When I received a stray tweet on Tuesday night, asking me if there was any problem with my Twitter account since it was not accessible, it didn’t strike me that mischief was afoot. I thought it was a local ISP issue which would get resolved on its own. On Wednesday morning, there were several such messages. It was then that I sensed something could be wrong. By late evening there was a flood of tweets, each saying my profile page was not accessible and that my tweets were not visible.
Earlier that afternoon, a friend had helpfully provided me with a copy of the Department of Telecommunications letter to internet service providers listing all the URLs that were to be blocked. Tucked halfway through the list were 15 Twitter handles (one got repeated twice by the babu who had done the shoddy copy-paste job) to be blocked also. Among them was @KanchanGupta.
My initial reaction was one of surprise. I was amazed by the stupidity of this decision which could not have been taken after careful scrutiny and consideration despite its obvious consequences. That evening, I watched the Secretary, Information Technology, vigorously defending the Government’s decision. He said the list had been prepared by “security agencies” and the blocking was needed for security purposes.
I went to sleep more angry than upset. Anger turned into rage the next morning as I considered the enormity of the Government’s pernicious and vindictive decision. It was obvious that the move to block my handle was entirely motivated by political considerations. I have been a trenchant critic of this Government, its policies and its innumerable blunders. And, I have tried to use social media to air my views without mincing words.
This was not my first run in with a Congress Government; the party has taken offence to my writings in the past and used its clout to try and brow beat me. On one occasion I walked out of a job rather than work for an editor who had entertained a call from Vincent George to convey “madam’s displeasure” and not thought it fit to tell him to go take a walk.
There have been other pinpricks since 2004. But that’s a professional hazard and it makes little sense to complain about a Government not being fond of its critics. Hence, I shrugged them off.
But this was in a different league altogether. I was appalled that the Government should suggest, even if ever so remotely, that I pose a security threat to my country. I was angry that something so patently illegal was being done so brazenly. It was convenient for the Government to use the troubles in Assam and elsewhere (most notably in Mumbai) as a cover to slyly muzzle my voice and take away from me my social media platform. It needed to be exposed.
Happily, I didn’t have to try too hard to beat the Government at its blocking game. The tidal wave of support and the countless voices of protest on Twitter came as a shock for those who thought their deed would go unnoticed. No less happy for me and discomfiting for the Government was the fact that barring the odd channel out, media stepped forward to highlight the Government’s outrageous attempt to impose censorship through covert means.
Not so surprisingly, when confronted on Thursday morning, spokespersons of the Government and the Congress denied any move to block any Twitter handle other than the six parody accounts that seem to have given our humourless Prime Minister grief and sleepless nights. “It’s a rumour. It’s not true. Nothing has happened,” said a Home Ministry official.
As luck would have it, the Economic Times got hold of a copy of the incriminating letter issued by a Director in the Department of Telecommunications, peremptorily asking service providers to block URLs and Twitter handles without bothering to cite the specific law or the reasons why these needed to be blocked. Worse, the letter asked service providers not to leave a paper trail — Government couldn’t have been sillier than that as the letter itself is the best evidence that could ever be used to put it in the dock.
Bad stories tend to have a good ending. This bad story has a mixed ending of sorts. The partial block on my Twitter handle seems to have been lifted. But there is nothing to suggest the order has been withdrawn. I don’t quite know what to make of that.
Foreign media has been generous with reporting this story. At one level it is deeply gratifying. At another, I don’t quite relish the idea of India’s image being besmirched by the misdeeds of a politically bankrupt ruling party.
Last, but not the least, it aches that having worked in the highest office of this country, the PMO, and flown the country’s flag on foreign territory, Egypt, I should be labelled, in so cavalier a manner, of being a “threat” to India’s internal peace and security. Whoever it is who thought of taming me by trying to block my Twitter handle, I would like to tell him (or her): Sorry, my credentials are many miles longer than yours. Your slur just won’t stick.
PS: While writing this column, I heard a spokesperson of the Congress saying my name, as also that of another journalist, may have been included by mistake and much need not be made of it. Well, I have an elephantine memory. Nor do I believe in niceties like forgiving and forgetting.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst & activist