet helps the cause of peace. How? The reasons are not far to seek.

Disconnecting the service shuts down social media and access to online sources of information and thus stops the instant flow of information or disinformation which could incite the protests. This understanding seems to make sense on the paper. But its tenability remains moot. There is so far no objective study that has  established this connection.  And this makes the resort to the internet shutdown an arbitrary measure, driven by little more than a tendency to arbitrarily exercise power. This state of affairs has a troubling dimension. 

For the past four days, the government has snapped all pre-paid and post-paid internet connections. Though broadband was turned on a day after Srinagar polling, the Government inexplicably snapped it again on Thursday, the day of re-poll.   The move is not only undemocratic in spirit but is also uncalled for under the circumstances.

The government has persisted with its hostile approach to the Internet even though the blocking of the internet has made little difference to the deteriorating situation on the ground. It sees the discourse on the social media in some way responsible for the flare-up on the streets. But as the situation in the state over the past year would have us believe, there is hardly a case for drawing this connection.  Far from helping in any way to improve the situation, the communication blockade has been a source of more public frustration. It has effectively cut people off not only from their immediate surroundings but also from the world. The consequent information vacuum is now being filled in by the rumours and a pervasive sense of the uncertainty. 

Besides, the curbs on the internet are arbitrary in nature: a  capricious exercise of the power, not based on any empirical study of a connection between the social media and the mass protests. True in recent years, an increasing number of youth have logged on to the social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter to air their views on the evolving situation in the state. There are online forums and groups which remain a scene of livewire discussions on the current affairs and generate a shrill discourse of their own. Events, incidents, media content etc are overanalyzed and deconstructed. What is more, the drift of this discourse remains explicitly separatist. But it doesn’t justify the government’s move to curb the discourse.

In a place where the space for the dissenting peaceful political activity has been shrunk in recent years, the social websites have emerged as the major medium for the peaceful expression of the individual and collective opinion – albeit, a part of it dissenting in nature. The attempt to curb it is not only in violation of the principle of freedom of expression but counter-productive in nature.

Another premise that seems to underpin the internet ban is the government understanding that the polling day protests are not spontaneous but elaborately guided by some vested interests, a significant part of it through the internet.  So, if the internet is cut off, it will pre-empt unrest. But the trouble with this thinking is that the premise itself is highly misplaced. For whatever the state and the central government will say, no power on earth can manufacture an outpouring on such a mass scale. Manufactured protests are not endemic in nature. They are drastically limited and soon peter out. Truth is that the by-poll protests are animated by the longstanding historical and political grievances with some incidents acting as a trigger. Government needs to accept this reality and stop the tendency of arbitrary  curbs on internet.

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