Cable TV blackout in Darjeeling betrays politicians' discomfort with information transparency

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The Congress decision to concede to the demand for a separate state of Telangana has provided fresh impetus to the Gorkhaland movement in West Bengal. Spearheading the campaign for statehood, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha's call for an indefinite shutdown in the Darjeeling Hills has paralysed the tourist haven. The ongoing protests highlight the dangers of acquiescing to statehood demands without clearly defining the basic parameters, especially in a diverse country such as India. Groups using strong-arm tactics to achieve statehood solely on the basis of ethnic or cultural identity can wreak havoc across the country.

Having said that, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee`s recent handling of the Gorkhaland protests has been less than tactful. Mamata has issued an ultimatum to the protesters to withdraw their agitation and her district administration has enforced a draconian cable TV blackout in Darjeeling. The purported aim of the move was to deny the protesters publicity, as well as scotch impressions that trouble is brewing in Mamata's Bengal.

The Darjeeling blackout is of a piece with the political establishment's distrust of the media, particularly new media. Hence the attempts to enforce bans or formulate restrictive legislations like Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. However, such restrictions have the opposite effect, fuelling further disenchantment. Given the nature of electronic media, word always gets out. The pro-democracy Arab Spring movement in West Asia amply demonstrated the power of new media. Moreover, if traditional brands for information dissemination on press and TV are suppressed, that provides enormous scope for the spread of wild rumours. Instead of authentic news, information reaching people will be in highly distorted form. This can ignite rather than calm ethnic conflagrations.

The benefits of information and transparency have been highlighted in case of  communal clashes in Kishtwar in Jammu & Kashmir, with state response to the  violence expedited because of a message on a microblogging website. The message forced the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah to engage the deteriorating situation in  Kishtwar with greater determination. Taken together, it is time our politicians realised  that new media is here to stay. Instead of trying to curb freedom of expression and information, Mamata and other politicians would do well to leverage advancements in information technology and deliver responsive governance.


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