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If you’re interested in digital activism in India, a great source for analysis, links, and project ideas can be found at Gaurav Mishra’s blog, Gauravonomics. Gaurav, the Yahoo! Fellow in Residence at Georgetown University, as well as a Global Voices author, will be giving a talk on April 23 at Georgetown to discuss digital activism in India and China.
I’ll be helping out at the talk, along with Evgeny Morozov, an Open Society Fellow and an expert on international digital activism, and, Trebor Scholz, professor of media studies at New School University, NY.
While the talk is invite-only, I’m sure all of us will be writing about it, and look for Gaurav’s upcoming writing on the subject as well, as part of his fellowship work for Yahoo!
You can also catch Gaurav at Yahoo!’s Business and Human Rights Summit May 5 in California.
Having lived most of my life in Bangalore, yesterday’s bomb blasts cut pretty close to the bone. A friend of mine who works near one of the blast sites expressed his disgust at the manner in which mainstream media, especially local 24-hours news channels, dealt with the incident. Having seen the site, he described the bombs as being only “slightly larger than a firecracker.” This led me to ponder how Bangalore, with India’s highest internet penetration, high mobile penetration (in the state of Karnataka), and massive IT industry, responded to the incident. Has it created any alternative news streams based on eye-witness accounts and/or emergency-responses using digital technologies?
The blasts themselves were carried out using mobile phones, and all networks were jammed soon after the incident. It is unclear whether they were jammed intentionally, but that seems unlikely. In response to the jam, people used other means to find out about their loved ones. Blogger Mukund Mohan found that SMS worked much better as a means of communicating through blocked networks. He also started a twitter microblog keeping tabs on the blasts, casualties, and eye-witness reports, decrying the “hype” permeating local media coverage. Blastnews is another Twitter microblog keeping track of the blasts. Read this post by Daniel Bennett on From the Frontline that tracks how Twitter was used in the blasts’ aftermath.
Bangaloreans cut off from cell-phone networks also used various discussion forums to inform others of injury/death tolls, traffic reports, emergency response, and other developments. Sankalp India Foundation used their website to inform people about blood donation drives and safety measures. Bloggers like Applemilkshake used their blogs not only to discuss the incident, but also to keep readers, presumably friends and family, informed about his/her own safety.
Citizen journalist website Merinews also reported the blasts, while Wikipedia had a page up within hours describing the nature and aftermath of the blasts. They also posted this map of the blast locations. Also check out this Google map with all the blast sites marked
It’s hard to tell whether these efforts in the digital sphere played any part in calming the frayed nerves of a city that has been largely free of terrorist activity in the past. Mainstream media still have access to video footage and timely reports, but citing Daniel Bennett’s post, “media have the Bangalore story but Twitter was first.” I’ve found much less activity and up-to-date information on the internet about the long-running, intractable conflicts in India that I’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. But the volume and immediacy of the responses to Bangalore’s blasts point to the growing use of digital media as emergency-response tools. Whether this is a function of a tech-savvy, urban population, or simply a reaction to flashpoints like bomb blasts cannot be determined at this time.
Guest post by Anand Varghese
Continuing to map India’s political conflicts in the digital sphere, we turn to the northeastern state of Assam. Violence surrounding Assam’s separatist movements has left an estimated total of 10,000 dead since 1979. Unlike the case of Nagaland, which we looked at earlier, there is considerable activity on the internet regarding this conflict. But once again, intractable, low-intensity conflicts don’t really attract the attention of bloggers, any more than they do the news media. Overall, it’s become clear that blogging has yet to drive information about the separatist conflicts in the Northeast.
While there seem to be few blogs dedicated solely to the Assamese conflict, a number of news aggregators and security blogs report stories about the region. This aggregation of blogposts at Instablogs about the ULFA shows some updated information about the progress of peace talks between insurgents and the Indian government, as do the news blogs Thaindian News and Lawyer Blog. There was an interesting story in Naxal Watch, a government-run anti-Naxal blog, which links the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) to the Naxalite movement and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Dak Bangla Intelligence Scan, The Intelligence Summit, and Counterterrorism Blog also run stories about the region, albeit somewhat outdated. The South Asian Terrorism Portal runs comprehensive and up-to-date timelines of incidents involving both ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Also, the Indian citizen journalism initiative Merinews reported this story. Merinews has been the focus of some interest in the media world. Read this article at Gatewatching, a blog about citizen journalism, and this story about the role of citizen journalism in reporting human rights in the North East. Merinews has a confusing array of functioning portals. Aside from its homepage, it has an abandoned blog at WordPress and a more active one at Blogspot. However, it is the pioneering citizen journalism initiative in India. Most other stories about the region on the website are sourced from mainstream news media.
While the conflict has received a reasonable amount of coverage in digital media, the region’s most active insurgent groups seem to have abandoned the internet as part of their efforts. The website of the ULFA is being maintained on an old geocities url and does not appear to have had any updates in the recent past. Its newer website has even less information. The NDFB also has a geocities website that looks like it was last updated in the late 1990s. We contacted both of these organizations to find out why. We got no reply, so any explanations we have are based on conjecture. Assam.org reports that security forces successfully hacked into the ULFA website, though it is unclear as to which one it was. This email thread from a mailing list at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs suggests that Indian police attempted to hack into the ULFA’s email address.
One for this is explanation is simply a lack of infrastructure or access to the internet. In the Northeast Internet penetration is tiny, at 0.14%. Broadband connection for the region was around 12,000 in 2007.
These websites appear to have been made at a time when there was a great deal of buzz about the internet, in the late 1990s. These groups may not have found the internet to be a particularly useful place to further their agenda, find new recruits, or affect the course of their struggle in any way.
But Sanjana’s post got me thinking about how digital media can affect conflict. For Sanjana, his numerous citizen journalism projects are not intended to have an effect on the conflict that is tangible in the here-and-now. Instead, he is more interested in making
A living history as it were, from a defined perspective, that in relation to others can present richer, more multi-faceted versions of history than that which would otherwise be possible.
Keeping this in mind, perhaps we should think of these ‘dead’ websites as a one-time effort to create a narrative from the ULFA and NDFB’s perspective. These efforts create a “more multi-faceted history” by simply existing. For example, on their website, the ULFA eschew the title “separatist” or “secessionist” movement.
The struggle for national liberation of Assam never is a seperatist [sic] or secessionist movement: Assam was never a part of India at any point of time in history. The fact is independent Assam has been occupied by India, and deploying occupation forces they are oppressing our peoples and persecuting them. ULFA itself and all freedom fighters of Assam are neither planning nor conspiring to break up India! We are not conducting any armed operation inside India. Freedom fighters of Assam are only trying to overthrow Indian colonial occupation from Assam.
I also looked at how the issue of human rights violations by the Indian army was being discussed on the internet. This Amnesty article deals with unlawful killings by security personnel. This comprehensive report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights was released in 2007. Human Rights Watch produced this report in 1993, but has made no mention of Assam in its more recent report on the problem of impunity in India. Local and national media also report human rights violations with some regularity. See these stories in The Hindu and Boroland News. The blog at Countercurrents posted this story based on the findings of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee.
Overall, I found a good deal of activity about the region and specific issues. But the fact remains that the websites that are able to provide dedicated, up-to-date stories about the conflict remain those with some degree of organizational capacity: mainstream media, human rights organizations, or counterterrorism organizations. The internet remains yet another forum where these organizations to disseminate information. But until the Internet reaches a reasonable plurality of users (need a separate study on what that number might be), it’s impact on coverage of remote conflicts will likely be minimal. India’s Internet penetration is still only 3%, but with a growth rate of 33%, penetration will reach around 100 million users in 7-8 years.
Guest post by Anand Varghese
The conflict in Nagaland, one of many in India’s northeast, has largely abated since the ceasefire in 1997. With most death toll estimates of around 25,000, Nagaland has played host to considerable violent conflict. It is India’s longest running ethnic rebellion, according to the BBC. We’ve noticed parallels between the Baloch and Kashmiri separatist movement in Pakistan and Nagaland in India.
The conflict is no longer a high intensity-one. Political violence and deaths continue to occur there, but in 2007 Nagaland reported 108 deaths compared to the 437 in neighboring Assam and 408 in Manipur. Since the ceasefire, violent clashes have largely been between the factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the rebel group that led the separatist movement. Flashpoint events are few and infrequent, as evidence by this timeline of the region’s various conflicts.
As with Balochistan and Kashmir, there is a political deadlock in the region between the Government of India and the NSCN’s various factions. They extended the ceasefire in 2006, but there has been little progress towards meeting the NSCN’s demand to create “Nagalim,” a Naga homeland. The political situation has worsened recently by a parliamentary impasse that led to the imposition of president’s rule in the state.
The discussion about Nagaland, like those on Kashmir and Balochistan, on the internet appears to be quite sparse. I found few blogs dealing with the political situation in the region. See Naga Blog with contributors from Kuknalim, and the news blog Sinlung. There seems to be little activity on social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut, which is more popular in India. A group on Orkut titled ‘Independent Nagaland’ had two members. Searches on Digg and Technorati for the query ‘Nagaland’ yielded no results. International media websites remains largely silent about recent clashes, except for Reuters Alertnet and the BBC. Local news media like The Morung Express and Naga Realm are the most active in covering the region.
Naga is written in Latin script, so there’s no code barrier to access for local populations. However, Internet penetration figures for Nagaland are very low, with less than 5000 broadband subscribers in all of northeast India. So access remains a key issue. It will be interesting to see whether and how information and online activism grows as access improves.
As we’ve noted on Kashmir and Balochistan, an intractable conflict is often reflected in a passive discussion in the digital realm. The meagerness of information and discussion of the Naga conflict in the digital sphere is also related to the political impasse and relative calm in the region. It still takes ideas, organization, and commitment to engage, whether in the physical or virtual worlds.
Guest post by Anand, with small additions from Ivo
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.
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:
We lost our ownership of this blog…somebody hacked our bloggger password..i am doing this post from my old mail id email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org ….
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