The Indian government has launched a programme to identify online activities deemed to work against the “sovereignty of the nation,” inviting people to register as “cyber volunteers” in a move that has fuelled rights groups’ fears of online vigilantism.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) opened an online registration portal this week to recruit participants for the scheme, in which anyone can register to report unlawful content on social media.
It is one of the latest attempts by Narendra Modi’s right-wing government to monitor the social media activities of citizens, and comes amid a dispute with Twitter over requests that the social media firm block accounts tweeting support for the massive farmers’ protest in the country.
The MHA portal lists a few broad categories of offences that it asks volunteers to flag. Besides unlawful content such as child pornography, the list includes content deemed to be against the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence and security of the state, and friendly relations with foreign nations, without providing any definition into what constitutes such offences.
The programme has already started, reportedly as a pilot, in Jammu and Kashmir, after the internet restrictions were lifted from the disputed territory on 5 February after 18 months of shutdown.
Rights activists and social media users have voiced their concerns over the new programme and government’s attempts at clamping down on critical posts. The lack of legal framework is also raising questions, as the ministry is yet to provide more information on how the programme would work.
According to the note on its website, the programme is an “opportunity for the public to be eyes and ears of police” and invites anyone to register with basic details such as a mobile number and email ID.
“This entire system seems to give ordinary citizens almost like an incentive or a root to file complaints that may or may not be legally valid,” Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist tells The Independent.
“Some of these categories are vague terms which have legal definitions and legal ramifications,” he says. “Typically, it should be someone with a legal understanding of what this means or what the reasonable restrictions are, that should be tasked with filing such complaints.”
However, the government portal doesn’t mention any eligibility criteria or requirement of understanding of law to flag such complaints, apart from a line at the bottom that says that “volunteers are advised to study Article 19 of the Indian Constitution” which deals with the right to freedom of the citizens.
The Independent has reached out to MHA with questions, but no response was received ahead of the publication of this story.
“When you get elect terms like terrorism, radicalisation and anti national activities, you really need a specific definition of what those terms mean,” said a technology and policy researcher, who declined to be named.
“If you don’t define those terms then legitimate political speech can come under the breadth of an order like this and therefore an order like this could be unconstitutional or excessively restricting people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to people’s freedom of speech and expression,” he added.
Questions have also been raised over the way the new programme has been launched, without any clarity on its legal framework.
“This whole exercise is completely illegal from where I see it,” said Anas Tanwir, a supreme court lawyer and founder of Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU).
“The government notification does not say under what law it is being done, it is an executive action,” he adde. “Any action has to be under a law.”
Mr Pahwa warned the programme would end up “creating an atmosphere of fear around free speech” in the country.
“It means that there will just be a vast amount of information that is going to be collected as complaints, which is not necessarily legally enforceable,” he said, “and it might end up leading to the harassment of citizens who may not have violated any law.”
The Modi government has often been accused of misusing laws such as sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for arresting the activists and keeping them detained. Several activists during the anti-CAA protests last year were held by Delhi police under the UAPA which covers terrorist offences and it is non-bailable.
Eight journalists covering farmers’ protests and the violence on 26 January have also been slapped with charges such as sedition and promoting communal disharmony recently.
Human rights activist and columnist Harsh Mander said police under the Modi government has been increasingly relying upon vigilante groups for information.
When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government passed a law prohibiting conversion for the purpose of marriage, commonly referred to as “love-jihad” law in a state, several such right wing vigilante groups informed authorities about interfaith weddings which were then halted by the police, leading to jailing and harassment of several couples.
A similar approach was noticed by activists after the controversial beef ban, in which vigilante groups informed police of alleged cow slaughter and several instances of mob lynching were also reported.
“This is part of a very conscious large trend where state backed vigilante groups are given official recognition,” said Mr Mander, a former civil servant who has been working with victims of mass violence.
“In next three to four years, a full Hindu Rashtra Hindu Nation will shape, very much inspired by Nazi Germany, where young volunteers become your eyes and ears, people were encouraged to spy on their neighbours,” claimed the 65-year-old researcher and activist.