The contrast couldn’t be starker. Last week, Israel completed testing of an area-specific, “personal message” SMS system for warning the public in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English of an imminent missile attack. While Israel is actively using SMS technology to save lives, India last week banned mass SMS for 15 days.
The restriction on sending not more than five SMS or MMS was imposed by the government to quell rumours, which had led to mass exodus of North East Indians from some South Indian cities. India did not emulate Israel in using bulk SMS, to counter rumours with verified facts. Moreover, the government hasn’t exempted legitimate bulk SMS from this ban, such as those sent by banks, taxi services and hospitals.
This is not the first time Indian government has banned the use of SMS. Earlier, it had temporarily banned mass SMS when the Ayodhya verdict was due in 2010. Use of SMS is also completely banned in Jammu & Kashmir since 2008 when violent protests broke out over the Amarnath shrine. Because mobile phones were used to blast an IED in J&K in 2005, mobile services were stopped there for three hours (9 AM to 12 Noon) this Independence Day.
The ban on use of SMS in strife-prone J&K can be justified because of the security situation (although those who stay in the state are unlikely to agree to it). Unlike now, the temporary ban before the Ayodhya verdict was a pre-emptive one. Whereas the ban before the Ayodhya verdict sent a strong message that the government was prepared for any eventuality, the current ban was imposed after threatening messages had already been circulating for a week — a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Use of SMS, along with other modern means of communication, has become an integral part of our lives and any restrictions on them, even temporary, inconvenience us. The resentment due to the inconvenience caused is often vented as outrage against infringement of personal freedom.
Unless you live in lawless Somalia or parts of Afghanistan, certain personal freedoms are curtailed by all modern states to ensure public security. This raises the question: what is the right balance between public security and personal freedom? Living under the constant threat of terror, the challenge to strike the right balance is even greater for liberal democracies. Security agencies say that certain unavoidable steps have to be taken if we are to be safe. Civil libertarians consider it as an excuse by the government to act like a Big Brother. The subjective nature of the call made by security agencies makes it difficult for the government to make a convincing public case. The debate over Patriot Act or airport security measures in the US is a prime example of the challenges faced by a liberal democracy today. There is also the example of the UK when it stretched democratic norms while dealing with the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
India is situated in a far more difficult neighbourhood than either the US or the UK. It has faced a severe terror threat for nearly three decades now. Riots and public disorder, which seemed to be a thing of the past, have started resurfacing again now. There could thus be situations — even if they are rarest of the rare — where SMS, or even mobile services, may have to be temporarily restricted by the government. Such an order is also likely to be upheld in a court of law. These restrictions will cause some inconvenience to the individual, as are caused by curfews imposed during riots or by intensive security checks at airports. But this has to be a part of the trade-off between personal convenience and public safety.
The real problem today is with the opaque decision-making process by which government bans SMS or mobile usage. Use of SMS should only be banned after failure of other measures such as monitoring, surveillance, restrictions based on keywords, and use of local jammers. We need a public debate on the conditions that warrant restrictions on SMS and mobile usage. As with tapping telephones, Indian government needs a transparent review process for ordering temporary restrictions on the use of SMS/ MMS and mobile services in any part of the country. It will ensure that the pendulum which swings towards greater security in times of a crisis quickly returns towards personal freedom with the return of normalcy.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review