As India enters its 75th year as an independent nation, questions of freedom, privacy and surveillance haunt the present and future of the republic. From recent revelations about spyware being used allegedly for mass surveillance to re-examining the idea of citizenship, freedom and agency seem to be fraught right now. We spoke to a range of individuals from different walks of life about the freedoms that matter to them personally and for the work they do—above all, we asked them what it means, as citizens and public figures, to live in 21st century India.
WITHOUT PRIVACY, CREATIVITY JUST CANNOT EXIST: VIVEK SHANBHAG, WRITER
The notion of privacy lies at the core of creativity, as it pertains to our fundamental freedoms. There can be no creativity in a panopticon world. In a conversation that takes place between two individuals, there is no place for a third person to encroach. When a conversation doesn’t remain private, the nature of the communication also changes. Imagine a novel where all the characters know every conversation that is going on in the story! That’s an impossible situation. Privacy is a question of honesty and integrity, without which creativity cannot exist. We have allowed technology to enter our lives without much thought, and now, as we connect the dots, the implication of what we have done becomes terrifying. I would go as far as to say that we are in a post-panopticon world, where the potential for surveillance is enormous, and technology has invaded not only our homes but also our minds. As a writer, this reality bothers me and will keep doing so in the future. —As told to Somak Ghoshal
FREEDOM FROM RED TAPE WILL ALLOW US TO GROW OUR BUSINESSES: VINEETA SINGH, CEO AND CO-FOUNDER, SUGAR COSMETICS
As an entrepreneur, the freedoms I appreciate most are freedom over time—the ability to do things at my own pace—and the freedom of choice to be the kind of leader I want to be.
I have enjoyed the freedom of not having to conform to a certain template of leadership—we can call it the alpha tech-CEO style of leadership—that most venture capital-funded founders and CEOs are expected to follow. I appreciate the fact that I have been able to build a culture that works for us as a frugally-run company; one that focuses on the fundamentals and the financial bottom line, and not have to follow a certain “cool startup” template.
As a woman founder, that is even more precious to me because earlier, we often had to pretend to be like male entrepreneurs. Even 10 years ago, I felt like an outlier and an outsider, and I am glad to say that has changed. This freedom has come from more and more women-led companies breaking the template and becoming super successful on their own terms. We have more diverse role models in the Indian start-up ecosystem today.
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If you ask me what kind of support and freedoms we want from the government, I would say we need them to understand that rather than big-name campaigns like Make in India and Startup India, it’s the smaller changes that will give us more space to grow.
We need more control over regulations and scrutiny and we need a more streamlined regulatory environment, which will be better suited to start-ups. Right now, smaller companies are often forced to employ precious time and resources on compliance issues. Many of these regulatory necessities seem like they were built for big, babu companies that can afford to hire multiple teams to take care of them, and they really drag smaller companies down.
Red tape slows us, and freedom from red tape will allow us to grow our businesses rapidly and honestly.—As told to Shrabonti Bagchi
CITIZENS HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO OBJECT TO A GENUINE MISTAKE: B.K. SYNGAL, FORMER CHAIRMAN AND MANAGING DIRECTOR, VSNL
Let’s be frank: Surveillance has been there all along, snooping or tapping phones to listen in on conversations.
Gone are the days when criminal investigation departments would send plain-clothed, innocuous-looking officers into a crowd to listen in on what the gathering was all about and collect intelligence. That was surveillance. Back then, everything used to be based on “word of mouth”. Today, with the evolution of technology, everything from your tweets to your emails can be tracked with the right keywords.
We need to understand where surveillance is of national importance from a security perspective—that is, if it is being used to track anti-social elements that pose a true threat or could incite violence. But the more sinister part of it is to spy on your own countrymen, citizens—who are patriotic—with the suspicion that they are anti-government or against the entire establishment.
This is intrusion into an individual’s privacy and right to give their opinion, and is in violation of our Constitution.
If a government makes a genuine mistake, I have every right to point it out and object as a citizen. When we brought the internet to India (more than 25 years ago), it was meant to disseminate information and knowledge. The technology was nascent. There were dangers back then as well—people were accessing pornography and searching for ways to make explosives .
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Today, technology has changed and progressed so much and the internet is all-pervasive. If free thinking or free expression are perceived to be anti-establishment and you become a suspect, then that throttles individual rights.
Why shouldn’t I be allowed to express something as a taxpayer, a patriot or a nationalist?
I am not duly concerned about expressing my views. I have lived my life. But if someone knocks on my door in the middle of the night for something I said that was not palatable to the powers that be, that does give you an eerie feeling.—As told to Nitin Sreedhar
THE VOICE OF THE STORYTELLER HAS BECOME INAUDIBLE: KOUMARANE VALAVANE, THEATRE DIRECTOR
In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times.” I often think of this quote by German writer Bertolt Brecht about the critical need for artists to tell stories of the times. I founded Indianostrum in 2007, on my return to Puducherry from Paris, as a space for young practitioners and for local art forms of Tamil Nadu on the verge of extinction. Since then, we have staged plays such as Chandala, Impure about issues such as honour killings, caste, sexuality and societal rules. An artist is someone sans skin, and hence a being who is extremely sensitive and receptive to the events of the world. His throbbing flesh receives, sees, senses, listens, observes and suffers. He feels the dire need to express these feelings through a particular art form. He can invoke a myth, a legend, a tale, a contemporary text and even other forms of art to give substance to his word. This choice is his very freedom.
However, at the moment, the voice of storytellers seems to have been rendered inaudible. Even worse is the way she is being treated as a traitor or dissident. When people understand that beating up minorities, erecting statues, filling up prisons, restricting freedoms and cultivating hatred will not save them from the looming disaster, the word of the storyteller will act like an ointment. But it is not for them to define the new Utopia—they are only a scout, who sings the tune of the present.
Being an artist in India has always been an act of courage and self-sacrifice as it has no real social status and there is no real protection. Any citizen can file a complaint against an artist’s work on the pretext that it offends their sensitivities—all in the name of notions of “culture, honour and homeland”. The principle of cancel culture may seem attractive, but for the arts, there are two fundamental principles: the freedom of the artist, and the free will of the spectator. No one should have the power to alter either. On the face of it, social media might seem like a platform of free expression. However, the artist feels that a small, well-organised group with significant “social media nuisance power” often grabs a just cause for its own agenda. This creates the illusion that the digital turmoil of a small group is a real grass-roots movement. It really hurts some good causes. We have been promised that the internet will be a formidable tool for democratisation. I believe in it less and less…—As told to Avantika Bhuyan
ONE OF THE BIG FREEDOMS WE LACK IS REPRESENTATION: NEERAJ GHAYWAN, FILM-MAKER
It’s difficult to talk about privacy when you lead a very public life. Whatever we put out there, it’s in the public domain—that’s the life of an artist. But things like what I eat, who my friends are, (these) are personal matters.
One feels very exposed (by the thought of surveillance) and that leads to insecurity. It’s not that I am hiding anything, I just don’t want anything private to be known to the state.
Minorities are already so insecure, their confidence levels so down. In that vulnerable state, if someone knows my entire being—where I go, who i hook up with—it makes it all the more difficult for minorities because you're already powerless and self-persecuting.
A big freedom we lack is representation. People ask me, is there casteism in Bollywood? I say no. For any disparity to arise, you need people in the first place. There are hardly any (oppressed-caste) artists in Hindi cinema. To make a parallel, you could name a hundred Black artists in America, where their population is 13%. Only when there are people can you see any differentiation happening. I would say that 95% of Bollywood is oppressor caste.—As told to Uday Bhatia
BEING WATCHED DISTORTS YOUR WAY OF EXPRESSION: K.R. MEERA, WRITER
Watching without letting you know that you are being watched is art, watching making sure that you know that you are being watched is politics.” I wrote this line back in 2018, in my latest novel, Assassin. It must have been intuitive or expected, given the way our government had been responding to certain incidents which damaged our core democratic values. No form of art in this world would thrive in any form of censorship, let alone surveillance. The feeling that the powerful watch you is traumatising for a writer—on the surface level, it affects and controls the way you talk and interact with the people around you, and on a deeper level, it blocks your thoughts and distorts your way of expression.—As told to Somak Ghoshal
ATTACKS ON SATIRISTS ARE A WARNING BELL: RACHITA TANEJA, POLITICAL CARTOONIST
Whether it is the #MeToo movement, mental health, women’s rights, net neutrality, environmental rights, caste, or Islamophobia, covid-19 and the CAA protests, I have always expressed my views on them through my comic strips (Recently, she created a panel about the rape and murder of a Dalit child in Delhi, and how certain sections of the media ignored the news or tried to spin another narrative around it).
My first comic in 2014 was about the right to dissent. Since then, like any other political cartoonist, I have created a large body of comics in response to current affairs. I do, however, let my feelings guide the topics I cover. A lot of my more personal comics have been about women’s rights, mental health and queer rights.
There is a crackdown on dissent. Legal and physical threats have always been common tactics to silence activists, journalists and students who question the government. Free speech is critical for any democracy to thrive. Cartoonists, satirists and comedians are important because they hold a mirror up to power and point out what is ridiculous, what doesn’t make sense.
When satirists are under attack, it’s a warning bell that powerful people can’t handle even a basic level of scrutiny, and thus they show us that they don’t deserve to hold power. Pegasus is not the first tool that’s being used to surveil and curb individual liberties and by the looks of it, it won’t be the last.
In this scenario, social media becomes an important tool to allow for an increasing number of people to verbalise their opinion, and for like-minded and marginalised people to connect. However, social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it replicates all of the on-ground realities, power dynamics, and inequalities. So, a privileged person defending the status quo might get some arguments, but a marginalized person fighting the status quo may get a lot worse, from trolling to death threats. But these kinds of threats—physical, sexual, legal threats—are an extension of violence, meant to silence and restrict us. A free society is one without coercion, where people can speak their mind and live their lives, mindful of the impacts of their actions, but free from violence.—As told to Avantika Bhuyan
WHO SHOULD EAT WHAT? FOOD, FREEDOM AND RIGHTS ARE ALL LINKED: SHAHU PATOLE, FOOD HISTORIAN
Who should eat what? Is vegetarian food more ethical than non-veg? This debate is not new. People who eat non-veg have felt guilty about their food practices for centuries. They have been made to feel that what they eat is dirty. This is not just about two Dalit communities of Marathwada, whose food histories I have chronicled in my book, but even upper-castes, savarnas, who eat goat, feel they are doing something wrong. Hinduism, historically, was never all-vegetarian. This concept was prevalent in Buddhism and Jainism. However, since the 9th-12th centuries, this misconception about food has prevailed.
There is a belief that a person is what he eats. But did you give us a choice to eat what we wanted? We were relegated to the tamsik category—our communities had to clear carcasses of slaughtered animals and eat that flesh. Today, again, you are enforcing bans on food without taking our opinion. You are trampling on our constitutional rights. When the Maharashtra government banned beef in 2015, were we asked? On the one hand, you say there is freedom in the Constitution; on the other, you don’t grant us that freedom. If my conduct harms society, it’s wrong. But in my kitchen, I can eat what I like. That is not harming anyone. Why does aggression and moral policing come from the vegetarians, and from one class? A lot of people from my caste don’t eat non-veg. Will their caste stop mattering to the savarnas? Food, freedom and rights are all linked.—As told to Avantika Bhuyan
WE CARE ABOUT FREE SPEECH, EVEN IF WE HAVE LITTLE TO SAY: VRINDA BHANDARI, LEGAL PRACTITIONER (DIGITAL RIGHTS AND PRIVACY ISSUES), SUPREME COURT
Freedom involves freedom of thought, freedom of action, and the ability to work without being disturbed, observed, or spied upon. However, our social existence is modulated by the overarching presence of the state and big tech, whether in the people we meet, the apps we use or the content we view online.
Surveillance was traditionally carried out by the state and was constrained by a lack of resources or manpower. However, technological advancements have rendered such conventional constraints meaningless. Today, technologies such as GPS monitoring, location tracking, drones, AI and facial recognition technology, and even Pegasus-style hacking, have allowed us to sleepwalk into a surveillance society.
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It is the fear of being watched, rather than knowledge of being placed under surveillance, that causes us to change our behaviour; chills the exercise of our civil liberties; and results in a loss of freedoms. Take, for example, the recent use of drones during the anti-CAA protests. Even as an ordinary law-abiding citizen, I would think twice about attending such a protest, especially if I belonged to a marginalised community.
It is not because I have something to hide. Everyone values privacy, regardless of whether they have done something illegal or immoral. Each of us engages in “boundary management”, where we choose what information we want to reveal to our close friends and family (the name of our crush or our sexual orientation) and what we reveal to the public (our educational qualifications). We care about free speech, regardless of whether we have something important to say. We should similarly care about our privacy and the freedoms it gives us.—As told to Shrabonti Bagchi
THE KNOWLEDGE OF ARTISANS REQUIRES URGENT PROTECTION: RITU SETHI, TEXTILE HISTORIAN AND CHAIRPERSON OF THE CRAFT REVIVAL TRUST
During the colonial period, our crafts and textiles were decimated. This changed in independent India. There was a push for the arts, crafts and textile sectors. Much progress was made but far more is needed. They are India’s largest self-employed sector after farmers. Our artisans, our karigars need more freedom and agency; it will help them become more creative, entrepreneurial and discourage them from abandoning their traditional knowledge. The benefits need to filter down to the grass-root level because artisans are the holders of our culture.
The main thing is to have laws that protect indigenous technologies, techniques, patterns and designs. The Geographical Indications Act is in place but we need more such sui generis laws. Indigenous knowledge needs protection urgently. The good thing is that besides the government and civil society, young designers are working more closely with artisans, giving them more exposure. This recognition net needs to widen. We also need more documentation for traditional practices. We need to create schools where people can study these crafts. We need to provide security to our traditional knowledge.—As told to Pooja Singh
WE NEED A LOW-CARBON ECONOMY THAT IS INCLUSIVE AND JUST: ULKA KELKAR, DIRECTOR, CLIMATE PROGRAM, WORLD RESOURCES INSTITUTE INDIA
There is inherent injustice in the way climate change affects people because the most vulnerable are those who have done the least to cause it. If extreme weather becomes more frequent, as the new IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report predicts, they will be hit first and the hardest.
We need to replace fossil fuels with a massive scaling up of renewable energy (RE). A net zero transition will require at least 80% of electricity production to come from RE. But this electricity will have to come from solar parks and wind farms on land that is also needed to grow food, conserve water and sequester carbon in forests, grasslands and mangroves. As we accelerate our climate policies, we need to make sure that the decision-making processes are sensitive and inclusive.
Decisions about land use should include those who depend on the land—like pastoralists, landless farm labourers and forest dwellers. There may be communities who depend on the forest for their food, on non-timber forest products, and they do have rights to the forest produce. That needs to be recognised and strengthened keeping in mind our long-term objectives of carbon sequestration. Another thing we need to focus on is for women to have access to skilling opportunities. Otherwise, as we have seen with covid-19, when crises occur, women slip out of the workforce earlier than men. They are always the ones who are hit the hardest. We need to really address all these aspects if we want a low-carbon economy that is also inclusive and just.—As told to Bibek Bhattacharya
IN FUTURE, THESE RECORDS WILL HELP US UNDERSTAND OUR TIMES, TECHNOLOGY: JAHNAVI PHALKEY, HISTORIAN OF SCIENCE AND FOUNDING DIRECTOR, SCIENCE GALLERY BENGALURU
State surveillance of citizens is not new. State power is established through knowing enough about who is seen as the enemy without and the enemy within, and who they are gets reconstituted continually. Governments have always accumulated data about populations and technologies of surveillance have included, among many others, the census, statistics, wire-tapping telephones, hidden cameras, and satellite imagery.
What is new about surveillance in our times? Three aspects stand out immediately: Today, people are able to voluntarily put out deeply personal information in the public domain, enabling anonymous surveillance in ways not easily possible before. This allows agencies other than the state to also develop surveillance capabilities and, therefore, power over individuals through that information. Second, the information stays public long after one has shared it and it is nearly impossible to have it destroyed or removed. On the internet, there is no knowing where the information might be stored, by whom and to what purpose. Third, and most critical: States and non-state agencies have the capacity to process humongous amounts of data, which was impossible before. Collation of data across platforms, agencies and formats has become quicker, easier and can be paid for. The scale, precision and agencies holding surveillance data legitimately worries us.
As a historian of science, I see that in the future when these archives open, we will know more about what and who our current governments felt uncomfortable with. These are records that help us understand the specificity of our times and of the technology. At the same time, this is in a digitally-native format and can quickly become unreadable or illegible, or it could well be destroyed, leaving the historian without the ability to trace it unless we retool ourselves, and soon.—As told to Nitin Sreedhar
WE ARE AN OUTCOME-DRIVEN SOCIETY; WE NEED TO CHANGE THAT MINDSET: HAKIMUDDIN HABIBULLA, FORMER OLYMPIAN SWIMMER AND FOUNDER, SWIMMING MATTERS
Sports cannot be seen in an isolated context from society, and the freedom to follow your passion—in any chosen field, be it sport or something else—has always been low in Indian society. This is tied to something fundamental—the dignity of labour, and the right to be respected and rewarded for what you do. The scenario is better than when I became a sportsperson back in 2005-06 but even today, opting for a career in sport is usually a function of either extreme privilege or extreme poverty. This is restrictive for Indian sport. We must remember that sport is not just about the athlete—the athlete is the end product of thousands of hours of effort put in not just by the athlete, but a whole ecosystem. The ecosystem will grow only when there is dignity in all types of work and our children have the freedom to truly choose what they want to do, not just the few professions deemed worthy of respect by Indian society. We are still a very outcome-driven society—we need to be free from that kind of mindset.—As told to Shrabonti Bagchi
POLITICAL FORCES HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO CURB OUR VOICE: BINALAKSHMI NEPRAM, INDIGENOUS SCHOLAR, FOUNDER-DIRECTOR, CONTROL ARMS FOUNDATION OF INDIA AND MANIPUR WOMEN GUN SURVIVORS NETWORK
Our organisation has been working non-stop on the impact of gun-related violence on women and children for the past 15 years and it has been a very tough journey. We are sandwiched between “men with guns”—both in terms of security forces and insurgent groups. For the first five years, we went from village to village (in Manipur), learning of the stories, supporting survivors and filing cases. When we started, the government thought we were working with the rebels, while the insurgent groups thought we were working with the state.
Surveillance on our work started much before Pegasus even became a thing. Our work has been suspected by both the state and non-state groups. But we maintain a clear stand that our work is humanitarian and neutral, focusing on the impact of 72 years of conflict on the lives of ordinary people, especially on women and children. Whoever kills is a killer and a victim is a victim in any case. We are threatened not just by state or non-state members, but by criminalised politicians as well. When your work is about an intersection in conflict and gender, men don’t like it. We live in deeply entrenched patriarchal societies, whether it’s in Manipur or Delhi. But we have to keep on working.
Social media has helped to an extent in bringing out stories from Manipur. The history of Manipur and North-East India has been blanked out from the history of the country, until today. We started using Twitter in 2010 and have built a strong following of half a million followers. This has happened because we have consistently shared our research and told our stories, not just from Manipur but from all of the eight North-Eastern states, home to 45 million people. I noticed a change in gatekeeping in civil society in 2014, around the time Nido Taniam was killed (the 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, a victim of racism, was beaten with rods and sticks in a south Delhi market). But on social media as well as in our work on the ground, political forces have not been able to curb our voice.
We back our stories with research, analysis and data, so that when we put out a tweet, it should have credibility. There is power in speaking out the truth, and we never lose sight of it. We remain neutral, and yet we face threats of death and mob violence. The Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network condemns surveillance. If you want to hear us, talk to us directly. It is important that civil society continues its work and that democracy prevails. We will continue to speak truth to power as long as oppression and discrimination continues.—As told to Avantika Bhuyan
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