Earlier this week, India issued an ultimatum to the CEO of the popular digital messenger service Whatsapp should it wish to continue operating in India where the app has a substantial customer base. According to Indian Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad,
“I suggested three points. First — WhatsApp must have a grievance officer in India. Second — you must have proper compliance with Indian laws. We won’t appreciate a scenario where any problem will have to be answered in America and, third — WhatsApp has become an important component of India’s digital storage and must have a proper corporate entity located in India”.
Today, Whatsapp rejected the demands and issued the following explanation,
“Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide”.
The company’s decision makes sense at both an ethical, economic and practical level. The proposals made by the Indian government sought to solve the crisis of fake mass messages inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities but in reality they merely sought to quash the most attractive feature of Whatsapp – its end-to-end encryption on all its messages, while also curtailing economic liberty in an India society that claims to be economically open, all the while scapegoating a foreign technology firm for a problem of extreme violence that is entirely home grown. All of this would pave the way not towards social harmony but instead for mass government controlled censorship achieved through the intimidation of tech firms.
India has been facing a very real and very dangerous manifold crisis in which religious and ethnic minority groups and Dalits (those whose historic caste was that of untouchability) are facing a wave of sexual and physical violence as well as violence against their property and livelihoods. Recently, a series of rumours spread on messenger apps including and especially Whatsapp have led to the lynchings of at least thirty people whose rumoured “crimes” include eating beef.
This phenomenon is the foreseeable outgrowth of a Hindutva culture that has been fostered by members of the ruling BJP and other Hindutva parties and factions who seek to send multicultural India down the road of Apartheid where all those who do not practice extreme versions of Hinduism, including secular Indians of a Hindu background, will be treated as second class humans in their own land. This devastating human rights crisis which is already showing signs of spiralling out of control has not been met with a firm commitment to tackling extremism through the curtailment of known radical groups and investing in educational programmes to stem the tide of such extremist practices. Instead, the American owners of the online messenger service Whatsapp are being cynically scapegoated by the authorities.
If the situation were not so tragic it would actually be somewhat ironic as India likes to portray itself as societallly superior to China, a country that has successfully developed its own internet search engines, messenger apps and entertainment apps so as to not become reliant on mainly US based companies like Apple, Google or Facebook. Instead though, in a classic manifestation of the phenomenon of having one’s own cake and eating it too, India is now threatening Whatsapp unless they give the government extraordinary powers to interfere in the company’s private enterprise.
In this sense, India is cynically using a very real humanitarian crisis within its borders in order to force Whatssapp to invest in the Indian economy while also giving the government access to messages whose primary attraction to users is their end-to-end encryption. This lose-lose proposal is effective government instituted blackmail that will force a company to needlessly spend money in India while simultaneously making Whatsapp far less attractive to is millions of peaceful Indian users.
Geopolitical expert Andrew Kroybko has written a highly instructive piece regarding the dangers of India’s totalitarian approach to social media that restricts the free speech of peaceful opposition groups while doing nothing to prevent the spread of violent Hindtuva extremism. The only conclusion that one can reach when analysing the multiple angles of the unfolding ‘war on Whatsapp’ is that either the present Indian government is ill equipped to deal with extremism or that it is disinterested in fighting extremism while remaining happy to invoke security issues as a means of stiffing peaceful political expression in a country which claims to be the world’s largest democracy.
The fact of the matter is that India’s extremist problem is one that trickles down from the highest levels of national and regional government down to the village mobs who have committed atrocities against minorities both with and without coordinating their assaults via Whatsapp or any other online messenger service. By scapegoating Indian Muslims, other religious minorities, secular opposition leaders and Pakistanis for all social wrongs, the government has created and helped to spread a collective social mentality among Hindtuva minded individuals that no matter what happens, the Hindutva man is blameless while others are at fault.
When members of the ruling BJP join protests in support of child rapists, it seems highly hypocritical to blame the messenger, in this case Whatsapp when the problem in India has everything to do with a local cultural of extremism that the ruling party of the nation has much to answer for. History shows that it is the last resort of the scoundrel to blame technology for human deficiencies. In India’s case, the deficiencies in cultural apparatuses to successfully fight extremism fester at the feet of those who have used their positions in government to normalise the erstwhile fringe views of a radical segment of society.
Scapegoating Whatsapp will not solve these serious problems. If anything, the BJP and other Hindutva groups need to hold a mirror to themselves and ask why a country that prides itself on democracy is one that is about to sacrifice liberty in the name of security while achieving the virtues of neither and all the while blackmailing a foreign corporation which itself sends a signal that India is not open to international businesses who seek to operate under normal and modern conditions.
By rejecting New Delhi’s ultimatum, Whatsapp has stood its ground on pragmatic grounds which also helps to tacitly defend the liberty of Indians not engaged in violent activities while helping to recast the wider debate away from technology and back on the societal flaws that have lead to an increased atmosphere of violence against minorities in India.
It is a safe assumption that the political leadership will continue its systematic harassment of Whatsapp but as this side show becomes inevitably exhausted, there remains hope that responsible voices will be heard over the din and as such, a proper national debate can be held about the real causes and enablers of extremist violence.