EDITORIAL. John Dayal. VII. X. X
Internet and democracy
by Dr. John Dayal
Poland is a young people, and a younger nation in terms of centuries. Slav tribes came together not more than a millennium ago. They became Christian as recently as in 966 AD – remember, St Thomas made his first converts in Kerala and Madras circa 54 AD, the first century after Christ – and made its first international show with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. And at various times, it defeated the Teutonic German knights, but was brutally conquered by Hitler, freed by Marshal Stalin, but held ideologically captive by the Soviet Union, freed once again by a combination mass movement led long distance from Rome by home boy Pope John Paul II and by ship builder Lech Walesa of Gdansk. That was about thirty years ago, just. It is home to Auschwitz where a million Jews were incinerated, but is also where Chopin was born, and Copernicus and Madame Curie. Let us say, Poland knows a bit about democracy, and the lack of it, and the difference between the two.
Not surprisingly, when in the middle of its Presidential Elections this month, it held the Tenth anniversary High Level Meeting of the Community of Democracies, the event was alternately dominated by events showcasing Polish culture and ethos on the one hand, and US arrogance on the other, specially as displayed by the very vocal Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one of her predecessors Madeline Albright. Between the two, they put up the US as the global underwriter of democracy, and financier of pro democracy movements in third world countries, Clinton announcing a support fund with an initial Dollar donation of Five Million.
But as part of the observances was an interesting sub-conference on the use of the Internet and emerging communication technologies to assist NGOs and Civil society groups in their struggle for democracy. Also discussed was the role of parliamentarians, and women’s groups and civil society participation in economic development. The concluding documents of the group discussions said “developing mechanisms to ensure that the voice of NGOs, Think tanks and other actors is heard is essential to foster the democratic ideal.”
The issues would have interested India, but alas, of the three civilians and one diplomat at the conference from home, only one attended this session. Egyptians and Latin Americans spoke of the use they had made of the Internet in globalising their struggles. Others spoke of Internet censorship, by China and Pakistan, for instance. And a representative of an international Search engine-turned portal tried to forecast the future where the Internet in an advanced version would be an important tool for “equality, fraternity and the pursuit of happiness,” or words to that affect.
For NGOs in India, there was much to reflect upon. We boast the second largest number of Internet users in the world, but poverty, still prehistoric infrastructure maintenance, low penetration where it matters among the rural, the forested tribal communities and the religious minorities -- the huge victim group in other words – it remains a moot question if Indians can pin their democratic hopes on the World Wide Web, yet. The blame cannot be put on Airtel , Idea, Reliance, BSNL, Aircel, Tata Indicom, Vodafone, MTNL, and Loop Mobile, though they too care tuppence for the 600 million consumers, almost half of the total national population connected by wire or wireless. Another demon is the cost. India still rates as one of the most expensive in communication and Net access.
The ghost culprit is the Government of India. It is, I admit, no monster compared to China’s regime, but let us not forget that Kashmiris cannot often still carry hand mobiles every so often, villagers lose touch for want of electricity, and above all, things are not clear about shadow organizations such as the Computer Emergency Response Team ("CERT-IN") are meant to ensure Internet security. Officially, the Ministry of Home Affairs, all courts, the military and civil intelligence bureaus can use it, as they say in officialese, to enhance the security of India's Communications and Information Infrastructure through proactive action and effective collaboration.
Nothing legal yet about website censorship, but news reports on a weekly basis speak of interest groups fingering some site or the other, foreign or national. Records show, and I should be I suppose indebted to CIA portals for this information, not just pornographic but also anti-establishment political websites have been blocked. In 2001, the Bombay High Court appointed a committee to oversee issues relating to online pornography and Cybercrime. A court panel called for licensing of cyber cafés, putative identity cards for cyber cafe visitors, and long books for internet service providers. Good for internal security and since the Indian State and its police defines what is national good, bad news for a free society. Not that in India we need India to scare us.
Self Censorship in India ensures that most of us, the Media included, quietly toe the government line where it matters, afraid we may be branded Maoist supporters, if not Maoists of Jaish operatives. Our hard disks remain squeaky clean, our ‘Net signatures absolutely innocent of real democratic shouts. It is time for some debate on the Internet freedom, and its importance for Civil Society – without drawing on the US$5 million American fund.