On net neutrality and the national interest

Net neutrality might be an optimum compromise in the absence of full liberalisation of the telecom industry

This is a comment I wrote for the Hindi newspaper Naidunia (Indore). Given that Takshashila might submit an official response to the TRAI public consultation on the subject, it is important to state that this is my personal opinion.

The ongoing debate on net neutrality reveals clashes of several public goals and interest groups. Should service providers have the freedom to sell products of their choice to customers of their choice, or should they not have this freedom? Do consumers have the right to use internet services as they have always been used to? Should the open “ethos of the internet” continue to remain so even after it has passed out of the US government’s management and into the hands of the international community? Will an internet with different lanes for different traffic remain the internet as we know it? Should application and content providers like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp enjoy greater profits despite making much smaller investments than telecom service providers?

The issue is complex and entangled, and we should resist the temptation to see it as a fight between good guys and bad guys. There is nothing wrong in corporations trying to maximise their profits as long as they conduct business in a legal and ethical manner. It would be wrong to project telecom service providers who are seeking to improve their profitability as villains. Similarly, it is rather pointless for them to look at over-the-top (OTT) services like Facebook and begrudge them their profits. Different industries have different risks and different rewards. Consumers too cannot claim that things should be as they are and every change is a negative development.

So what should we make of this issue? I would like to answer this question by asking “what is India’s national interest with regard to IT in general and the internet in particular?”. There are three aspects to our national interest:

First, given that less than one in ten Indians has access to broadband, it should be a national priority to increase penetration. There is a correlation between broadband penetration and economic growth rate. India’s development needs our economy to leapfrog into the information age: for this we need reliable, affordable services. So when thinking about net neutrality at this stage, the government must give the highest priority to ensuring the maximum number of people take up broadband in the shortest duration possible.

This, however, should not come as a result of price regulation. Fixing prices and a government that worships at the altar of “low cost” will result in damage. Low prices should come as a result of market forces and competition.

Second, given that India’s IT industry is an engine for growth and development, we must ensure that it remains globally competitive. The industry is worth more than 100 billion dollars and employs more than 10 million people. There are thousands of startups in the country aiming to become the next Infosys and FlipKart. Our IT policy should not create more hurdles for entrepreneurs and ensure that they have the best possible start to build world-class companies. Without Net Neutrality, the risk that startups will face even greater “unfair disadvantages” against established firms is higher.

Third, it is in the public interest for the telecom and mobile service provider industry is healthy and competitive. In the past decade, the regulators pursued the goal of forcing the telecom providers to lower user tariffs. While India has one of the lowest costs of telecom services in the world, the service quality is patchy. Calls drop frequently. Broadband service often is of lower speed and suffers outages. Billing services are terrible. Anyone who has tried calling the customer service helpline of any telecom provider will attest to the fact that it is very difficult to get anything done. All this is because telcos are cutting costs in these areas. There are few lucrative or premium services left where they can increase their profitability. The only protection they enjoy is through licensing — the government limits the competition they face.

When deciding what to do about net neutrality, we must keep all three considerations in mind, and optimise them simultaneously. If the government opens up the telecom service market to greater competition, perhaps by issuing unlimited licenses, then there is a case to allow them the freedom to discriminate among customers. As the state-owned carrier, BSNL can provide a neutral internet. However, if the government does not open the sector to further competition, therefore shielding the telecom service providers from more competition, then mandating net neutrality provides a reasonable approach to promoting the public interest.

The current debate calls for the government to review the entire licensing regime and consider full liberalisation of the telecom industry.

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The Pakistan stop of the SAARC yatra

Dispute management, not resolution

This is the gist of the points I made in a brief interview on Channel NewsAsia at 6:40pm IST yesterday. This was in the context of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan as part of his SAARC Yaatra.

Q. Amid an aggressive growth agenda, how much of a priority is being placed by Mr Modi on resolving disputes with Pakistan, according to you?

Mr Modi has been keen on improving relations with India’s neighbours right from the word go. I think it reveals something about his mindset — the need for India to carry along its neighbours and its region — because strictly speaking, the neighbourhood does not matter a lot for India’s growth and development.

India’s linkages are to the West to the US and Europe and to East Asia. The subcontinental neighbourhood does not matter much for now. A lot of constraints to growth are domestic.

Q. There have been over 600 ceasefire violations in the past eight months. How much of an impact can high-level talks have on ground reality and actions?

The ceasefire has held for over a decade, so there is abundant evidence that the armed forces can hold their fire if there are top level instructions. A ceasefire is in the interests of both countries: Pakistan can focus on managing its own domestic violence. So too for India.

Q. This is all ostensibly a part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ by the Indian government. How much has the India-Pakistan problem impaired SAARC’s development?

The problem with SAARC is not merely India-Pakistan relations, although they share part of the blame. The ethos of SAARC is more a collective bargaining forum for India’s neighbours against New Delhi. So countries focus more on what they can achieve vis-a-vis India, than what they can achieve as a group.

India’s growth and development will propel SAARC by presenting an opportunity to neighbours to benefit from the process.

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Osama bin Laden, the ISI and the USA

The ISI might have known about bin Laden. What did the United States know?

For the first time, a person close enough to the Pakistani military establishment—and often its unofficial mouthpiece—has suggested that the ISI might have known about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and might have traded him in for US concessions in Afghanistan. Asad Durrani, retired ISI chief and regular television talking-head, said this in an interview to Al Jazeera at Oxford recently.

“I cannot say exactly what happened but my assessment […] was it is quite possible that they [the ISI] did not know but it was more probable that they did. And the idea was that at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been, when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.

He asserted that Bin Laden was, in his opinion, handed over in exchange for an agreement on “how to bring the Afghan problem to an end”. Asked by Hasan whether Bin Laden’s compound was an ISI safe house, Durrani responded:

“If ISI was doing that, than I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done.” [Al Jazeera PR]

This is exactly what The Acorn had argued in May 2011.

His death also means that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex gave him up. This will allow Barack Obama to declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani army can then orchestrate an post-US dispensation wherein its proxies first share power with the Karzai regime. And then, sometime in the near future, take over power. [The Osama card has been played]

In an INILive discussion analysing the possibilities around bin Laden’s killing, I had argued that the most likely explanation was that:

The Pakistani military leadership was on board. In fact, they might have given up Osama as it suits their interests at this time. President Obama can declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan. The Americans will have to rely on Pakistan to ensure that the withdrawal is bloodless during an election year in the United States.

This is plausible. Contrary to popular imagination, it might have been done subtly. A gentle lowering of guard around Osama, a little clue here and there, and the US intelligence would catch up…it would only be a matter of time. The US would even believe that they did it on their own.[Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India]

My May 2011 Pax Indica column discussed this in more detail, linking the event to US domestic politics and the cost-benefit calculations of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. In March 2014, the New York Times magazine published a report by Carlotta Gall, quoting unnamed Pakistani officials as saying that Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI chief in 2011, was in the know.

Now, given his background and connections, Gen Durrani is by no means a Pakistani who is seeking exile in a Western country. His revelations raise an important question: why has the Pakistani military establishment decided to reveal that it (probably) knew about bin Laden all along? There are some indications to the effect that this might be an attempt to pre-empt more explicit revelations about the Pakistani army’s role. Whatever be the case, it is highly unlikely that Gen Durrani’s comments were on-the-fly. There has to be a purpose behind them.

Gen Durrani’s admission raises another question about the Obama administration’s role in the affair. What did the United States know and when?

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Why a Swachch Bharat cess is a bad idea

A tax break will work better

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to clean up the country showed that he was prepared to tackle the most difficult problems India faces—cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation are Mahatma Grade Problems, caused by a simultaneous combination of individual, social, market and government failures. The Swachch Bharat initiative has come about because he used both his popularity and power to try and change mindsets and attitudes. To succeed, it needs the government, business and social leaders to change peoples’ minds and moral incentives. If it becomes yet another government programme, it is bound to fail.

So the Modi government’s proposal to impose a cess on telecom services to finance the Swachch Bharat campaign should cause us disappointment and alarm. It is the wrong approach to the problem, using the wrong method. Here’s why.

Levying a cess dilutes the moral incentive that a borderline conscientious citizen faces. Instead of a gnawing feeling when she sees garbage in public places, the marginal citizen is likely to feel the same-old, “I’ve done my part but the government is not doing its job properly”. There is evidence that compliances rates (for tax payments and other rules) goes up when citizens see the government delivering honestly and effectively. Similarly, the perception that government is inefficient and corrupt reduces compliance. In other words, levying a cess on citizens is not only likely to cause them to outsource their guilt and responsibility, but also try and avoid having to pay the cess. Swachch Bharat should be about emphasising that hygiene and sanitation are about personal honour and dignity, not about pay-tax-and-forget.

That’s not all. A cess is a bad way to raise revenues. A cess on an unrelated activity is a terrible way to implement a bad way to raise revenues. As this blog commented on the previous government’s use of a cess on restaurant bills to finance education, there is no better way to signal that a government has confused public finance priorities than a cess. If a programme is important, it should be financed through the core budgetary revenues. Clearly, one of the prime minister’s most important priorities ought to be enough of a priority to be funded through the conventional budget.

If at all a cess has to levied, it should be on non-essential spending. Furthermore, a specific tax on an unrelated economic activity merely to raise revenues is a very bad idea. Telecommunication services are already subject to heavy price regulation, leading to very bad quality of services across the board. An additional tax on these services will burden consumers, impact telecom service provider revenues (and hence the license fees they pay the government) while doing nothing to improve service quality. Telecommunications services appear to have been chosen for the cess mainly because it is easy to collect from them, and people will have to make calls and access the internet anyway.

Why could the tax not have been levied on entities and industries that dirty public spaces? At least that would have attempted to recover the cost of the negative externalities.

But here’s an even better idea to implement Swachch Bharat: give a Swachch Bharat tax break to all income tax payers. When filing their taxes, let taxpayers tick a box saying “I have done my best to make India clean”. Of course, a lot of people will claim the tax exemption without changing their behaviour, but a some will. It is better to trust the citizens more to do the right thing, than to tax them more on the premise that they will do the wrong thing. That’s the only way Swachch Bharat can work–when the relationship between the citizen and the country changes into one of mutual trust and mutual concern. The campaign is about capturing hearts and minds, not more rupees.

The Modi government would do well to resist the temptation to use age-old sarkari methods to solve a nagging social problem.

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On freedom of religion

The only restrictions to propagation of faith are force and fraud.

The last few months have seen the return of religion-related issues into the public discourse. While many of these issues have existed on the agenda of religious-political organisations for decades, their contemporary emergence might has been triggered by electoral calculations and a new public mood for them. It is understandable that many—including, at times, this blogger—have been exasperated by their acquiring centre-stage at a time when India’s growth priorities lie elsewhere.

However, the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda.

The rather clear constitutional position—laid out in Article 25 of the Constitution and elsewhere—was muddied by a confused 1977 Supreme Court judgement (Stanislaus v State of Madhya Pradesh) where a bench headed by Chief Justice A N Ray drew a specious distinction between a fundamental right to propagate (that he ruled is constitutional) against a ‘right to convert’ (that he ruled does not exist). He arrived at this conclusion because he reasoned that one’s right to convert violates another’s freedom of conscience, and therefore is untenable.

In his monumental three-volume Constitutional Law of India, H M Seervai argues that the “Supreme Court’s judgement is clearly wrong, is productive of the greatest public mischief and ought to be overruled.” Seervai’s contends that conversion due to force or fraud is clearly unconstitutional because “if A converts B by force or fraud, B is deprived of his freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.” So the only question relates to the constitutionality of conversion by persuasion. Chief Justice Ray, Seervai argues, “mistakenly believed that if A deliberately set out to convert B by propagating A’s religion, that would impinge on B’s “freedom of conscience”. But…the precise opposite is true: A’s propagation of his religion with a view to its being accepted by B, gives an opportunity for B to exercise his free choice of a religion.”

Seervai’s arguments were consistent with the intentions of the Constituent Assembly. He quotes K M Munshi’s speech on the background of Article 25(1) in the Assembly. Munshi states: “So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised. The word ‘propagate’ in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences.”

Unfortunately, until a bigger bench of the Supreme Court revisits the 1977 judgement, we have to live with the ‘public mischief’ it has encouraged. There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution intended to permit conversions as long as there was no force or fraud involved.

That indeed is the liberal position. In The Acorn‘s opinion, inducements and allurements cannot be distinguished from other forms of persuasion. A person ought to be—and is in India—free to convert to any faith for any reason, including financial ones. There is no reason why a citizen cannot sell her soul to the highest bidder, and no reason why she cannot repeat this auction every day. May the highest bidders win, day after day! (As an aside, it is likely that the reservation price for a soul will rise in tandem with per capita GDP.)

In a discussion some weeks ago, a thoughtful colleague noted that while this may be all right in case of individual conversions, large scale conversions change demographics and can be detrimental to national security and the very values in the Constitution that enable such conversions. This is a fair and valid point. Even so, like all other liberties, freedom of religion must be safeguarded without taking it away.

Amid all the heat and noise of partisanship and prejudice, the public discourse does not frame the question properly. The question is what is the proper the role of the state and the government in matters of conversion? The correct answer is that it has—or ought to have—no role, other than to prevent force and fraud, and punish those who engage in them.

Individuals and religious organisations have—and ought to have—the right to persuade people into converting to their faith. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu organisations should be free to organise “ghar wapsis“, “shuddhis“, re-conversions and indeed fresh conversions, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. The Church should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. Muslims should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. So too everyone else.

The government must remain agnostic (pun unintended) while people should be free to choose from the options available. As Seervai says, it is the existence and ability to exercise choice, that makes their freedom of conscience a reality.

None of this is the government’s business. To the extent that ghar wapsis and other conversions do not have implicit or explicit support of the state, use or connivance of the government machinery or wilful negligence to prevent force and fraud, there cannot be any objection to them.

Far from getting worked up over the VHP’s ghar wapsi campaign, the focus of the public discourse ought to be to examine the concerned government’s role. There have been cases, as in Y S Rajasekhar Reddy’s administration in Andhra Pradesh, where state government machinery was used to support and abet conversions. This is clearly wrong. If Christian missionaries conduct similar conversions without the government’s support (or opposition) then they are within their rights to do so. Those who think this is a problem can organise themselves and use persuasion to prevent and indeed, re-convert people that the missionaries have converted. They too are within their rights to do so.

Some have proposed a new law to ban all conversions. Such a law is not only deeply illiberal but positively untenable under the Constitution. If today all sorts of laws—from those proscribing conversions to those requiring changes of faith to be approved by government office—are in force, it is in no small measure due to the judiciary’s failure to interpret Article 25 as in its letter and spirit. We will have to await a more enlightened Supreme Court bench to reset the constitutional position to one where the 1977 judgement is overruled.

In the meantime, there is no doubt that persuasion is the only instrument any religious organisation can use to propagate its faith and win converts.

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Three thoughts for the Republic

On reason, liberty and the right action

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma and escape the tyranny of the ignorant;

– On the liberal nationalist position on free speech (and what liberal nationalism is);

An eight-fold path to transforming India and the self;

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Republic Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

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Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an assessment

What New Delhi should do about the threat

Here is an assessment following an email discussion with my colleagues Rohan Joshi & Pranay Kotasthane on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. See Rohan’s post for context.

1. The Pakistani state and the Pakistani society have neither the intention nor the capability (if they have the intention) to take down the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). It has crossed the line from being a merely extremist terrorist group to a provider of public goods. It acquired the characteristics of a para-state with obvious popularity and social legitimacy.

2. The Pakistani army, on the other hand, does retain the capability to degrade the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. For instance, they could get a hothead loyal to Hafiz Saeed to assassinate Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi or another competing top-rung leader, engineer a rift, cause clashes while promoting propaganda against them. However, given that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a key instrument of the Pakistani army’s existential anti-India posture, the army is unlikely to want to damage the JuD.

3. So the best the civilian government will do is play the Schrödinger-Hiesenberg quantum game, where the JuD is banned but not banned. If another party takes over, the JuD will be not banned but banned. It is unrealistic to expect democratically elected civilian governments to act against JuD especially to satisfy India or the United States.

4. Therefore, India’s short-term options should be

  • to prevent JuD from acquiring greater capabilities. At this moment it is an irregular light infantry. It should not be permitted to acquire more advanced weapons and capabilities.
  • to prevent JuD from acquiring territory. ‘Non-state actors’ getting hold of swathes of territory from which they can carry out conspiracies and attacks on Indian soil will complicate New Delhi’s national security strategy.
  • to prevent JuD from acquiring followers in India. In contrast to the 1990s, it is possible today for followers to ‘train’ with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) without actually having to go to PoK via Karachi via Dubai.
  • to prevent the JuD from launching terrorist attacks in India.

5. India’s longer term option remains clear: dismantle and destroy the military-jihadi complex.

6. There is a convergence of interests between India and the United States, and to a lesser extent with China too, on the short-term options. New Delhi’s outreach to these states should be to arrive at a consensus on preventing the strengthening of JuD. It is unclear if other countries share interests on the longer-term issue of destroying the military-jihadi complex. It might be some time before the United States comes around to this view. For now, the focus on short-term goals will be good enough.

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The liberal nationalist position on free speech

The weapon of the weak

Sowmya Rajaram of Bangalore Mirror interviewed me for her feature article on Sunday. Here is the complete exchange:

1. What, according to you, is freedom of expression (FoE)?

The idea of free speech & expression is to say (write, draw, sing, compose musically etc) what one feels without being deterred by government, politicians, social consensus or popular sentiments. The only exception is the “harm principle” where there is incitement to violence.

Of course some free speech can be defamatory, and those defamed can seek legal recourse for the damage caused to them. But there cannot be any prior restraints on free speech.

2. There are a few matters to consider when talking about FoE– one of them being that it isn’t equal for everyone. Often FoE is different when you’re a disadvantaged minority, and an ideal for the privileged majority. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the publications’s cartoons were often violent and deliberately provocative (even distasteful) in a country which did have a troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. So how does one negotiate that?

This is a specious argument — on the contrary, free speech is more meaningful for those who are in a minority, for their voices to be heard. It is more meaningful for those who are weaker, powerless, poor or disadvantaged. Only free speech allows the disadvantaged asymmetric power.

3. You have in the past said that censorship is tied up with issues of intolerance and competitive politics. That may be true, but isn’t censorship necessary in a large, diverse and often fractious state like ours? How does one balance the need for individual FoE with a collective responsibility to peace and freedom?

In ordinary circumstances, there is no case for censorship of any kind. Films could perhaps be classified so that children are protected from adult themes and audiences can know before-hand which films they might want to avoid. You only have to see our films to see how distorted censorship outcomes are: you have films with the most misogynistic themes, celebrating barbaric behaviour, all allowed without cuts. But kissing and nudity are censored!

The only point where censorship is justified is in emergencies — where there is a risk that information flows can impact national security, set off large-scale violence, rioting, stampedes etc.

Censorship to protect the sensitivities of adults is ridiculous, patronising and makes a mockery of our democracy where adults are considered sensible enough to vote, marry and produce children, but not sensible enough to watch a movie or read a book!

These questions turn up repeatedly because we have arrived at some kind of a consensus that something that is offensive ought to be banned. The contemporary roots of this arose with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which the Rajiv Gandhi government banned. India was the first country to ban the book! That opened the floodgates for everyone to claim to be offended and get the offending movie or book banned. Since India has hundreds of communities, it is normal for each of them to want to claim the same ‘privilege’ as others.

Showing thin-skinnedness is also a useful political tactic, as it allows a group to demonstrate their political strength.

Individuals identify with one or more communities, and are understandably more vocal in claiming their own ‘privileges’ than in defending others’ rights. So people will engage in whataboutery and yesbuttery. We can’t blame the people, because they are responding to the incentives our public environment has created.

The way out is simply to adhere to the view that nobody’s sensitivities are worthy of protection. I think many of the films, lyrics and songs are in very poor taste, and hence I avoid them. People have the right to change the channel! If people don’t turn up to watch Honey Singh’s shows, I’m sure he’ll change his tunes (or lyrics). People who are offended by Doniger, Rushdie or Socrates don’t have to read them.

4. Many of the ‘hate speech’ laws are a legacy of colonial times when it was deemed necessary to have them to control an essentially “esxcitable”, diverese race. How are these relevant today?

Yes, hate speech laws in the West derive from their colonial excesses, racism, slavery, and of course, the great crimes during the Second World War. We did not have these in India. Our problem is communal, caste and ethnic conflict which is not quite the same thing.

We need not control hate speech. But there is a case to punish incitement to violence based on hatred (or for that matter, any other reason).

5. How much merit is there to the movement for a complete libertarian state where speech is truly free? Is it even possible?

There cannot be a complete libertarian state, as that is an oxymoron. A state involves a social contract where some liberties are traded away for the privilege of enjoying the rest of them. So we give up the right to violence to the state, so that we may enjoy the right to life, property, free speech and so on.

A figure of merit, therefore, is how few of our liberties do we need to give up in order to enjoy the rest. North Koreans give up 90% of their liberties to enjoy the remaining 10%. North Americans give up 10% of their liberties to enjoy the 90%. I think India should aim to move towards the North American standard, rather than the North Korean standard.

6. FoE also becomes problematic when one weighs the consequences of utterances differently. For instance, liberals were up in arms about the ban on Wendy Doniger’s book, in the case of Charlie Hebdo and earlier, when Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition and jailed. But the very same people were also outraged when Honey Singh was to perform in India in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape in 2012, given his offensive, provocative lyrics that were derogatory to women. Could you talk a little bit about the conflict there?

Again this is a specious generalisation. I’m sure there were liberals who defended the rights of both. The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments. So we’ll have people claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” because it is popular, we’ll have people supporting the ban on pornography, because that is the right thing to be seen saying, and we’ll have people asking Honey Singh to be banned.

The masses have no obligation to be logically consistent, or principled. We, the people, are selective in our morality and our principles. That’s our problem.

7. It is a problematic subject with no easy answers — but is FoE a myth? Does it exist? What kind of approach can one take to the concept?

Of course it is real and it exists. The very fact that we are debating the limits of our free speech is a statement to its existence, its importance and its acceptance in our society. Our only problem is that we want it to be self-serving!

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An interception in the Arabian Sea

Dissecting the national security issues

The Indian Coast Guard’s interception of a suspect vessel just inside country’s exclusive economic zone in the Arabian Sea, off the Gujarat coast quickly moved from being a national security issue to a partisan political issue. While politicisation of national security is not necessarily bad in itself, the polarised circumstances in which it is taking place leave no space for a reasoned discourse. As of this writing, online outrage was picked up by some of New Delhi’s rageboys for physical protests outside a newspaper’s office.

While partisan politics takes its course, there are two questions of public interest that need to be examined. First, who were the occupants of the suspicious boat, what were they up to, and importantly, how did Indian authorities assess the threat and authorise action? Second, was the Coast Guard right in doing what it did?

Given what we know, and given what the Coast Guard knew at the time, it is impossible to be certain who was in the boat and what they were up to. From the facts that are not in dispute, it is highly unlikely that they were innocent fishermen. They could have been part of a terrorist operation to ship arms, explosives, people, money, fuel or other dangerous material. They could have been part of a smuggling racket dealing with contraband of a similar nature. They could have been both. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said he thinks they were suspected terrorists. Praveen Swami, quoting unnamed sources–and he has among the best ones in New Delhi–suggests that they were probably smugglers. The Defence Ministry is conducting an investigation and we might know in good time, or–given that there’s no physical evidence left of the boat–we might not.

This brings us to the second question: in the circumstances, was the Coast Guard right to act in the way it did? This is a matter of judgement. After the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, the Coast Guard cannot be faulted for being aggressive in neutralising a perceived threat. There has also been an escalation of tensions along the India-Pakistan border, an escalation of conflict within Pakistan, open mobilisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership and cadre. The impending Republic Day parade and President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the ceremonial chief guest on January 26th are also factors that raise risks for a threat of any given likelihood. The Coast Guard in this context, in The Acorn’s judgement, did well to neutralise a suspicious boat whose intentions are highly unlikely to be bona fide. There might be questions of international law and precedent, but they are subsidiary to national security.

What, then, should we make of this episode? First, The National Security Council must use the opportunity to review and streamline the process that begins with an intelligence input to action on the ground, on in the water as in this case. Credible media reports suggest that there were gaps and jumps. Second, the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy must review procedures pertaining to rules of engagement, and enhance training to handle such threats. In a book published two years ago, this blogger had argued that India’s maritime security forces are sailing deeper into an era of ‘violent peace’, and will see a rise in threats from unconventional mariners. Finally, as pointed out in the same book, the Indian government (and this includes the armed forces) need more sophisticated information strategies in order to acquire narrative superiority. In simple terms, this means acting in ways that avoid controversy.

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Welcoming Putin

New Delhi should treat the Russian president with the usual respect

Samanth Subramanian of The National asked me to comment on Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. My response:

Putin’s visit is part of a longstanding tradition of bilateral visits. It comes at a time when there is greater convergence of interests between India and the United States, than between India and Russia. That said, Russia bears greater responsibility for the divergence in relations with India, for it has almost gratuitously pursued an arms-sale relationship with Pakistan. Those sales have little utility other than sending unwelcome signals to New Delhi.

New Delhi should welcome Mr Putin with great warmth and the traditional respect, despite his recent actions. Russia has been and can be a useful partner for India. For his part, Mr Putin would do well to reflect on how Russian industry can take advantage of Mr Modi’s “Make in India” initiative, especially in the defence and technology sectors.

Samanth’s article is up on The National’s website.

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