BACKDOOR EMERGENCY IN INDIA
In June 1975, Mrs. Indira Gandhi imposed emergency making use of constitutional provisions. Emergency was duly ratified by the Parliament, of course, in the absence of opposition leaders who were all behind bars. Emergency put press under censorship and imposed restrictions on the constitutional freedoms of citizens. The people who opposed emergency at that time are now in power. Yet, it surprises one to see that many emergency-like measures are slowly creeping in the country.
On August 10, 2003 Government of India issued a notification. Jayant Kumar, director, Department of Telecom, asked Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block groups.yahoo.com/groups/kynhun for "promoting anti-national news and containing material against the Government of India and the state government of Meghalaya." The Kynhun Group, which has barely 25 members and a total of 20 messages, is run by an organisation called Hynniewtrep International Liberation Council. Due to technical reasons, ISPs were unable to block only one group of yahoogroups and hence blocked hundreds of yahoogroups.
As of now, no one in India can access any yahoogroup. However, Indians can still send and receive messages from yahoogroups. In other words, only website is blocked and e-mails continue to be exchanged using yahoogroups. This makes a mockery of the blocking and defeats the purpose (if there ever was any) of the Government notification. Government of India had failed during 1975-77 to prevent exchange of information in spite of strict censorship laws. Yet, the Government has chosen to go a step beyond censorship - total blockage of a media.
The blockage, which has been imposed on the strength of an executive order and is not ratified by Parliament, is clearly unconstitutional. ISPs have violated the fundamental rights of citizens. If it was not technically feasible to block only one yahoogroup (Kynhun) as decreed by Government notification, ISPs should have told the Government so. They have acted beyond their authority and power in blocking hundreds of yahoogroups. It is like a policeman who is given shoot-at-sight orders against a criminal and he, unable to find the concerned criminal, shoots down every resident of the village where the criminal was last reported to be residing.
The action of ISPs reminds one of the famous statement that described the behaviour of Indian bureaucracy during emergency - "they were asked to bend, they chose to crawl". Notwithstanding the behaviour of ISPs, the motive and logic of the Government notification is incomprehensible. A group that indulges in open discussion amounting to treason must be prosecuted under the laws of the country. By blocking the discussion forum, the Government is only pushing the group underground and eliminating any possibility of collecting evidence that may be used for launching prosecution proceedings.
Probably, the problem is more deep-seated. Powerful sections of Indian Government have lost confidence in the ability of law-enforcement machinery and judiciary. There is a tendency to create shortcuts that bypass the traditional judicial and police systems and procedures. In the past decade or so, a number of draconian laws have been passed. Some examples will illustrate the point.
Another extreme measure that was planned but was later dropped on protests from women's organizations involved capital punishment for rape. It took women to point out that if murder and rape had same punishment, every rapist would murder the victim. Fortunately, reason prevailed and it seems that the move has been shelved. Yet, it is a matter of concern that when the world is realizing the futility of harsh punishments and in particular is moving away from capital punishment, India seems to be heading in the opposite direction.
The ruling class in India seems to be running out of patience and tolerance that mark a civil democratic society. The class, plagued on one hand by its own anomie (lack of usual social or ethical standards) and on the other by its intellectual bankruptcy, is under pressure from the populace to perform and deliver results. Its arrogance prevents it from listening to good advice. But, more important, the class does not even know how to distinguish the good from the bad. The net result is a fumble-jumble of knee-jerk reactions that surprises the world.
But in the midst of all this fumble-jumble, if one does look for a pattern, it is indeed shocking. The country has been slowly moving in a direction where the common citizen has been becoming more and more powerless. Constitutional freedoms are losing ground.
In a country, where political parties are hotbeds of corruption; where parliament is no longer a forum of free discussion but a place for dummies to raise hands based on party whips; where even the Chief Justice accepts that a significant portion of judiciary is corrupt, internet groups have served as useful democratic forum for citizens to interact and voice their opinions. The blocking of access to these forums is a clear indication of the totalitarian regime that has been slowly creeping in through the backdoor. Please raise your voice against this monster before it is too late.
23 October 2003
Please write to me your comments about the above article.
ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer (and now a lawyer too) by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.
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