Centre for Internet & Society

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Silicon Valley’s most powerful chief executives this week how his government “attacked poverty by using the power of networks and mobile phones’’, the entire population of the state of Kashmir remained offline — by order of the state.

The article by Amanda Hodge was published in the Australian on September 29, 2015. Sunil Abraham gave inputs.

“I see technology as a means to empower and as a tool that bridges the distance between hope and opportunity,” Mr Modi said yesterday on a trip in which he will also discuss development at the UN.

Earlier, in a “town hall” meeting with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg Mr Modi hailed the power of social media networks that gave governments the opportunity to correct themselves “every five minutes”, rather than every five years.

His remarks during his Digital India tour of the US west coast sparked a storm of Twitter protest.

The northern state’s former chief minister Omar Abdullah, who noted the “irony of listening to Prime Minister Modi lecturing about connected digital India, while we are totally disconnected”.

The ban on mobile and broadband internet in Jammu and Kashmir was imposed last Friday, the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Zuha during which animals are slaughtered and the meat fed to the poor, for fear social media could inflame tensions over the state government’s decision to enforce a beef ban.

It was to have lasted 24 hours but — notwithstanding Twitter feedback — was extended twice as a “precautionary” measure.

As Mr Modi outlined his dreams of a broadband network connecting the country’s most remote communities, millions of New Delhi mobile phone users continued their daily wrestle with line dropouts.

“We are bringing technology, transparency, efficiency, ease and effectiveness in governance,” he said, as in New Delhi the government talked of pulling down more mobile towers.

Centre for Internet and Society director Sunil Abraham said yesterday: “Schizophrenia between rhetoric and reality (on digital policy) is the global standard for all world leaders.

“Politicians in opposition are invariably opposed to surveillance and in favour of free speech but the very day that politician assumes office even if it is someone as splendid as Barack Obama, they change their opinions on these topics and become pro-surveillance and pro-censorship.”

Certainly successive Indian governments have had a patchy record on such issues. Last March India’s activist Supreme Court struck down a controversial section of the Information Technology Act which made posting information of a “grossly offensive or menacing character” punishable by up to three years’ jail.

That month police in northern Uttar Pradesh arrested a teenager for a Facebook post, which they said “carried derogatory language against a community”.

Previous cases under the former Congress-led government include that of a university professor detained for posting a cartoon about the chief minister of West Bengal and the arrest of two young women over a Facebook post criticising the shutdown of Mumbai following the death of a Hindu right politician.

While Mr Modi’s government welcomed the Supreme Court ruling as a “landmark day for freedom of speech and expression”, last month it attempted to block 857 random porn sites.

Notwithstanding the gulf between Mr Modi’s digital dream rhetoric and the reality at home, his second US visit in 17 months has reaped dividends. Google has committed to a joint initiative to roll out free Wi-Fi to 500 railway stations across the country, and Qualcomm has pledged a $US150 million ($213m) tech startup fund.

But Mr Abraham warned of the potential for such investments to compromise net neutrality — the principle of allowing internet users access to all content and applications.