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'We want to see an open debate about Modi's record'

By Ritu Jha
September 01, 2015 11:06 IST
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'We are calling for democratic accountability even as we talk about Digital India.'

'We are not against Digital India and it is important for India, but the government should not see what is applicable just to entrepreneurs but also to the vast majority of Indians who do not have the kind of advantages that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have.'

Ritu Jha/ speaks to some signatories of the letter protesting Prime Minister Modi's visit to Silicon Valley.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit California later this month.

While Silicon Valley gears up for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's arrival in late September, not everyone out West is readying to welcome him.

Scholars, mostly of South Asian origin, from universities across the US are concerned about the prime minister's Digital India initiative. They believe the initiative has a loophole with regards to the issue of mass surveillance.

Modi will address a community event at the SAP Centre in San Jose on September 27.

'As faculty who engage South Asia in our research and teaching,' nearly 130 scholars wrote in their letter, 'we express our concerns about the uncritical fanfare being generated over Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Silicon Valley to promote Digital India.'

The letter reminds its recipients of the reasons for Modi being denied a US visa from 2005 to 2014 and mentions the case in Indian courts that questions his role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 where over 1,000 people lost their lives.

The letter states that India has witnessed growing censorship and harassment of individuals and organisations critical of Modi and his government's policies and the restrictions on NGOs, leading to a constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom, a steady impingement on academic freedom, with foreign scholars denied entry to India to attend international conferences.

One of the signatories, Professor Kamala Visweswaran, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, told, "The issues surrounding digitalisation, privacy, surveillance, and governance are global ones."

"The US certainly doesn't have a clean record in this regard but many of us are worried about the increased potential for abuse in India given the escalating violations freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and academic freedom under the Modi administration. What does Digital India look like in this context? Professor Visweswaran asked.

"The objective of the letter is to raise awareness of real concerns that South Asian scholars and others have about the direction of Narendra Modi's administration. We want to see an open debate about Modi's record as prime minister," Professor Visweswaran added.

Another supporter of the letter, Raja Swamy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, said, "This letter is directed at Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and has been collectively signed by faculty members. The issues around Digital India have to do with much more than simply technology. There are very key issues having to do with the e-governance framework, the question of increased surveillance and question of protection citizens right."

"These issues need to be brought into focus if we are talking about Digital India," Professor Swamy stated. "Look at the United Sates. The privacy verses security debate is central to any discussions here because there is a strong and vibrant discourse in this country around the protection of democratic rights," he added.

"That is the same thing we expect from our Indian entrepreneurs who are based in Silicon Valley to bring this into focus," Professor Swamy said, adding, "Since India is a democratic country, and in any democratic society we should be eager in our discussion to talk about the fundamentals of democracy around technology. We think it's an urgent issue because this is a government that does not have a stellar record. So as scholars it's our responsibility to raise this issue."

"What we want is a series of important conversations. We are calling for democratic accountability even as we talk about Digital India. We are not against Digital India and it is important for India, but the government should not see what is applicable just to entrepreneurs but also to the vast majority of Indians who do not have the kind of advantages that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have," Professor Swamy said.

Asked about the claim that scholars were not getting visas to travel to India Professor Visweswaran cited the example of British academic Dr Penny Vero-Sanso who has written on the impact of FDI upon ageing and poverty in India and was denied entry to attend an international conference on ageing in Hyderabad in June last year.

"She had a valid passport and visa, but was turned away at the airport, and not allowed to enter India. No explanation was provided by Indian officials, but it is thought that some of her critical work on Gujarat may have been a factor," Professor Visweswaran said.

"This has had a chilling effect upon many academics, not only on those wishing to attend conferences and workshops in India, but upon scholars planning to do work in India who fear research visas or other permissions will be withheld," Profesor Visweswaran added.

Reacting to the privacy concern raised by the professors and scholars in their letter, Venktesh Shukla, The Indus Entrepreneurs Silicon Valley president and General Partner, Monta Vista Capital, told, "There is always a potential for information getting in the hands of those who should not get access to it. It is a cat and mouse game between the protectors of information and those that want to get unauthorised access. The solution to this problem is eternal vigilance and use of cutting edge technology."

Shukla felt the biggest injustice in India today is a lack of adequate jobs for millions of young Indians.

Paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, Shukla said, "Poverty is the biggest crime in India. There are no Indians living outside India that are poor. It is pretty clear that poverty in India is self-inflicted and is a result of poor policy choices."

"Prime Minister Modi's visit to Silicon Valley is a long overdue acknowledgment that the government in India has finally woken up to the potential that innovation and technology can bring to India," Shukla, who believes that only technology and innovation can enable the massive changes needed in India, said.

Asked why he had signed the letter, Professor Arjun Appadurai of New York University told, "Yes, Mr Modi certainly believes that he is promoting India. However I, and many of my colleagues, think that his vision of India is misguided, non-inclusive and partisan."

"In particular, his systematic efforts to intervene in the governance of many major Indian academic institutions indicate a more general effort to impose cultural uniformity and his own political preferences on Indian institutions," Professor Appadurai added.

"I have heard two strong letters questioning my commitment to India from supporters of Modi after the publication of the letter," Professor Appadurai added. "As to the impact of the letter on his visit and on the sponsors of the planned events in Silicon Valley, our hope is that potential investors in Modi's visions of Digital India will think carefully about whether his policies and record are consistent with the values of transparency and social inclusion on which that any digital society must rely."

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