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America Drawn into Indian Cyberpolitics

After provocative messages on social networking sites incited communal tensions in India’s northeast, New Delhi is calling on Washington for help. The Times of India reports:

India will seek US’ help in tracking down the origins of offensive web pages hosted on American servers which have been used to inflame Muslim sentiments here.

The decision to seek the help of US’ Department of Homeland Security and other agencies comes after the initial investigations by intermediaries like Google and Facebook pointed to Pakistan being the main source for the offensive images, videos and hate SMSs.

People talk about the interconnected world we are all living in. The recent communal unrest in India illustrates it.

Stage One: It starts in the violent, unstable regions of northeastern India, where settlers—mostly Muslim and many informal/illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—are in conflict with tribal groups who have inhabited the land for a long time. Riots in Assam recently sent Muslims fleeing to relief camps in the region.

News quickly spreads to Muslims around the world, especially in Pakistan, where tensions were already inflamed by stories of atrocities perpetrated against another group of mostly Muslim settlers from Bangladesh, this time in Myanmar. Add in Ramadan and a hot August (with a weak monsoon season in the subcontinent threatening the livelihoods of many), and you get a volatile mix. Whether the images are staged or real, social media makes these distant attacks all the more vivid.

Stage Two: Angry Muslims in various places begin threatening retaliation. Riots spread to Mumbai as tensions mount. Now India believes that radical groups in Pakistan, including perhaps some with direct ties to and support from the government, have begun a plan to destabilize India by setting Indian Muslims against northeasterners. Social media and the web play a huge role in this, sending news of threats, spreading panic, spreading anger.

Stage Three: Huge groups of terrified northeasterners (none of whom could have had any direct personal involvement in the earlier riots) return home. India is shaken to the core; the pictures of refugees fleeing on overcrowded trains bring back memories of the nightmare of partition. Again, social media is a key player as word of the panic spreads by text messages. Now India is attempting to limit the use of these messages in an effort to cool things down.

Stage Four: The crisis escalates, as both Indians and Pakistanis see this as the next stage in their long-running cultural argument. India is based on the idea that the diversity of the subcontinent can only be accomodated in a large, secular republic in which Hindus, Muslims, and the many other religions and ethnicities in this complicated part of the world can survive. Pakistan is based on the “two peoples” theory, which holds that Hindus and Muslims are actually two different nations that must each have the right of self-determination in its own state. Episodes of violence like this are seen as substantiating the Pakistani claim that India is built on an illusion that cannot last. Because of this argument, fears of communal violence in India aren’t just based on the physical devastation and loss of life; they are about whether the country really works at the most basic level. As Islam in the subcontinent edges into more militant forms, that question becomes more important.

Stage Five: Indian government authorities and others note that the social media that played such a role in the crisis are in some cases emanating from Pakistan. Many more become convinced of a Pakistani plot against India. India goes to Facebook and Twitter for help in blocking websites and investigating what happened.

Stage Six: Facebook, Twitter et al. tell India that they can’t do everything that India wants them to do, because that would in effect export Indian censorship and security concerns to their global audiences. India, for its part, wants to investigate exactly who is spreading these stories and where fabrications occur, so that social media operating in its territory do not become instruments by which foreign intelligence services and terror organizations can spread disinformation and wage cyber-jihad.

Stage Seven: India asks the United States to help it track down the source of this danger to its security and to use its authority and know-how to figure out what is happening. The U.S. will now have to craft some kind of a response. Twitter doesn’t just report news from abroad; it makes history and is therefore a subject of foreign policy and state action.

Twenty-first century technology, spreading rapidly throughout the developing world, is increasingly colliding with ancient tribal animosities, with explosive results. We are just beginning to grasp the kind of foreign policy, national security, and civil liberty questions that this new force will raise.

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  • Eurydice

    I’m not sure what to make of this – it sounds a little like shooting the messenger. I get that it’s a growing problem and needs to be addressed – but, at the end of the day, Twitter and Facebook can’t fix the basic problem that all these people hate each other and their authorities can’t or won’t do anything about it.

  • jsmoe

    It’s not diversity can’t exist. It’s that diversity along w. Muslim extremist can’t exist. Everywhere you look it is only Muslims causing the problems. Why?

    When do Christian stand up and start denouncing Islam for all the violence carried out against Christians world wide by Muslims?

  • Mark in Texas

    It seems that in the case of Muslims, Pakistan has the more correct understanding of the situation. India might need to get used to a second round of separation like in 1947. In the end, India will be better off for it.

    Muslims just don’t seem to play well with others.

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