This is one of several posts that deal with India’s numerous political conflicts and their relation to the digital media sphere. India plays host to numerous violent conflicts and separatist movements. It responds to challenges to its sovereignty through military repression, paramilitaries, local militias, intelligence operations, and propaganda and psyops, including censorship and blocking of websites.

India has a growing population of internet users, many of whom use broadband connections at home. The 6 million broadband users are dwarfed by India’s 200 million cell-phone users, with the largest number of new users of any country. India also has large and robust conventional media, with a growing newspaper readership in the world despite global trends to the contrary, wide-ranging access to local and international satellite news.

We are looking at trends in political conflicts in Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, Punjab, and the growing Naxalite movement. These conflicts vary in cause and current levels of intensity. In the digital sphere, we’re interested in at how violence is reported, how various actors use digital media, how states react within the digital sphere, and the clarity of information coming out of those conflict zones.

Naxalite-related violence as is the most visible political conflict reported on the internet in terms of local and international coverage, the robustness of blogging and digital media use by relevant actors, and the state’s reaction.

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In terms of current media focus, the Naxalite attacks are probably the most significant political conflict in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commented that Naxalite-led violence is the “single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country.” The central government has provided some paramilitary and technical support; but the bulk of the offensive against the Naxalites is conducted by the state-supported militia, the Salwa Judum. State officials claim that the group is a “spontaneous” response to Naxalite atrocities. However, a study conducted by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), has reached three main conclusions: (1) the movement is far from spontaneous, but is instead organized by the state, (2) in an effort to undermine support for the Maoists in isolated villages, the state has taken to clearing these villages, creating tens of thousands of IDPs, (3) the ‘peace mission’ has only increased the levels of violence.

There has been considerable criticism of these moves by bloggers and mainstream media. But these critics have also been accused of naivete by other mainstream media, as noted Indian journalist Swapan Dasgupta comments on the news website www.sify.com. The debate about the Salwa Judum in the mainstream media, and their online versions, acts as a surrogate for the larger conflict and fuels claims and counter-claims of partisanship. Human Rights Watch called the Chhatisgarh government’s response to the Naxalite threat “draconian.” Overall, related violence seems to be covered frequently, with up-to-date reports by both local and international news media.

A search for pro-Naxalite websites reveals that the Naxalites have a significant presence on the internet. Numerous pro-Naxalite blogs exist, including Naxal Resistance, Revolutionary Path, and Bengal Resistance. Naxalites are using the internet and digital media in interesting ways. World Politics Review reports that they are using websites to recruit urban youth, as well as to set up urban intelligence units. India Daily also reports that Naxalites in Chhattisgarh are using high-tech telescopes and Google Earth to locate army targets. A blog, India’s Naxalite Rage by Shlok Vaidya discusses the security implications of the movement. Naxalite Rage also reports efforts to use SMS networks to create confusion within village populations by “Spreading disinformation by spoofing sender data to senior government officials as well as threats to life and property.”

We came across two interesting trends during the course of this mapping.

1) The Naxalites’ ideological class-based struggle creates a link between digital activists and real world groups. The bloggers write from the perspective of the wider, older Marxist/Maoist/Communist movement in India. This movement has an active tradition within parliamentary politics, especially in Kerala and West Bengal. For instance, People’s March, currently blocked by the Indian government, operates from Kerala, far removed from the center of Naxalite power. Yet it is identified by India’s cyber police team as a pro-Naxalite website. It’s difficult to parse the Naxalite websites from the numerous left-leaning websites in the blogosphere, which speaks to the muddying of Naxalite propaganda in the digital sphere.

2) The Indian state’s actively seeks to discredit and block pro-Naxalite internet efforts. See World Politics Review and the pro-left blogs Naxal Resistance for examples. Naxal Resistance has created a mirror site Resistance in order to avoid attacks by unknown hackers. Here’s the author Bimal’s letter to his readers:

Friends,

We lost our ownership of this blog…somebody hacked our bloggger password..i am doing this post from my old mail id bimalck@gmail.com as a moderater..It is possible till the hacker allows. And it’s too difficult to manage a blog with out ownership status…so we decided to move to another blog.. please cooperate with us..

Remember, please don’t sent any mails to resistanceindia@gmail and If anybody mails you from this hacked mail account claiming to be Bimal please do not respond…….you may contact me trough resistanceindia@hushmail.com ….

With Revolutionary regards

Bimal then went on to create Maoist Resistance. Bimal’s email bounces. – although he is using Hushmail, which provides email encryption service for users worried about civil liberties and digital eavesdropping.

The Naxal Revolutionary Archives have created a mirror site at Naxal Naxalite Maoist India in case of government crackdown. They state that “pro-Naxal bloggers scare the living daylights out of the Government.” Clampdowns on the website have also come from the Communist establishment in India, according to the website. They state that exposes by the website of ‘criminal activities’ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had instigated this online offensive. Singur apologized to its readers for a lack of updates. It was hampered by “very limited access to internet due to unavoidable circumstances.” While creating mirror websites is one response, Naxal Resistence instead prefers to give the following disclaimer:

This blog is purely for educational and informational purposes and is not connected to, nor does it support or condone any particular organisation or movement. Information published on this blog is reproduced from various public domain media and academic sources and any material that readers may email us.

While its contents belie its ideological leanings, the disclaimer is an interesting touch.

To conclude, we ask whether digital media are having an effect on the Naxalite conflict. It’s difficult to map such effects directly, but it is clear that the state is taking the threat of the Naxalite web presence seriously. Naxal Terror Watch, an anti-Naxal website has been created by the Andhra Pradesh police to monitor the activities of Naxalitse. The government is also taking threats of internet recruitment seriously. It seems to think that there is an educated, though small, urban population that is responding to these overtures.

– guest post by Anand Varghese

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