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Why Gujarat imposed mobile internet curfew during the Patel agitation

By Rajiv Shah
It was Wednesday, October 31, 1984. After finalizing the semi-left Link newsweekly, for which I worked then, the office driver boldly drove the Ambassador late at night through Delhi streets, which were already in the grip of anti-Sikh riots, erupted following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The driver squeezed his way through burning vehicles. At several places we could see houses in flames and heard painful, shrieking voices. It was a ghastly scenario, of the type I had never witnessed, or even imagined, before. I reached home, a middle class South Delhi locality; to my consolation all was quiet, though we had a Sikh neighbour.
My lovely daughter on that fateful day was just 21 days old. After taking my dinner, it befell on me to look after her, as she would refuse to sleep. I was still awake, and at 2 am, I found somebody knocking on our door. “Shah saheb”, the person who knocked the door loudly said. I immediately recognized his voice: We used to call him a “chaddi dhari” – perhaps because he was an ordinary RSS worker, who would participate in shakhas in the open ground next to the temple, built on society land, just about 200 metres away. I opened the door. I don’t remember his name, but I do recall how he and his father would proudly proclaim the cause of the Hindus.
“Don’t drink the tap water”, the young man, in kurta-pyjama, advised me. I wondered what was wrong. He said, “They … Sikhs … have poisoned the pipeline.” I expressed my surprise, nodded, and closed the door. Next day, I learnt, all my neighbours were woken up in the wee hours and were told that the tap water shouldn’t be used, as it had been poisoned. I don’t blame the chaddi dhari. He was a communicator. As the day passed, I heard of more such rumours. One of the mostly ghastly was a train full of Hindus massacred by Sikhs reaching Delhi from somewhere in UP. I don’t remember if this was reported, yet – interestingly – a similar rumour found its way in a top Gujarati vernacular daily on the day 2002 riots broke out, February 28, though this time Muslims were the culprits.
It is well known that neither during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, nor during the post-Godhra flareup of 2002, no steps were taken against any of the rumour mongers. I recalled the rumours last week, when mobile internet was banned in Gujarat in the wake of the Patidar agitation, which took a violent turn following the rally on August 25. Mobile internet remained inaccessible for seven days in most of Gujarat, especially Ahmedabad, with officials citing how social media was being misused for spreading “pernicious rumours”. There was an effort to suggest that, had social media not spread rumours, the agitation wouldn’t have become violent. During the “retaliatory” police action, 10 Patel agitators had died, which could have been avoided.
I wondered: Didn’t rumours travel in 1984 and 2002, helping incite the riots? A question arose in my mind: With internet in hand, especially for a Gujarat government, claiming to be the most e-savvy than any other state in India, wasn’t it possible for it to refute rumours more easily? In fact, Narendra Modi, as chief minister, kept making public statements for several years that the Gujarat government’s e-governance network was the best and largest in Asia. I further wondered: With internet in hand, don’t ordinary citizens have a better possibility of checking and re-checking rumours, which wasn’t the case in 1984 or 2002, when all information was “received” from individuals or from newspapers or TV channels, with little possibility of instantly finding out the reality.
With some of these questions, I contacted Ravi Saxena, former additional chief secretary, science and technology, Gujarat government. There was a reason to contact Saxena: He currently runs an NGO called RISE or Removing Ignorance for Social Empowerment, whose job is to advocate internet as a fundamental right. A suave ex-bureaucrat, he has put all that he told me on Facebook. Refusing to buy the argument that social media in Gujarat can act only as a means to spread rumour, he says it is “the most powerful challenge to the present model of governance”. He adds, already various governments worldwide have begun “citizen engagement frameworks” to channelize the “power of social media”. He underlines, if social media, in the hands of domestic extremists, can be a threat, it can be “countered by citizens forming positive action groups.”
Saxena, in fact, approvingly quotes from a “Guardian” report (August 25, 2011) on why the British government backed out from a plan to shut down Facebook and Twitter (there was no WhatsApp then). Referring to the British government “climb down” on plans to ban suspected rioters from using social networking websites in times of civil unrest, “Guardian” quoted home secretary Theresa May as telling social network executives that the government had no intention of “restricting internet services” following riots in England. The social networks had warned that a ban could “usher in a new form of online censorship in the UK.” The UK official, in fact, underlined, “Law enforcement could better use Twitter and Facebook in emergencies.”
The British home office even issued a statement, which said, during the discussions with social media executives, efforts were made to look into “how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour. The government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks.” Comments Saxena, “The question is to recognize the power of social media and evolving model of governance to use this power for affirmative social action. In that context, banning GPRS, much less just some social media websites, displays ignorance of this power of technology.”
Yet, what surprised me was, there was little or no adverse reaction on the mobile internet ban in Gujarat. There was an isolated statement by Gujarat’s Computer Education Association which characterized the ban as characteristic of “Taliban thinking”. Civil society, whatever it exists in Gujarat, was quiet. While several activists justified the ban as “necessary initially” to my query “How does one interpret ban on mobile internet?”, only Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit human rights activist, forthrightly told me, he believes it is a “clear step towards emergency”.
I talked with several Sachivalaya officials on the issue. While some of them justified the ban, others said they had contacted state home secretary PK Taneja to find out when it was being lifted, as their “children’s education was suffering”. Though e-commerce took a heavy toll, the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry was quiet because, to quote one bureaucrat, “It has begun to act as a government department”! The local Gujarati TV channels took the news in a matter of fact manner, telling the viewers when the ban might be lifted. Reactions from ordinary people, including traders, began being taken only on the fifth day of the ban. There was a feeble Twitter campaign against the ban, but as mobile internet was banned in Gujarat, “victims” like me just couldn’t be part of it.
I don’t know if people in Delhi were aware of the ban till the fifth day of the ban. But when I contacted senior activist-journalist John Dayal, a well-known figure, on that day asking him whether he had reacted, he told me they did not read “any news” about it, wanting me to forward a story. Later, he put up a post on Facebook, which said, “Did the Gujarat government announce they had clamped on mobile internet, and apps such as WhatsApp? My friends wonder why civil society has not made any noise about it so far, protested this censorship, which sometimes is imposed in the Kashmir valley.”
Meanwhile, government officials were quoted as saying that a major reason behind the mobile internet curfew was, it feared, once it was lifted, video clips as “evidence of the role of Gujarat police in last week’s violence” would start tumbling out of “Anandiben Patel government’s cupboard”, to quote a senior journalist. Officials off-the-record said, cops had identified about 125 of the “most damning videos”, captured on their “CCTV cameras and mobile phones”, which provided “ample evidence of the role of powers that be in the violence”.

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