Centre for Internet & Society

Has the Indian government lost its sense of humour? That’s what some in India were asking as word spread that authorities had pressured Twitter into blocking several accounts parodying the prime minister after civil unrest that saw dozens of people from northeastern India killed and thousands flee in panic.

Published in the Australian Financial Review. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

This week, the government also imposed a two-week limit of five text messages a day – raised Thursday to 20 – potentially affecting hundreds of millions of people, and pressured local internet companies as well as Facebook, Twitter and Google to block hundreds of websites and user accounts.

Although journalists, free speech advocates and bloggers said the effort to squelch rumours may be justified, several criticised the actions as excessive.

“You cannot burn the entire house to kill one mischievous mouse,” said Gyana Ranjan Swain, a senior editor at Voice & Data, a networking trade magazine. “You’re in the 21st century. Their thinking is still 50 years old. It’s just ‘kill the messenger’. ”

Comedians said Indian political humour is evolving and there’s more leeway to make fun of politicians than a decade ago, but the nation’s mores still call for greater respect than in the West.

“If I tried something like South Park, I’d be put behind bars tomorrow,” said Rahul Roushan, founder of Faking News website, which satirises Indian current events.

Faking News has lampooned the recent corruption scandals, including specious stories about theme restaurants (where customers must bribe waiters or go hungry); and a tongue-in-cheek report that India has banned the zero because too many of them appear nowadays in auditors’ reports, after recent coal and telecommunications scandals each allegedly involving more than $US30 billion.

Roushan, whose site isn’t blocked, said he hopes low-level officials misinterpreted government directives.

“I’m still in a state of disbelief,” he said. “I don’t think the government is so stupid that it can ask that parody accounts get taken down. If they did, God help this country.”

A spokesman for the prime minister’s office said the blocking of six fake Twitter accounts attributed to the prime minister has been in the works for months and wasn’t related to the recent crisis. He said the move was in response to tweets containing hate language and caste insults that readers could easily mistake as the Indian leader’s. A dozen Twitter accounts and about 300 websites were blocked, according to news reports.

“We have not lost our sense of humour,” said Pankaj Pachauri, the prime minister’s spokesman. “We started a procedure to take action against people misrepresenting themselves.”

The restrictions are the latest chapter of a crisis that started in July when Muslims and members of the Bodo tribal community in northeastern India clashed over land, jobs and politics. The result: 75 people killed and 300,000 displaced.

Muslims in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, staged a sympathy demonstration last week; two more people were killed and dozens injured.

Rumours, hate messages and altered photos of supposed atrocities against Muslims soon spread on social media sites, and several people from northeastern India were beaten in Bangalore and other cities, prompting the crackdown.

New Delhi has accused Pakistani websites of fanning the online rumours. (Islamabad said it would investigate if there’s any proof.) But Indian news media also reported that 20 per cent of the websites blocked contained inflammatory material uploaded by Hindu nationalist groups in India that were apparently trying to stir up sectarian trouble.

The Twitter community has responded with derision and humour to limits on text messages on prepaid mobile phones.

“Feeling deeply insulted that I still have not been blocked,” tweeted user @abhijitmajumder. “Victim of govt apathy.”

Sunil Abraham, head of the Bangalore civic group Centre for Internet and Society, said this week’s restrictions are the latest in a series of regulations and recommendations aimed at tightening internet control.

“Before, the government’s had no grounds for censorship, it was only acting on the bruised egos of bureaucrats and officials,” he said. “This time, it’s got a legitimate right given the disruption of public order. But it hasn’t done so very effectively.”