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India’s Civil Liberties Crisis: Of Bans, Blocks, Bullying and Biometrics

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 25, 2013 10:39 AM
Malavika Jayaram will be a speaker at this event which is organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies and will be held at Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennslyvania, Philadelphia, on March 28, 2013, from 12 p.m. to 1.30 p.m.

Read about the event on the website of the Center for Global Communication Studies.


Unlike the US First Amendment, the first amendment to the Constitution of India actually strengthened state regulation over freedom of speech. Irony aside, the amendment that is considered by many scholars as the first media crisis in post-colonial India has increasing relevance today. Its prioritization of sovereignty and national security over democratic rights and institutions has resulted in a zone of contestation between nation building and free speech. This is playing out through a series of battles involving website blocking, book banning, biometric databases and bullying of all kinds.

In the last few months, an all-girl rock band in Kashmir was silenced, a village in Bihar banned women and girls from using mobile phones, and we had yet another Salman Rushdie controversy. Movies were blocked. Facebook and Google were taken to court for hosting objectionable content. Paintings were removed from an art gallery at the “suggestion” of the police because they depicted Hindu deities as semi-nude. At the same time, there was a drive to digitize governance and to build biometric databases to enumerate and record every individual. The impacts on free speech, anonymity, and privacy were considered fair game in the drive towards progress, inclusion, and maintenance of public order.

The relationship between the citizen and the state is undergoing a radical transformation mediated by the marriage of welfare schemes and commercial interests. The privacy of one’s body and identity is challenged by initiatives to capture fingerprints, irises, faces, and transactions. The heckler’s vote is increasingly powerful in silencing free expression. Civil society is under siege for resisting the onslaught of draconian legislation, arbitrary restrictions, and the banning of various forms of cultural output. Narratives are being constructed that attribute all civic engagement with “western values” and with being mouthpieces of foreign interests.

In this talk, I will give an overview of the strands of discord that are forming the fabric of India’s latest crisis of democracy. I will unpack some of the rhetoric behind the government’s drive to grasp the individual, and make the citizen visible to the state in an unprecedented manner. I will also discuss my experiences working with civil society in India, and the tools and techniques used to engage with policy formation and to adapt to the future of advocacy.

A dual-qualified lawyer, Malavika Jayaram spent eight years in London - with global law firm Allen & Overy in the Communications, Media & Technology group, and then with Citigroup. She relocated to India in 2006, and wears 3 hats as a practising lawyer, a Fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) and a PhD scholar. As a partner at Jayaram & Jayaram, Bangalore, she focuses on corporate/tech transactions and has a special interest in new media and the arts. At CIS, Malavika collaborates on projects that study legislative and policy changes in the internet governance and privacy domains. As a PhD scholar, she is looking at data protection and privacy in India, with a special focus on e-governance schemes and the new biometric ID project.

A graduate of the National Law School of India, she has an LL.M. from Northwestern University, Chicago. She is on the advisory board of the Indian Journal of Law & Technology and is the author of the India chapter for the Data Protection & Privacy volume in the Getting the Deal Through series, launched this year. She is one of 10 Indian lawyers featured in “The International Who's Who of Internet e- Commerce & Data Protection Lawyers 2012” directory.

She is currently running a research project for Internews, studying internet policy in India. This will produce a landscape overview and interviews with various stakeholders in this domain.

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