If liberal democracy has been the most successful political idea of the last 400 years, then the internet and social media more specifically has done more for democracy in its history than any political leader, government or ideology can ever claim. We must understand the importance of the internet from the standpoint of human evolutionary history. 21st century human beings will ‘live on the internet’. Most of us already are. Imagine the indispensable role that smartphones have come to play in our lives. Can an average teenager today navigate through any street without Google Maps? Can an average teenager today think or research without Google search? We can deny it, but it won’t change the fact that smartphones have become an extension of our brains. We already have, in some ways, become cyborgs, minus the rigidity and catastrophe that sci-fi had to offer.
On November 8, 2016, India was seized with an enthralling panic. The Prime Minister had announced the scheme of demonetization in order to transform India into a “digital India” and a “cashless economy”. Now let us imagine that it had actually worked out. Imagine the horror of a “cashless economy” and a “digital India” with an internet shutdown. Would the government dare to do it then? No. So what does it mean? Well, firstly, that demonetization was in fact an utter failure (even the government clearly thinks so with its streaks of internet shutdowns); secondly, that we are becoming an illiberal democracy much in the style of Putin’s Russia or Bolsonaro’s Brazil and thirdly; that we are still far from being a superpower or even a global power.
Kashmir has been without internet services for over four months now, which is a serious human rights violation. It is denying the people of Kashmir the right to life, freedom of speech and expression and right to free trade, but ‘everything is still normal in Kashmir’. Well, ‘normalcy’ is now seeping into other parts of the country, such as Assam. The indispensability of the internet in our everyday lives is what makes it a fundamental right of every Indian in the 21st century. Think about the power that it has given to every common person in a citizenry to voice his/her opinion and imagine the chilling effect on free speech when you just shut people from such a platform. Why has only the internet been shut down? Why not the newspapers or the TV stations? Isn’t corporate media more prone to paid fake news and government propaganda than social media? Well, because social media presents the unedited individual voice of the people in a democracy. Every government fears that. And that is why they go to great lengths to suppress voices of dissent.
Think about it in terms of the economy. Rising smartphone penetration and the slashing of the data prices by Reliance Jio has led to a huge disruption in the sector over the past few years, leading to a phenomenal surge in India’s internet economy. In 2018, the e-commerce and internet consumer sector raised $ 7 billion through private equity and venture funding which some say can lead to $ 1 trillion in economic value through the internet economy. Most small businesses too, today, rely on the internet and social media for essential things such as marketing or branding and even selling. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have opened a new world for writers, models, actors, journalists, musicians and small businesses. Today for example, you can start a boutique of your own and sell your stuff through Instagram which cuts down a whole lot of capital investment and revenue expenditure while giving you the chance to interact with a global consumer base. I can’t imagine Catharsis without social media.
And essentially because this service has become an indispensable part of what we are as human beings, how we work, how we go on about our everyday lives, is why the government’s action of shutting it down is a violation of our rights and freedoms. In a 2015 Kerala High Court judgement, the Court reading the Indian Constitution’s fundamental rights (mainly right to privacy and education under right to life under Article 21 and freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a)) with the resolutions of the Human Rights Council of United Nations to declare access to internet as a human right, declared access to internet as a basic right for every Indian. It also further declared, citing the S. Rengarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram case (1989) that freedom of speech “cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people” and that it can restricted only on the “anvil of necessity and not the quicksand of convenience or expediency”. It was further held in this case and most relevant to our cause that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence which would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and the surrender to blackmail and intimidation of the government”. The growing trend of immediate internet shutdown by the Indian government is worrying and dangerous for civil liberties. The first two-three days of the shutdown are understandable which may be cited as a reasonable restriction on free speech to restore public order but beyond that it is just appalling how it can be allowed. It goes without saying that the four-month internet shutdown in Kashmir is a gross human rights violation.
We have taken many steps back in the Indian free speech jurisprudence in the last few years thanks to such disastrous legislative and executive actions. And if the future really is the digital economy, as the government itself admits it is, can we afford such internet shutdowns? Isn’t it ailing our agenda of progress and our striving for global dominance? Isn’t it stopping us from achieving a “digital India”? The internet is one of those few democratic tools that actually belongs to the people and the government must not trifle with these basic rights of ours.
Swagat Baruah is founding editor of Catharsis Magazine.