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Under Modi, the Mobile Phone Has Been a Site of Expression and State Oppression

Over the last decade, phones have gone from work to play to one’s primary access to news, government schemes and hatred.
Illustration: The Wire, with Canva.

Is there anything that ties the humble tomato with a smartphone, bulldozer, manhole cover and an Aadhaar card? When objects speak, what do they reveal about our living conditions? With Talking Things, The Wire takes a deeper look at how these mundane objects have evolved against the backdrop of the Modi-led Union government’s decade-long tenure.

In October 2021, Safiya Majeed, an operation theatre technician at Jammu and Kashmir’s Government Medical College and Hospital in Rajouri, used her mobile phone to do something that millions around her do on a daily basis – upload a WhatsApp ‘status’. Days later, she lost her job. Her boss announced in a press conference that behaviour like this would not be tolerated in other employees either. 

Majeed had celebrated Pakistan’s victory over India in the T20 World Cup. 

A war had made way for the technology needed to produce mobile phones. And close to a century of innovation in cellular technology had led us to this moment – where each phone could be used to start a war with no victors. 

Talking Things

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In the past 10 years, phones have gone from work to play to one’s primary access to news, government schemes and hatred. They have gone from aspirational indicators of wealth to a necessity. They have delivered extraordinary innovation in the science of getting things done but in India they have been used to deliver the fruits of the freedom of expression to your doorstep, and penalise you for it too.

While a particularly significant election trundles on, no one can deny the power of phones. From political campaigns tailored to fit your mobile to messages that violate the model code of conduct to the latest notification on X, politics now is unthinkable without a phone.

No one knows it better than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rode to power twice on campaigns that fed off the promises and growing reach of phones. Cut to 2024, and the phone is now a major ingress point of the Modi machinery into Indians’ lives.

The government in your phone

And while a slim section murmur complaints against the inadequacy of laws governing one’s data – a prime source of which is phones – talk on how government ventures like Digilocker and Digiyatra are no longer choices are buried by the apparent ease they provide. 

Thus it is no surprise that one of the biggest events for which the Modi government has made it to global news is the alleged and potential tapping of the phones of opposition leaders, activists, lawyers and journalists with an Israeli spyware, Pegasus. The Wire was part of a global consortium of news outlets that broke this news on how the spyware has access to a target’s whole phone and all activities she does with it. The NSO Group, which sells the spyware, says that it only sells to ‘vetted governments’. The government, in the Supreme Court, said it could not reveal all citing ‘national security’. 

But its own reticence notwithstanding, attitudes displayed by the government when it comes to phones is indication enough. Only last month, Apple is reported to have turned the Enforcement Directorate down when it purportedly sought its help to enter jailed Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s password-protected phone.

Device seizures, among which are phones, have emerged as a favourite tactic for law enforcement under this government regardless of the charges. In 2022, journalists and employees of The Wire were subjected to it following a defamation complaint against them. In 2023, in early morning raids at over 60 locations, cops confiscated over 250 phones and laptops of over 90 journalists and employees of Newsclick over charges that were unlikely to even have been formulated at that time. 

The action against journalists throws into light the plain fact of how journalism itself has been democratised thanks to the phone in everyone’s pockets. With its ability to record any unfairness, a phone has made its holder a journalist. Social media has also made the path of publishing seamless – allowing attention to fall on communities who are systematically ignored by formal media, including minorities, Dalit groups, women, tribal communities and the poor. 

This has helped in the dissemination of news in an atmosphere where mainstream media has done anything but. However, it has also set the stage for misinformation and more often, disinformation. WhatsApp remains the number one aid in this regard. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The crime in our phone

While phones have recorded horrific injustice, not all of it has been to draw eyes on the brutality of the crime itself. 

The knack for video recording has also spread to perpetrators like ‘cow vigilantes’ who have in the last 10 years killed and hurt more people than they have protected cows. Videos showing Muslim and Dalit men being tortured have become the mainstay and card to power for the likes of Monu Manesar

In Manipur’s Kangpokpi district, phone videos showed women being paraded naked and sexually assaulted. Thousands of videos shot by and on the behest of Hassan MP Prajwal Revanna, showing sexual abuse of women, have recently made news. 

These curiously escape law enforcement action until outrage rises to a crescendo. 

Despite the ease with which the Modi dispensation maintains a chokehold on social media giants – with the help of prohibitive Information Technology Rules, official fact-checkers who rap knuckles of anyone publishing anti-government lines online, and sometimes under-the-table understandings – the phone is an undeniable avenue of expression for the modern Indian. 

When the Modi government banned TikTok in response to the China attack, one of the harshest blows landed exactly on the people whose lives and times are most consigned to the sidelines – the homebound woman, the rural Indian and the poor. 

Today, the alternative of Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts has not just reduced our attention to 15-second spans, but also unfurled worlds of art, politics, artistry, talent and commentary from parts of India that were convenient to ignore. 

However, algorithms keep us ensconced in familiar worlds online, making us that much more intolerant to slightly differing perspectives and lives. While India’s influencer market is growing at a pace fast enough to touch $300 million by 2025 and firmly capable of influencing elections, Reels, as we find time and again, are as much vehicles of hate as good. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

A land without a phone

A little before Independence, Gandhi apparently gave express directions to people in the Sabarmati Ashram on where the lone telephone box should be placed – outside the office so that it can be accessed even when the office is closed. Today, when there is a phone box in every pocket, access to governance has proven difficult – even for those in charge of building bridges between the people and the government.  

The Modi government loves to say that almost all of India has a smartphone. It has thus erected conditions dependent on phones for the access of government services. 

A demonetisation and a frantic digital push later, the phone is on its way to replace debit cards. From farmers looking to register produce for government purchase to anganwadi workers logging details on the Poshan Tracker to ensure they get their month’s pay to ASHA workers filing their locality’s vaccine records – much of the functioning of the country depends on a smartphone. 

Which is well and good, but not exactly great, once you consider the low penetration of internet (46.3% of the population, as of 2021) in the country. For a government that practically rode to power on a spectrum scam, and which has now in a grand step of irony placed allocation of spectrum licences with itself, to hinge so much of daily administration on the internet which it just does not have the power to give to people is an extraordinary act of hubris. And so it is that ASHA workers find that the apps they are supposed to download, track their own movements, and anganwadi workers struggle to get their paltry pay with English-only and clunky tech

Couple that with the fact that India is singularly the internet shutdown capital of the world, where cessation of services is the first order of business when tackling violence (as in Manipur), or the possibility of it (as in for almost a couple of years in Jammu and Kashmir, before and after the reading down of Article 370 in 2019). 

In the gig economy, such shutdowns hurt the little access to livelihood that India’s already beleaguered youth have. Food, medicines, services and groceries arrive at our doors at the click of a button in scenes straight out of science fiction. This has led us to dehumanise the humans behind them – promising inhuman delivery times that had led to several road accidents and allowing apps like Swiggy to take away health insurance when workers do not meet delivery quotas. 

Narendra Modi’s decade-long rule has seen the phone emerge a prime crutch to a populated country. Fast digital lives have reduced our dependence on personal memory, but the fact that a plea through a phone for oxygen cylinders was all that stood between life and death during the second wave of COVID-19 – when the government stood and did nothing – is an indelible memory. 

Read more from Talking Things, here.

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