Given sub-Saharan levels of hunger, India web freedom protests seem trivial

June 12, 2012

This past weekend, hacking group and self proclaimed internet activists Anonymous held protests in 16 Indian cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to raise their voices for online freedom. And by all accounts, it turned out to be a flop.

If one looks at social networks, a lot of interest was generated on this issue as people signed up and ranted on the likes of Facebook and Twitter about how the Indian government was being tyrannical and unfair about blocking some content sharing and “anti-establishment” sites following a March 29 court order.

But that interest did not translate into a good turnout. In New Delhi, there were more journalists than protesters. And those who were there — mostly college students — were pretty incoherent, vague and unsure about what their demands were and what they wanted. Friends in other cities also tweeted about how the protests there were badly organised and had comically low turnouts. One friend tweeted about how organisers in Bangalore were charging 200 rupees for Guy Fawkes masks, which have become synonymous with protests in urban centres across the world.

While there has been a trend by authorities to try and limit the freedom of expression online, India is not China or Syria. And given how independent our judiciary is, most attempts at crackdowns on virtual rights won’t really succeed.

One has nothing against freedom of expression or the need to protest for virtual rights. But there is a need to put the protests in the context of India. Then maybe those who were disappointed by the turnout and complained of apathy will understand that a protest against internet censorship is a non-issue here.

Let us take the example of probably the biggest peaceful protests held in the country since Independence. Millions of people in every city, town and village of the country were swayed by the anti-graft rallies held by Gandhian crusader Anna Hazare in 2011, something which even forced the government to its knees. The reason it became a mass movement was because corruption is an issue most people across the demographic divide could identify with. And that becomes the defining factor in any movement or protest. Everything else — organisation, public relations, press coverage — is secondary.

One passes through Jantar Mantar road, the designated spot for protests in New Delhi, almost everyday. And any rally that has been held there, be it on caste reservation, corruption or farmer suicides, has attracted a bigger crowd than the one for virtual freedom.

India is a land of a billion people and countless injustices. There is poverty, wealth inequality, rape, unemployment, discrimination, foeticide, malnutrition, lack of basic healthcare … a huge list actually. And compared to that, people protesting against online censorship give the impression of being urban middle-class college students and working professionals who were miffed just because they could not download their favourite show from a “torrent” site.

How many people are affected by any attempts by the establishment’s attempt to crack down on online content? A few million maybe, out of about 300 million urban Indians and the 1.2 billion residing in the country. We do need to look at the larger picture here. Because in a land where millions fight for their lives, livelihood and dignity every single day, the fight for online freedom seems, for the lack of a better word, quite trivial.

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