There’s a crackdown on free speech happening right now in a country that delights in calling itself the world’s biggest democracy.
Last week, more than 2,500 students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India, a school known for its progressive politics and high levels of student engagement, protested the arrest of their Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar. Kumar was detained for protesting the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, an occupied state that is the crux of much conflict between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris who seek independence. The arrest brought more than 10,00 people to march in support of Kumar and other JNU students' right to protest in New Delhi last Thursday.
Kumar was arrested after speaking at a public meeting held on the anniversary of the controversial 2013 execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru. After that meeting, Kumar gave a speech railing against the forces of Hindu nationalism in general, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular. The BJP is an important ideological force seeking to shape India with Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva. The political philosophy calls for Hindu religious and cultural dominance in one of the most diverse countries in the world. Modi has married his own brand of Hindutva with aggressively pro-corporate policies that pave the way for multinational corporations to enter India, further cementing a vast wealth gap in a country where 830 million people live on less than 20 rupees (or half a dollar) each day.
In the speech that led to his detention, Kumar took on poverty head on, saying, “We don’t need a patriotism certificate. We love this country.” From a poor, working-class background himself, Kumar noted: “We fight for the 80% poor population of this country.”
The sedition law that Kumar was arrested under was, in fact, a vestige of the country’s colonial era. It was instituted to prevent anti-colonial resistance, prohibiting Indians from doing anything that might incite “disaffection” toward the government. Gandhi himself was arrested under this law for his actions during India’s Independence Movement. In the years of BJP control it has been used to detain those that challenge the Indian government.
This reprisal of colonial tactics by the Indian government is particularly ironic given the recent remarks made by a board member of Facebook, just a few days before protests erupted at JNU. After Facebook’s Free Basics platform was banned in India, a member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, expressed his disapproval with a tweet, saying, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
The depth and breadth of misunderstanding, racism and historical naiveté captured in that tweet (which has been deleted and apologized for) is stunning.
The Free Basics platform is touted by Facebook as a way to help people connect to the Internet for the first time. It offers a simple and limited version of the mobile Web app, and people can use it without it counting toward their data-usage limit. Facebook bills this as a potential game-changer for a country where so many millions don't have access to the Internet at all. Many Indians rejected the platform, arguing that instead of creating fair access to the Internet, Free Basics positions Facebook as the gatekeeper to Internet access for many in India by luring in people all over the country with the promise of free access, rather simply creating access for the poor. This way Facebook becomes the sole Internet provider for millions of Indians, gaining access to all their data and securing for themselves new users with no other option for Internet access. Facebook decides what the Internet will be, which platforms are supported, and which will not be.
The central tenet of Internet freedom, an open Web, is lost.
The resistance to Free Basics was rooted in a mistrust of the platform specifically because of its colonial structure. “I see the project as both colonialist and deceptive,” Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, told the Atlantic. “It tries to solve a problem it doesn’t understand, but it doesn’t need to understand the problem because it already knows the solution. The solution conveniently helps lock in Facebook as the dominant platform for the future at a moment when growth in developed markets is slowing.”
Andreessen’s tweet captured precisely the kind of dangerous Internet-as-freedom narrative that the students at JNU protest regularly. Importantly, these incidents -- the violence against student protesters and the ignorance of the Western stalwarts of Internet access -- are useful as counterpoints to each other. The legacy of India’s colonization lives in the spaces within and between them.
For one, there is the warped notion that colonization was at all beneficial to the people or countries colonized. In 2003, on the eve of the war in Afghanistan, Edward Said wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate."
Further, the impacts of colonization are far-ranging and not bound by the constraints of time, it seems. Modi’s government is using, with almost no compunction, the laws and ideologies left for them by the British Colonial rulers. Divide communities in order to control them, better if you make them hate each other. Rely on caste and class to help you do this. Squash dissent mercilessly. And work day and night to convince your people that if they just give up their liberties to you, they will finally cease to be poor.
The protests at JNU this week are vital resistance to this strategy -- they are the counterpoint to the the paternalist, xenophobic narrative of the Modi government and the BJP. They are resisting the criminalization of dissent, pushing their government to live up to the democracy they so often extoll. Many of us around the world are standing with them.