August 21, 2012 / 2:03 PM / 5 years ago

COLUMN - Curbing bulk SMSes, social media over Assam riots a necessary evil?

A woman from northeast India ties the hair of her child while sitting inside the train bound for Assam at a railway station in Kolkata August 19, 2012.Rupak De Chowdhuri

The government has ordered the blocking of around 250 web pages with objectionable content and banned bulk SMSes after a mass exodus of northeast Indians from cities following rumours of Muslims seeking revenge for riots in Assam.

Nearly 80 people have been killed and 400,000 displaced in fighting between Muslims and mostly Hindu Bodo tribesmen in the northeastern state in recent weeks.

Mobile users and netizens have slammed the attempt to control the flow of information, with many accusing the government of seeking a quick-fix instead of catching perpetrators of hate messages in the form of threatening SMSes and morphed images on websites.

This is not the first time the government has been in a fix over its attempt to control social media -- Communication Minister Kapil Sibal's attempt last year to screen social networking sites was widely condemned, forcing him to clarify later that there was no plan to censor websites.

India's raucous online community of 100 million is especially vocal about its dislike for any form of government regulation. Websites and Twitter were filled with comments criticising the present ban, including by well-known personalities.

"Instead of blocking objectionable web sites, Govt shd criminally prosecute those behind them and set up spl courts to try them quickly," tweeted strategic analyst B. Raman.

Ad man and socialite Suhel Seth also tweeted: "Since we can't become like China in infra why the hell are we becoming like them by banning sms' and mms'? What's the matter???"

There are several arguments against the ban --

1. The bulk SMSes ban applies only to prepaid subscribers so why the class divide?

2 .With the proliferation of smartphones, users can still forward SMSes through messaging services like WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messaging (BBM).

3. Controlling content on sites like Facebook and Twitter amounts to curbing freedom of expression.

That said, the government could justify its methods, considering the gravity of the situation and the effectiveness of the methods it employs.

Pre-paid subscribers account for around 96 percent of India's 934.1 million mobile phone users, so if the intention is to curb mass circulation of SMSes, postpaid subscribers are relatively lower on the radar.

Also, messaging services like BBM and WhatsApp still have relatively few users. And a majority of those who received and forwarded the threat messages and eventually fled the cities in fear were labourers, small restaurant and retail workers who most likely use basic phones without advanced messaging features.

On the question of banning web pages like the ones which tried to portray images of earthquake victims in China as Muslims killed in riots, the government is not only right but rather late in blocking them as this could fan Muslim anger.

They could result not only in countrywide violence but also give a fillip to communal politics, especially with general elections around the corner.

David Lalmalsawma is a Reuters journalist. The opinions expressed here are his own and not of Reuters. You can follow him on Twitter @david_reuters

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