Sunday, September 16, 2012

India Bans Bulk SMS, Blocks Websites as Rumours Spread Ethnic Panic



On August 15, as India celebrated the sixty-five year anniversary of its independence, a mass exodus was underway from the southern Indian city of Bangalore, which has in recent years been better known worldwide as a hub of industrial strength, propelling India’s aggressive debut on the world stage as a country with economic clout.
The following day, despite anxious efforts by government officials and security agencies to allay fears, a similar mass migration occurred from the cities of Pune, Hyderabad  and Chennai.
Those who fled booked themselves for the most part on trains headed to Guwahati , the economic hub of the state of Assam, which is the largest among the eight states collectively known as “north-eastern India”. The rush of bookings compelled the Indian Railways to run a number of special trains from each of these cities, or to increase the passenger capacity of scheduled services.
The mass panic was caused by SMS messages warning people of retaliation for sectarian violence that began in Assam late in July. Four districts of Assam were gutted by mass violence that still continues, between people of the Muslim faith – deemed to be illegal immigrants -- and the Bodo tribal community which claims original ownership of the land. Though under-reported in the mass media, there are worries that the violence in Assam, may have caused India’s largest internal displacement in all time.
On August 17, the Indian government ordered a ban on SMS messages directed to more than five recipients. It also issued notices to all internet service providers (ISPs) to block a number of websites held guilty of hosting highly inflammatory content on the events in Assam.
Just a few days before, on August 11, an organisation claiming to be a cultural and educational body had organised a protest in the western Indian metropolis of Mumbai, against the sectarian violence in Assam and reported atrocities inflicted on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Following a number of speeches by the principal organisers, some of which denounced the mass media for their supposed indifference to the violence inflicted on a religious community in Assam and Myanmar, the crowd went on a rampage, attacking journalists who had gathered to cover the event and burning three outdoor-broadcasting vans belonging to well-known news channels.
A rigorous study by a well-respected scholar has shown that the sense of grievance over atrocities on a particular religious community, may have been stoked by manipulated images circulated either in gross ignorance or with deliberate intent to foment violence.
In subsequent remarks to the press, a top official of the Mumbai police has said that the violence may have been pre-planned and was possibly linked to one of several underworld factions that operate in the city.
The Mumbai police investigation into the violence has failed to carry much credibility and political parties committed to an anti-immigrant programme have subsequently mobilised to demand accountability at the highest political level of the state administration, for the violence of August 11.
The SMS ban has been strongly resisted by India’s mobile phone service companies, which fear a sharp drop in their revenue for the month.
Little clarity is available on the websites that have been blocked, with the numbers involved estimated to probably number 250.
The Indian government has also served a strong demarche on Pakistan, which it holds responsible for most of the website content that has inflamed mass sentiments and led to the panic.
Pakistan has responded with a request for concrete evidence before it acts against those alleged to have planted the rumours.
Police in Bangalore city meanwhile, announced the arrest of four individuals for spreading the rumours that led to ethnic panic. Though most media have refrained from naming them, some reports have indicated that they belong to the Muslim faith.
Early reports suggested that the arrested individuals may have responded emotionally to disturbing images and stories they received over internet and mobile phone, about the suffering of co-religionists in Assam and Myanmar. No intent or motive to create ethnic panic was suggested in these early reports.
 Soon afterwards, there were media reports which hinted at an organised attempt to stir up ethnic strife.
Certain newspapers have suggested the involvement of right-wing bodies that claim to be acting on behalf of the majority Hindu community in the recent events.
On August 18, a mass e-mail from a recognised site of the right-wing organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, was widely circulated, suggesting that Muslim youth in the city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, had participated in an observance the previous day of Pakistan’s independence day and had raised the flag of the enemy country in a prominent city square.
Journalistic investigations revealed that the pictures circulated were indeed authentic, but taken in Hyderabad city in Sindh province of Pakistan.
With authentic information in short supply, the public is forced to choose between different versions on the basis of prior assumptions and prejudices. The crackdown on means of information transmission in the context, is not seen to serve a useful purpose. Rather, it may only have created even more favourable conditions for rumour and hearsay to flourish.

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