NITI Aayog member VK Saraswat made the news over the last few days because of his insensitive remarks about the government’s decision to deny internet to the people of the Kashmir Valley. “What difference does it make if there’s no internet there?” saidSaraswat, who is also chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Besides watching dirty films, you do nothing there.”

The comment was naturally controversial because of the “dirty films bit”, causing enough of a hubbub for Saraswat to claim that he had been misquoted. But the entirety of his remarks revealed more about how he and many others seem to regard both Kashmir and the internet.

“What difference does it make if there’s no internet there? What do you watch on internet there? What e-tailing is happening there? Besides watching dirty films, you do nothing there,” Saraswat said. He later clarified, adding, “I am saying that if there is no internet in Kashmir, then it does not have a significant effect on the economy.”

Three points immediately jump out:

  • Does Saraswat realise that the reason Kashmir has struggled to build a digital economy is precisely because the government keeps turning the internet off?
  • If turning the internet off did have a significant effect on the economy, would the government have not turned the internet off? (That didn’t stop it from imposing shutdowns in many other places in 2019, including Delhi.)
  • Why does its impact on the economy take precedence over other uses of the internet?

Put together, this reveals a rather paternalistic view of the entire situation: the government will decide what’s good for Kashmiris and whether they should be able to access it on the internet.

White-listed web

Saraswat may have had to clarify his remarks but the same thinking is currently in force in Kashmir Valley, where the government has just decided to allow residents of two districts to access just 153 out of the countless websites on the internet.

The white-listing order came after the Supreme Court criticised the government for its disproportionate action in shutting down the internet in the state indefinitely, but only ordered it to restore connections to “essential services”, leaving the government free to review its own orders.

No news organisations has made it into this list, although several of the video streaming sites might allow access to TV channel streams. Other entries are completely puzzling. As one person pointed out on Twitter, is permitted but is not. Jio Chat – without even a URL – has an entry, though no other messaging service seems to have been included.

What was the process to pick these URLs and not others? Can people petition to include their websites on the list? Is there judicial or legislative oversight to the decision-making to ensure that the government is not white-listing certain businesses so that they benefit?

First Kashmir, next?

For many other Indians, these questions may not even arise because they are used to news of the internet being blocked in Kashmir, and so some websites being permitted may actually sound more lenient than the complete shutdown that was in place before.

But, as we have learnt over the last few months, apathy towards the trampling of civil liberties in Kashmir seems to give the government confidence that it can try the same tactics elsewhere in the country. As Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa points out, “Once the infrastructure is in place, with the Indian bureaucracy and government fairly enamored with China’s approach to the Internet... it will lead to a justification of similar curbs of access to the Internet, and such curbs may be imposed more frequently, where for parts of the country, only white-listed content is available.”

It is not hard to see authorities around the country demanding the imposition of a white-listed version of the internet so they can clamp down on unauthorised activity, a digital version of a government imposing Section 144 prohibitory orders across an entire state – and then letting a few friendly faces and businessmen through.

This is wrong, misguided and dangerous.

Wrong because the government should not have the power to pick winners and losers online, to decide what people can or can’t see. Misguided because it will have an outsize impact on ordinary people while those who actually want to conduct illicit activity online will find a way. And dangerous because a government that can get comfortable suspending civil liberties will surely want even more power, and will react aggressively when challenged.

The Supreme Court needs to reconsider its order on internet shutdowns in Kashmir and the potential impact it can have on Indian democracy. If the judiciary is unwilling, Parliamentarians who understand what this means must push for legislative intervention before the nightmare of a white-listed internet for all of India turns into a reality.