Reflections On NDTV’s WTP On Internet Censorship – OpEd

By: B. Raman
August 28, 2012
Barkha Dutt’s We The People Show on NDTV on the night of August 26, 2012, had an interesting and topical live debate on Internet Censorship. It was well-formatted and well-conducted with some good interventions and had the inimitable professional stamp of Barkha. Kudos to her.

However, as pointed out by me in my tweeted feed-back to Barkha, the security perspective was missing. We had a plethora of non-Governmental perspectives, with Governmental security perspectives largely kept out. Even among non-Governmental experts, those dealing with national security issues were conspicuous by their absence.

Three points made during the debate were untenable and remained unchallenged since there were no security experts among the participants. I will confine my present remarks only to those points for the benefit of my loyal readers and followers.

The first point, which made an instant appeal to Barkha’s people, was that the best way of countering disinformation and rumours is through a proactive Government dissemination of correct information. Sounds beautiful, but it was an over-simplistic argument by someone who had not studied religious, racial and communal violence all over the world since religion was born.

Most incidents of religious and communal violence are due to inflamed passions triggered off partly by real incidents and partly by exaggerated accounts of the real incidents spread through rumours and disinformation. Psychological experts will tell you that when religious passions are aroused, people tend to believe the version of the religious clergy and not that of the Government.

That is why all over the world—in democracies as well as in dictatorial societies— the laws give the police prohibitory powers to prevent people from assembling in the streets and adding to the passions through word of mouth or printed or hand-written literature. Examples of such prohibitory powers are Section 144 and Curfew.

The standard drill for dealing with religious and communal passions all over the world is prohibit people from assembling in the streets and places of worship, make spreading of rumours criminal and seize literature tending to add to the passions. Through these measures, the Police and the security forces prevent the passions from aggravating and give a window of manoeuvrability to the political leaders and the leaders of the communities to explain the correct facts and bring down the passions. Once they succeed, the prohibitory orders are lifted.

The conventional prohibitory powers enacted about 150 years ago to prevent an aggravation of religious and communal passions cannot be applied to the Internet and its social networking sites when they are sought to be misused to disseminate exaggerated accounts and rumours. Special powers and special action are necessary to control the fanning of passions through the Net and social networking sites. Such powers have been given to law and order authorities all over the world. These powers relate to Net surveillance and action to block or jam sites tending to inflame passions temporarily till the aggravation of passions is prevented and the political and community leaders are able to cool it by disseminating correct information.

The dissemination of disinformation, rumours and morphed images alleging commission of atrocities on the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State of Myanmar started in July. The Myanmar Government detected such dissemination within two weeks and brought it to the notice of not only its Muslim residents, but also the Governments of the OIC member-States. Its version of the true facts is not accepted even today either by the Rohingyas or by the OIC states. What other option it has but to block the offending sites till passions come down?

The unconventional digital prohibitory powers are not meant to be used permanently. They are meant to be used temporarily till passions come down and the circulation of rumours subsides. In my Articles on the violence in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and in Assam, I have been advocating an avoidance of over-reaction which could aggravate the Muslim anger and calibrated blocking of Net sites to control passions of Muslims and calm down the panic of the people from the North-East.

In a tweet to me, Barkha said she found my feed-back confusing. She said: ‘Sir, you are criticising me for not inviting the MHA, but you yourself criticised their blocking.” I advocated the blocking of the sites of the ill-wishers of the State and criticised the blocking of the well-wishers like Kanchan Gupta, the journalist. Even though I did not agree with the MHA’s assessment on many points, I did feel that We The People had as much right to know the views of the MHA as it had to know the views of people like Kabir Bedi, the film-actor.

I want to challenge two points made by Shri Jay Panda, the highly respected political leader of Orissa. He claimed that there has been no act of terrorism in the US after 9/11.Incorrect. There has been no act of catastrophic terrorism in the US after 9/11, but there have been sub-catastrophic acts of terrorism and attempted terrorism even after 9/11.Examples:The attempted plane bombing by a shoe bomber (prevented by an alert air hostess), the attempted explosion on board a Detroit-bound plane (prevented by an alert passenger), the attempted explosion in Times Sq , New York, by a Taliban-trained Pakistani (prevented by an alert pedestrian), the shooting down of a number of US soldiers by a follower of a US Muslim cleric of Yemeni origin, who subsequently became the head of the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda and was killed in a Drone Strike in Yemen last year.

There have been terrorist attacks and attempted terrorist acts in the US even after 9/11 but they were prevented from assuming catastrophic proportions, inter alia, by the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) of the US set up by an enlightened political leadership of the US in 2004.Shri Navin Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Orissa, has been in the forefront of Chief Ministers opposing the NCTC even in a modified form.

I am sick and tired of people who keep claiming that there has been no terrorism in the US after 9/11, whereas terrorists continue to be active in India. I would like to pose the following questions to Shri Panda and others of Barkha’s people:

a. India has the world’s second largest Muslim population. How many are there in the US?

b. India is next door to the world’s epicentre of jihadi terrorism. How far away is the US from this epicentre?

c. After 9/11, US Congressmen have willingly given their counter-terrorism agencies new powers and new capabilities like the NCTC to deal with jihadi terrorism. Shri Panda, how many have you and your ilk given us?

d. In the US, arrested jihadi suspects are treated like war criminals seeking to wage war against the US and detained in the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. Shri Panda, you don’t even allow us to keep them for interrogation in our Police Stations for a few days.

e. Shri Panda,Shri Kabir Bedi and other Barkha’s people:In the third ban notification issued by the Department of Communications and IT , about 18 Tweeter handles were ordered to be blocked. Of these,I understand, only one is that of a Muslim. The remaining are all of Hindus. Do you mean to say that only Hindus tweet and Muslims don’t. None of you had the intellectual honesty to draw attention to this during the debate.

Shri Panda also claimed that such special digital prohibitory powers are given only to the security forces in India and that the security forces in other democracies do not seek such powers.

On April 25, 2012, the British media reported as follows: “A suggestion has been put forward by Sir David Ormand, the former head of the UK’s intelligence gathering centre GCHQ, urging UK government that social media sites should be covered strictly. Terrorist and criminals elements use social websites like Facebook and Twitter to achieve their heinous objectives, according to Ormand. He said that the responsible authorities should keep the suspects under constant surveillance. The former intelligence officer was of the view that individual accounts should be hacked if necessary, but added this should only be done under special circumstances. “Social media is how people are talking to each other,” he said. There have been reports that Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden are using social media to communicate,” and Mr Omand said that in such circumstances the authorities need to be able to gain access to private accounts.”

Similarly, in the US, intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies have many more powers for Net surveillance and counter-action than we have in India.

Despite my criticism, I compliment Barkha for having this debate live and at short notice. I appreciate how difficult it would have been to organise this live and in a co-ordinated and time-bound manner. Her team headed by Ruby Dingra, the producer, deserve equal credit.

The debate drew attention to the lack of professionalism in our Net surveillance architecture, our weak-data base of threats of digital origin, our weak machinery for follow-up action on perceived threats, our weak analytical capability in matters relating to criminal misuse of the Net and the weak co-ordination between the MHA and the intelligence agencies on the one side and the Department of Communications and IT on the other.

Till now, our focus has largely been on action required to meet threats of a military and para-military nature arising from State actors through the cyber space. The recent events have shown the need for equal focus on strengthening our capability to meet non-conventional threats of a psychological nature from indigenous and foreign non-State actors.

Barkha’s show drew attention to some of these aspects in a lucid manner for which she has to be complimented. However, some of us in the national security community—-serving and retired—could not help forming a suspicion that the show was influenced to some extent by cronyism, but unfortunately that is becoming the order of the day in our TV world.

About the author:
B. Raman

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail:


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