By the Blouin News Technology staff

India and the political manipulation of the web

by in Media Tech.

Hardik Patel gathers with group members for a rally on August 23. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY

Hardik Patel gathers with group members for a rally on August 23. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY

The violent protests that erupted this week in India’s Gujarat state have left eight dead at the time of this writing, and disabled local access to mobile internet messaging.

The motive behind the shutdown in the state’s main city of Ahmedabad and some other regions is clear: authorities have blamed local use of WhatsApp for organization of protests and subsequent violence. While users still have access to the web via personal computers, the blockage of WhatsApp — a highly popular mode of communication in India — means many are anxiously looking for solutions, even as local officials aim to curb the outrage running rampant across the Gujarat state. Users have reported resorting to wi-fi as in some cases mobile internet has been disabled entirely.

The BBC writes that the protests were initiated by the Patel community of Gujarat, a caste that is among the most prosperous communities in the state, but one that feels discriminated against because of affirmative action programs which guarantee slots in universities and other educational institutions to those below the Patels in India’s complex caste system. Led by Hardik Patel, the group is demanding quotas for Patels in colleges and businesses. The protests became violent, involving stone-throwing and arson, following Hardik Patel’s detainment by law enforcement.

But the government’s blockage of mobile internet in the Gujarat state — which affects 63 million people — is a drastic move that, as history has shown, will likely only add fuel to the fire.

While it is one thing for the government to bemoan the use of the web to encourage protests and to try to monitor internet-based activity, it is another for it to block internet access entirely. This state action is reminiscent of some Middle Eastern countries’ attempts to squash web-based communication during the Arab Spring — an action that did little to subdue public protests. Those uprisings, which ran from approximately 2010 to 2012, were marked by government-based attempts to delay or block internet access. Iran made its internet unusably slow; Egypt temporarily blocked the internet as a whole in 2011; Libya and Syria experienced similar shutdowns; Tunisia, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia all experienced their own internet-based turmoil as a result of varying government actions. In all of these cases, violence and rebellion were neither diminished or deterred. It became obvious that governments were powerless against the distribution of information and the communication spawned by internet networks. Users bypassed government controls, using virtual private networks to access the web just as easily as if it were turned on. Those who were more tech-savvy constructed identities and blocked their IP addresses from being tampered with.

If there is one thing the last several years of aggressive government web blockages have demonstrated, it’s that where there is a will there is a way. Users will always find some way to connect if they so desire. In Gujarat, protests are too far gone for a disablement of mobile internet to have any significant impact on the uprisings. It’s important to consider that the block inconveniences those not involved in the protests as well, paving the way for more incendiary action.