National Security & Social Media
The arrest of Disha Ravi in the 'Toolkit' episode has sparked a more significant debate about the definition of digital freedom a private citizen enjoys. The arrest has sparked off wide-scale protests in Bengaluru and Delhi, spreading like wildfire in other cities. An ordinary citizen wonders if such events are likely to increase in future times as there seems to be no mechanism to stop this trend. The government is well equipped to handle protests in physical space to cap citizens, yet it finds itself at crossroads when it comes to handling protests that emerge in cyberspace. The important question that everyone is asking; how do you define freedom in cyberspace? When does individual freedom in cyberspace tiptoes into the breach of national security amounting to sedition?
As these morning papers suggest, a hashtag campaign runs on social media of '#Finger on the lips'. This signifies the youth's displeasure of the State's efforts to block individual freedom of expression. They seem to be pointing out their constitutional rights to express themselves enshrined as 'Freedom of speech' in our Constitution. Yet they seem to miss a point that when the Constitution was drafted and adopted, the beast of cyberworld was non-existent. What form would civil society take three-quarters of a century later was not conceivable to those brilliant minds. If they had known that every mind could become a weapon of dissent, would they have kept the same provisions? It's a matter of conjecture and needs a broader debate. India is no exception as every democratic nation where freedom of speech has been a virtue, has faced similar situations. The Julius Assange case is the cornerstone of such a debate. How much is dissent healthy? As everyone in democracy seems to suggest that dissent is good for the democratic system. How much should civil society permit and who defines these limits? It has become clear that this limit cannot be defined for young minds who have embraced social media and cyberspace. They would like unlimited power to say what they want. The trouble starts when the dimensions of 'Influencers' and 'Followers' is added to this equation. Assuming there is an anti-national idea is being propagated by an "Influencer', how does a state stop others from following it. Youth by nature are 'Rebellious', they love to rebel against the authority. It gives them a sense of power, satisfaction of defiance. It's a hormonal thing, and every human goes through it. No state can stop this cycle.
One is arguing here: how does the State define national security, and how does it stop anyone from breaching it. National security is an amorphous concept. It cannot be defined in all its dimensions. External aggression is well understood and can be structured, but to save a nation from internal aggression is hard to define and harder to quantify. Who defines the rules of right and wrong? Not the government alone, but at the same time, it cannot be the opposition parties or any other political parties. Politics is the biggest bane of national security. There is a word often used 'constructive criticism'. This is more for debates in media and parliament as seldom does criticism leads to positivity in civil society which is deeply divided over issues. In the absence of an umpire, this game is free for all with boxing gloves on. Saner elements suggest; you only value a trait or feature after you have lost it. Today's youth has no fear of losing anything, as they have not witnessed the independence struggle. Nor is there a conscript military where like Israel everyone has to serve in the military, and the trials and tribulations of defending their motherland are experienced daily. They don't fear losing any liberty as they work in anonymity in cyberspace. As the Disha Ravi case will suggest, her understanding of life is related to the wrongs the State or society does to the environment we live in, people included. It's thus easy to identify with a protestor group who is opposed to the State. The underlining aim is to fight anything that seems to do the wrongs and by extension, anything that appears authoritarian. Quelling protests thus is an authoritarian act which needs to be condemned and acted upon. 'If we don't they who will', is the typical slogan that reverberates the self-styled cyber soldier's mind.
Is there a way out of this seemingly endless cycle of action and retribution? There doesn't seem to be any mechanism physically or theologically to end this. Both sides: The State and the protestor cannot see each other's point of view. For the cyber protestor, national security does not figure in his/ her mind, as being a patriot is never in doubt in their minds. In the globalised world, those who reach out to their cause are friends, and others are with the State. The idea that he/she is working with anti-national elements does not weigh on their conscience, as these elements don't come across as enemies, but as friends, more than the State. Their naïve minds regarding their understanding of the threats to their nation cannot fathom the devious ways inimical interest work against the State. By the time this understanding comes, the next generation which is glibber and savvier is ready to take up the mantle.
Where does the answer lie? In the author's mind, the answer lies with the State. It is the senior partner and has to understand the sensibilities of the youth. The State can never produce as many cyber specialists as the protestors have in their ranks. Their ranks swell due to hormonal appeal and not because of meagre state salary. The induction of more mature and young decision-makers in the ranks would help. Quelling dissent in any form has to develop as an art and not as a defensive mechanism. A polite 'Yes' can lead the way to a better 'No' in future. A hard-handed 'No' is a sure shot disaster. Management of media is another critical factor in this game of attribution and retribution. Media can twist the best-intended statement. If the State's methods seem polite and friendly, the more palatable the final decision. More than ever, it's time to get 'Chankayaniti' back in governance. The government needs to tackle even issues at home, especially those they cannot control more diplomatically.
"When a diplomat says Yes, he means May-be when he says May-be, he means no, a diplomat who says 'No' is no diplomat at all