Saturday, August 25, 2012

Back to the quota raj

I believe that the real motive of the government’s regular bullying of social media and its repeated threats of cyber-policing, stems from the desire  to wrest again that domineering control over supply of everything, a power it wielded till the 80s.The mai-baaps controlled the taps of everything that went in our paltry civil lives then ­- amount of foreign exchange in our pockets, number of telephones and scooters in the market, communication. After many years of dormancy, this intermediation has come back again in the quota of SMSes we can exchange in a day, the big brother back in control and even large-heartedlyallowing a bigger trickle from 5 to 20 now, after elbowing rudely, without consultation, into this personal space a few days back.
Only a little more than a decade ago, the fastest mode of communication was the telegram which could only be sent via the agency of government. The only telecom provider, maintaining an artificial scarcity for years so that you were just grateful to get a phone in only a couple of years, was run by the government. Private couriers were almost absent, only the government-run postal office. Hence, communication, like production, was always in the fist of the government; it could squeeze it any time, any place it wanted. It believed itself to be magnanimous to grant us the annual rations, like a master would to grant its slaves a petty raise. We were a poor nation, we were told, and the rich, and not the ones in the government, were fleecing the poor, and the only way to contain this was to let the government cite everything as a luxury good it could only release a trickle at a time.
Things changed. We can text and speak directly now, in real time, about anything, with no controlling agent in between. A government like ours doesn’t like that. It likes to be in a position of knowing every twitter, every morsel, that passes under it. It gives it power and control, and an ear in our plotting lives. Remember, our socialism, our ministries like IB whose actual role is to censor and not broadcast, were derived from Stalin’s Russia in the early 50s.  

Capping the number of SMSes following the flight of north-easterns from the big cities was a knee-jerk reaction from a clueless corruption-ridden regime. The reason why people were fleeing was that they do not trust the police to protect them. But improving law enforcement is a long-term thing and, if it ever happens, the process would never begin from the top, for obvious reasons.
Imagine the immeasurable loss to the people by this cap: the commerce which has come to rely heavily on SMSes, the unsent Eid greetings… we cannot even begin to enumerate; we are an SMS-nation now and these malicious SMSes would have made an insignificant % of all the SMSes we exchange.
Two days after the ban, I received an SMS exhorting my patriotism to cooperate and mentioned a threat to national security. Really? There is a civil war engulfing almost the whole eastern part of tuthohe nation and you think the nation was secure all along? In a country of our size and spread, this was a local crisis. Did the action of a few hundred (at best) malevolent rumour-mongers really merit such a large spanner in the affairs of 1.2 BN people? Nobody was texting in concerted riots before, like the ones in ’84. Hell, no one was even punished after them. People panic because they know when they are at the short end of the stick, there is a jungle raj and their attackers will butcher them with the police looking on and then get away.
The world has always been in a ferment and there have been always been violence. It has been contained by containing the perpetrators and not the channels of communication which are open to anyone, criminal or innocent civilian. That would be like banning sex to contain rape. Or like limiting the traffic on highways to contain highwaymen. I am always concerned when a government raises the flag of national security: many a times, the message is that it means to move into my drawing room with all its surveillance gadgetry.

After taking upon itself the authority to determine the threshold of SMSes which do not constitute a threat, what stops this government to now extend it to determine the quotas on the number of kilometers we can drive every day, number of people we can speak to, number of broadband KBs we consume? Isn’t this the same mechanism at work which determined the number of scooters we could have in a year, rather than just letting anyone wanting to own a scooter buy one? The key word is “allow”. We do not have the right to SMS any more: it is a privilege now allowed to us, and of course it needs to be capped to drive home the point.
Hence, I believe this particular crisis has been used by the government to test what it can do to wedge again into our untrammeled freedom to speak, to hear, to exchange words. The blocked twitter accounts of dissenting journalists in the bogey of this security threat, is a taste of things to come, if we surrender our rights so obediently. The first push is usually a test of how far it can get away.

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