The state government has gotten used to putting blanket mobile internet ban. It is the second time in less than a month and this time, it is pre-emptive. Instead of the government preparing itself to deal with social media or other digital applications devised by the agitating groups, it has decided to ban all the internet functions. So from now on, with every political agitation – whether it is the Patidars or the OBC or the opposition party – the government will take the ‘law and order’ measures like banning the mobile internet and broadband internet will follow. One is not sure if other conventional law and order measures like mobilising the police force or patrolling the streets precedes such bans or not.
These are bleak turn of events. The internet ban coupled with the ban on the SMS services disrupts public life. These are not the cries of the affluent class of people who cannot access social media or book cinema tickets. Many important civic amenities are accessed through internet these days. According to the Ericsson study, 45% of mobile internet users are low-income and less-educated ones and the mobile is their only source to access internet. Add 20% students users to this group as well.
On one side, the government of India is promoting its flagship programme called ‘Digital India’, which is aspiring to build ‘digitally empowered society and knowledge economy’. On the other side, the state government is regularly banning internet. How do these two things go together? Along with digital India, the prime minister promised ‘minimum government and maximum governance’. The spirit of the slogan comes from the economic philosophy of letting private enterprises and individuals prosper while the government does not interfere in private life or private businesses. What is practiced in Gujarat is surely not ‘minimum government’.
The act of banning internet is an overbearing, paternalistic act. It is an act from a ‘maximum government’ or a ‘nanny state’, which does not mind curtailing the citizen’s access to information and other functions in the name of ‘law and order’ or worse, to hide its own failures in dealing with political agitations. The phrase ‘nanny state’ is an apt description for -‘Don’t do this’, ‘Don’t look there’, ‘Don’t talk to any one’, ‘Don’t eat that’, ‘Don’t go out’ and of course, ‘I am doing all these for you own good’. A lot of people were sympathetic with the decision to ban mobile internet earlier but this time, it is not going to go well with the citizens – I mean, voters. The digital technologies have made everyone’s life super-convenient. The government should make sure that it remains so.
Governments around the world know our desire for safety too well. Fear from unknown enemies, fear of possible unrest is proven to be very effective for curtailing freedom. But the frequent use of fear tactics is not as effective. Ideally, the democratic checks and balances should overcome such tactics. When the High Court rejected the public interest litigation against the internet ban in the last week of August, the court probably did not want to interfere in the state’s affairs. Possibly, if the High Court had known that this is going to be a regular and frequent practice then the verdict might have been a different one.
(21st September, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)