Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Silicon Valley later this month. But over 137 US-based academics and intellectuals have already filed a petition to the Silicon Valley Enterprises expressing concern about Modi and his ‘Digital India’ campaign. It is not surprising that Richard A. Falk is one of the petitioners. The professor emeritus of law at Princeton University, a highly respected academic, has always been an outspoken critic of governments and policies that violate human rights and civil liberties. At 84, he has authored and co-edited more than 40 books and is a well-known commentator on his own. As former UN rapporteur on Palestine, Falk is also one of the few Jews who was denied a visa by Israel for his outspoken views about Israeli atrocities and occupation of Palestinian territory. He tells Pranay Sharma why he’s a signatory to the petition against Modi. Excerpts:
What is the prime concern you have against Narendra Modi's 'Digital India' campaign?
I and others on the list have questions about Narendra Modi's record on religious tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. Some of those who signed the letter have also been subject to a campaign of harassment from Hindu nationalist followers, which raises particular worries about academic freedom. "Digital India" as an initiative has enormous potential to affect positive social change, but it simultaneously poses dangers for abuse under the Modi administration that can make use of digitalization to target members of minority communities or those who are critical of its policies. It is my impression that the Modi government has been particularly sensitive to criticism and unfriendly to critics, making our concern more credible.
Does this fear stem from the individual-Narendra Modi in this case -or the proposed campaign itself?
It's not too clear at this stage exactly what "Digital India" will become programmatically, and this is precisely why we wrote to register our concerns-to influence the course the debate will take. Most of the media treatment that I and my colleagues have seen is so far more concerned with branding the campaign rather than focusing on its substance, The plan as outlined on the Government of India website, http://deity.gov.in/sites/upload_files/dit/files/Digital%20India.pdf is appropriately ambitious, and commendably has the "empowerment of citizens" at its core. But the potential for disempowerment is also present as the gap widens between those who have access to internet technology and those in India who still lack water and electricity. I believe that some of my colleagues have reasonable grounds to worry that the planned heavy investment in digital infrastructure will widen this gap, and along with it, socio-economic disparities.. There is no present indications that the Indian government is implementing policies designed to reduce, if not eliminate, the gap. And with respect to your underlying question it is impossible to disentangle the Modi Government or Modi as a political personality from the Digital India Campaign.
Are there real reasons for such apprehensions given the fact that much of the proposed programme was actually undertaken by Modi's predecessor, Manmohan Singh?
Some of the same concerns would have surfaced in all likelihood under any Indian government.These concerns are magnified given Modi’s record on freedom of expression leading me and my colleagues to have apprehensions about a process of digital consolidation that can lead to further breaches not only of privacy but of individual security. A realization that the previous government in India has been working toward e-governance, and that these issues are ones faced by other governments in the world does not in any way make it irrelevant to raise issues associated with Modi's specific record. As an American, with a deep commitment to the wellbeing and positive development of India, I have joined with Indian colleagues because I have seen what digital age abuses have occurred in my own country. The Snowden disclosures should serve as a reminder that citizens of all countries need to exert unprecedented vigilance in the defense of freedom and in support of societal equity given the contemporary interface between totalizing governmental security and technological capabilities.
Modi was a three-time elected chief minister of Gujarat and in 2014 successfully won an impressive mandate to become India's Prime Minister. How do you see the obvious support he has among a sizeable section of Indians?
The fact that a policy or programme is popular or even that the majority of people at any moment in time is in favor does not make it right or suggest the inappropriateness of constructive criticism. We have witnessed this tension between what is popular and what is right numerous times in recent history, and speaking personally, perhaps most vividly with respect to the implementation of U.S. foreign policy on a global scale. We can recall with remorse a lone American Congress woman, Barbara Lee, who held out as the sole dissenting voice against authorizing the US president to go to war against Afghanistan-a policy that the entire US Congress and the rest of the country favored at the time, but produced disastrous consequences. Modi's support appears to rest on several factors, but he and his administration have at times disturbingly invoked Hindu nationalist rhetoric to gain the enthusiastic backing of the Hindu majority in the country raising insecurities among minorities.
Do you think democratic institutions in India have been weakened or seriously threatened since Modi became the Prime Minister?
My response to this question is shaped by the opinion of Indian colleagues and trusted friends, so I will not comment too much on internal dynamics. At the same time, we are living in a borderless world, not least because of the impact of the digital dimensions of modern life, and so as concerned citizens of the world we cannot shut our eyes to threatening developments even in distant countries, while at the same time being respectful of norms of non-intervention and of rights of self-determination. From this perspective, I have come to believe that democratic institutions have been weakened under Modi's administration. It's true that some of these anti-democratic tendencies were already evident in the behavior of prior Indian governments, but it is also the case that the last administration brought out the "Right to Information" package of reforms that has greatly increased government transparency and empowered people to hold the Indian government accountable. It's not clear at this point whether “Digital India" in Modi's hands will lead to increased transparency. The background of his record as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and the experience of his first year as Prime Minister gives rise to a legitimate concern that the future of India as a democratic country is at sufficient risk to justify a petition raising questions that need to be discussed.
The petition mentions Modi's alleged role in the Gujarat riots. But given the fact that large number of world leaders including President, Barack Obama, now engage with him, do you think these charges are still relevant?
Yes, they are still relevant even legally: there is currently an undecided appeal in the Gujarat judicial system that raises serious questions about whether Modi took adequate steps to control the Gujurat violence in 2002, and whether he was actively implicated in its unfolding. Whether or not this unfinished legal process produces an adverse assessment of his conduct, Modi's speeches at the time were themselves sufficient by themselves to validate continuing worries. They were inflammatory, and made no effort to restore calm and avoid violence. Such behavior signals the reasonableness of seeking clarifications and reassuring procedures. The fact that Obama and other world leaders engage Modi diplomatically is to be expected, especially when it is considered that he is the head of the world's largest democracy and important actor in the world economy. We have seen many examples in history in which leaders lead people in a terrible direction, and yet are treated as normal and legitimate for purposes of international relations. The legacy of George W. Bush is a painful instance of a leader who did the US and the world a great deal of harm without undermining his legitimacy. Ariel Sharon when acting on behalf of Israel committed what many regarded as crimes against humanity, but when he was democratically elected in 2000 the world dealt with him without looking back. It is up to people of conscience to look back. When wrongs are done to people whether internationally or at home they do not fade from view with the passage of time. If there is to be democracy based on the rule of law then citizens and persons of conscience must treat equals equally, whether it be the poorest citizen or the most powerful politician. We are aware that there are many in India who are critical of Modi's policies and whose right of dissent is being challenged, and their voices silenced or intimidated. Modi may be speaking on behalf of some kind of majority in India, but that does not invalidate opposition, even strenuous opposition. One crucial test of a true democracy is whether it protects the rights of minorities, especially when in tension with governing authorities. This is so whether the tension be with political minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, or sexual minorities. A democracy only flourishes when divergent voices can be freely heard without fear of an official or populist backlash.
You also mention the Silicon Valley Enterprises have a code of responsibility that they should be mindful of not being violated by Modi. Could you specify what this code of responsibility is?
I do not claim any special knowledge about this code of responsibility. Silicon Valley Enterprises have a great deal of influence and wealth, perhaps now in some respects greater than that possessed by any government. The New York Times Magazine did stories recently about Chinese factories making Apple products that were run as a sweat shops. Does Apple have the right or strength to insist on at least monitoring working conditions for those who make its products? The Saipan Sweat Shop case resulted in a settlement that required several clothing manufacturers to end the most egregious forms of labor abuse. Outsourcing labor is very convenient for many corporations, and not just for Silicon Valley Enterprises, but it is a prominent feature of Silicon Valley operations. So some of the questions we have about the "Digital India" initiative involve anticipated impacts on basic labor conditions in India that are presently poor and often abusive, but that do make labor costs of doing any kind of business in India more profitable. It is important that “Digital India” evolves in tandem with the protection and advancement of fundamental rights of all workers.
How successful have these Silicon Valley Enterprises been so far in safeguarding their code of conduct while dealing with various governments?
So far, voluntary codes of conduct with respect to business practices, as has been promoted within the United Nations, have elicited pledges from corporations eager to uphold their reputations but the record of compliance ranges from mixed to poor.
The US in general and the Obama administration in particular, have been accused of spying and abusing personal information of individuals by leaders and people of different countries. What has been your reaction to that?
This is a confusing area of governmental operations, not only for the United States, but for all countries. On the one side, especially given the current agenda of security threats, all governments engage in spying and espionage. On the other side, all states criminalize these activities that target its state’s secrets. This creates a situation of ethical and political confusion, making it difficult to distinguish heroes from villains. The United States as the world’s first global state with interests and involvements throughout the planet has the most extensive, sophisticated, and intrusive system of surveillance and espionage in all of history. As mentioned, the Snowden and Wikileaks disclosures, while viewed as criminal acts in the United States, divulged such excessive abuses that the U.S. Congress took some steps to curtail some of these intelligence operations. One of the reasons to be concerned about “Digital India” or “Digital America” is that the borderline between the pursuit of reasonable levels of state security has become almost indistinguishable from the Orwellian nightmare state of permanent war and total control over people. It is up to citizens within their own country and those with concern for the future of their region and the world to insist on scrutiny of intelligence operations to avoid their encroachment on individual and group rights.My colleagues who co-signed this petition are extremely concerned about this, and some of the signatories to the letter have expertise in this area. In criticizing India, we are not saying, nor do we believe, that the US record must not be scrutinized, protested, and reformed. Modi's visit to the US provides an occasion for some of these shared issues to be discussed in a more global forum. But a focus on the severe dangers of US practices in the collection and use of digital information should never be interpreted to mean that scrutiny should be lessened in relation to what is, or may happen under Modi’s governmental authority.
Most governments in the world today are committed to fight the "menace of terrorism." In such a scenario do you think individual privacy and their fundamental rights are bound to be curtailed?
I think the evidence to date the answer worldwide is a resounding ‘yes.’ Partly this is the nature of threats posed by non-state actors that have no territorial address making everyone everywhere a potential suspect, which seems to serve as a rationalization for the expanded intelligence activities undertaken in the name of fighting against terrorism. This challenge of identifying and removing the threat before it materializes, also creates pressure for racial and ethnic profiling that gets translated in practice into arbitrary and discriminatory treatment of minorities, especially if perceived as anti-regime minorities.
A second level of explanation is associated with technological innovations that make the collection of meta-date feasible and economical. These capabilities are also enhanced by the development of drones and various forms of robotic activity, with even greater capabilities and intrusiveness on the technological horizon.
Because this transformed security and technological atmosphere endows the state with dangerous totalizing powers, it is more important than ever that the peoples of the world uphold freedom for themselves and others. It is only through the challenges of a petition such as ours that some hope exists for establishing a dynamic balance between state and society in the digital age. It is in this spirit that I joined with my Indian and other colleagues and friends as a signatory.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print