An open letter to Anonymous – Operation India
Congratulations on your first successful protests in India, and what a way to begin – a dozen cities at the same time!
June 9 happened and Internet Freedom Activists protested in several cities of India.Astonishingly, the call sent out by Anonymous India survived the considerable propaganda machine and made it to the real world. This is no mean achievement for an entity that has just come into bring and spent two weeks or so in promoting their first protest. An entity without any financial or organizational backing to enable protests anywhere.
Considering this, it is amazing that volunteers from various cities organized protests at their own expense and initiative. I also applaud the courage of those who protested. It is very easy to protest in a crowd. You go with the flow. When your group is small, and your goal is already under systematic attack, it takes exceptional courage to be the few men (or women) standing in the spotlight.
Not only did these organizers promote the protests and convince increasing numbers of people to join in, they managed to fund it too. In a few cases, small local groups supported voluntarily, in other places, the protesters didn’t know each other at all. It is a tribute to Anonymous striking a note of inspiration that this is possible, and I applaud the call you took and your success in its manifestation. I admit that I was one of the few very skeptical people who thought that the protests would either not happen, or worse happen with really few people in very few locations.
I supported your cause, no doubt, but I didn’t think India was ready to speak out on censorship to this extent after struggling to raise support for the Freedom Fast in Delhi recently. I didn’t think it possible, but true to the advice I got in one of the interviews, I, being one who thought it was not possible, did not get in the way of people doing it. And it was good advice. Thrilled to be proved wrong.
The response was mixed. The earliest sign of trouble came when the police in Cochin “arrested” six protesters after their protest was done. There was much anger (including by me) but it later turned out that the Cochin police not being informed of the protest had detained them for questioning about the protest and let them go after taking their personal details and making a few veiled threats about them being questioned if there was further trouble.
The worst response of the state happened in Hyderabad and Kolkata. In Hyderabad the protests were supported by the Free Software Movement of India. Protesters were threatened by a senior police officer with arrest and confiscation of protest materials including T-Shirts. They were forced to negotiate when the activists stood their ground and the protest was relocated to the nearby Indira Park with a police escort.
Mamatadidi’s Kolkata shines once more – not. About 200 protesters arrived for the protest, and were confronted by the police who allowed them 15 min silent protest. Varying accounts on exact methods agreed that Police noted details and allowed to protest as a split group to look less visible. There were worrisome accounts of indirect intimidation and veiled threats. It says much about the paranoia in Kolkata over dissent that when the police started noting personal details of protesters, the number dropped to a fourth of what it was. Further, after they were forced to leave, when they assembled at a nearby park, plainclothesmen started taking photos of them without any regard to their refusals. At which point they disbanded. But the cops weren’t done. They started making individual calls to the numbers they collected interrogating them about their intent and questions like how long they were “gathering online to make protests”. Very insane. Mamata Banerjee is increasingly looking like a very worrisome dictator.
And then our President Pratibha Patil shines once more for being anti-people and possibly without even being aware of what gets perpetrated in her name. Protesters in Pune were refused permission to protest anywhere in the city because the President was in the city. Now Pune is huge. Surely there was one corner the President was not Occupying that the common man could Occupy? No such thing. While they did not deny permission on record, they did not give it either (classic Indian red tape). Pune decided to go ahead anyway, but the response was reluctant.
I am interested in knowing how you plan to work around such blocks, because these are important to address, and they hit a lot of citizens routinely if they want to protest anything.
From all accounts, the protests in other places went well. The most life affirming response came in Mumbai, where a protester actually reported that one of the senior officials at Azad Maidan recommended that they repeat their protest soon, if they did not get a good response first time. Win, Mumbai, this is how you win hearts. Hoezaay attended the protest both to support and to report and has a heart warming account of Occupy Mumbai on his blog. A rare worldview, where he staunchly supports the movement, and acknowledges disagreements including areas he doesn’t support at all without letting it undermine his firm assertion of the value of the protest in any way. Worth reading.
Occupy Bangalore, Occupy Delhi looked very fun too. The support to the Bangalore protests by FSMK (Free Software Movement Karnataka) who had a parallel protest against the IT Rules was also very appreciated.
Specially worth mentioning is that I was astonished to see that the protests in less publicized places like Calicut, Chandigarh, Jaipur or Manipal go so well. I heard that there was a small protest at Chennai too. They hardly got any attention, but it needs to be acknowledged that they not only have internet users, but they have internet users willing to own a stake in shaping the country’s access to the internet. I think this speaks well for our future.
I missed information on Nagpur, Indore, Ahmedabad. I don’t think protests happened there.
The response to the protests online was one of initial skepticism followed by a section of people enthusiastically following and spreading news of the various protests. Contemptuous comments about the size of the response persisted, but frankly, I don’t give them any weight. In my view, the Anonymous protests were a roaring success. We, of the masala expectations want to see oceans of people to count a protest as successful, since that is the new “benchmark” since the JanLokpal protests. However, the popcorn gallery needs to get a reality check, in my view. Team Anna’s protests are coordinated from a central point, backed by organizations with grassroots networks in large swathes of the country. They have funding. They ran SMS campaigns, and did a thousand other things. The handling of the protest is a study in promotion and it was fueled by outrage in the population over corruption.
In comparison, the Anonymous protests are ad hoc. You have no iconic figures, no centralized decision making, no organized reach into the population. Additionally, while almost everyone who understands our IT Act and Rules is outraged, in the physical world, the population of internet users is about 10% and over 99% of those have little awareness of issues like censorship. They will wake up when something they took for granted will not work anymore, or if something they said gets wiped out. Until then, the issue of censorship is not something they expect. Indeed, most Indian users of the internet actually assume Freedom of Expression as described in the US constitution for all intents and purposes. They are not even aware that they could be silenced for being something as subjective as “offensive”. Even fewer may be willing to make the effort to actually go to a place and voice support for an idea that their government wants to criminalize. Considering this, the numbers are nothing short of a miracle.
It is a mark of the call of Anonymous capturing the needs and imagination of the people that they can go from being unknowns to having protests in over a dozen cities within a few weeks. A person discounting this has failed to see what is happening among people. Kudos!
That said, I have a few suggestions for Anonymous:
- Don’t use privately owned public locations (like Malls) for protests unless you know and trust the owning entities as supporters of freedom of speech. It is too easy to evict protesters from private property (even under “inspiration” from the government). Ideally, it should not be so if the protest is not disruptive, seeing as how anyone can enter a mall, and wearing masks is not illegal in India, but remember what we are fighting? Censorship. We have an environment where raising voice against the status quo is almost criminalized by default. We can fight this, but it has to be a separate fight, or it will sabotage this one.
- Don’t ask for permissions. I have been following your protests with avid interest (including lurking with a nick and being kicked for it) and I have seen that the biggest hurdle to organizing the protests was permissions, which were difficult to get and often for inexplicable reasons. Naturally, if you don’t want to break laws, you will have to plan protests that won’t need permissions. Smaller groups, other ways of being visible, whatever… and keep the large protests on the ground for special occasions.
- Not to mention the fact that apparently you can’t protest as an individual in India. Only organizations get permissions to protest. This is very strange and a whole subject in itself. I suggest formally using Anonymous as the name of an organization and if needed, getting someone to register it in some form, so that all future individual protests in the country can simply put Anonymous as the protesting organization and reclaim their freedom to protest – regardless of whether they are Anonymous or not. This will directly make you heroes for many.
- The information needs to be documented and organized for easy reference. I know that since all of you are individuals, this is not easy to manage. I will try and help you with this. If/when I get time, or you should ask bloggers and other internetizens who may have time to volunteer and create timelines and archives of links.
- While we haven’t had much success overturning censorship so far, there are several individuals and organizations working hard to get the IT Rules revoked, for example. They already have in depth and very responsibly conducted research in place, as well as plans on how to make it happen. Anonymous should consider following news on this and throwing their power behind such efforts, since this is one of your goals too. For example, the recent Stop IT Rules Campaign and the Freedom Fast. There are other efforts being made. If you wish, I can try and find out information on this for you. Or, I suppose you have your ways.
- While DDoS or defacing attacks are your chosen method, I think if you must break laws and risk your safety for it, then the payoff ought to be higher. In your place I would certainly not risk my safety over blocking access to a site, that too temporarily. Instead, you should focus more on releasing information pertaining to corruption and other damage being done to the country. Information that would otherwise not be accessible to people.
- You should consider creating an RTI archive, where people can send you copies of documents they receive through RTI and you make them public – after a certain delay if needed, if there are stories being released on their basis. Such documents should be carefully tagged with all related keywords and be searchable for people needing information. This will propel the country’s struggle toward transparency and accountability, provide activists with far larger quantities of information than they can from individual efforts. They will help provide a layer of safety for the lives of RTI activists as well as resist all attempts at silencing. Operation RTI, may I recommend? Additional bonus, you will get a lot of volunteers because it will be totally legal. I can help you with setting it up if needed. I am also willing t host or admin it, but this project cannot be run by a single individual. It will become too large. I will need volunteers.
That I support Anonymous is no secret. I support all efforts at creating a change toward freedoms and inclusion. I supported Team Anna, I support Satyamev Jayate, I support women’s rights advocates, I support the campaign to get rid of the IT Rules, I think all these ways collectively add to the momentum. I am not bothered by the flaws of any method as long as they don’t harm life and limb, because I have not yet encountered any call for change that was perfect. In my view, change comes through continuous improvement, not perfect solutions. We are a living culture, and we learn from our experiences. To block change for fear of imperfections is a symptom of a defensive mind that fears failure. In my view, rather than block something “because it will not work”, it is far more useful to allow it to try and work, and if it doesn’t work, it can’t be used anyway. In that sense, I may not be a hacker or support some of the methods used by you, but I certainly accept that there is a very real need you are trying to address, and I respect that.
Or in other words, I don’t appreciate the idea of servers being attacked. I don’t think it is legal, but I think our situation on censorship is far worse. If that is what it takes, I would compare it with stealing the codes of a nuclear bomb to defuse it. Sure, it is stealing, but heck yes, it helps.
I also accept and understand when you say that the advantages such protest offers you may be the only way the protest can be sustained. Words from the interview remain in my mind. You can’t be silenced or defamed. Therefore you will be heard. I think you have a point there, when all kinds of dissent is not allowed to stand by personal attacks and discrediting of anyone raising questions, perhaps it is necessary to let the questions stand on their own without anyone to sabotage attached.
There are many things to say. The idea of Anonymous has always fascinated me ever since I heard it. In fact, this blog is founded on a similar idea, though opposite in many ways. You leave behind identity, I use identity as an expression of one reality in the country. But the focus on ideas being the driving force for change is the same. You are the idealism of a generic, nameless human, I am an example human standing as an expression of the reality of many such people. The same idea, abstracted in different ways.
So Anonymous as an idea is very precious to me. And I do believe that it is possible to do great things if we are able to leave behind our identities and image obsessions and work purely in the realm of valuing ideas regardless of source, on their own merit.
I wish you the very best.