Social Media & Citizen Activism Powering India’s New Freedom Movement [UPDATED]

In 1947, India earned its independance from 320 years of British occupation and rule. This was the culmination of several important events that took place starting with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the arrest of Lokmanya Tilak in 1908 and the uprising escalating over the years, into the Quit India Movement in August 1942.

In 1880, Lokmanya Tilak recognized the need for an independent newspaper and magazine focused on the efforts to liberate India from British administration. He started his own newspaper (The Kesri) and published articles about various movements taking place across the country. Information and leads came to him via friends in activist organizations all over the country. In 1905 the British Government, wanting to crush the freedom of expression which was now threatening their establishment, arrested Tilak and convicted him under the charge of sedition to 6 years of rigorous imprisonment on the Andaman Islands where political prisoners and troublemakers were detained.

The Andaman Cellular Jail was supposed to be the Alcatraz of colonial SE Asia, impossible to escape from, with inmates being regularly tortured. Many did not survive. Sending Tilak here was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of any other upcoming citizens media or citizen journalists. Instead, the result was the exact opposite. It inspired many educated Indians to band together and form clandestine groups with the intention of powering the revolution via spreading of information.

They learned how to build and operate printing presses. Some of them operated during the day as publishers of pop magazines, and at night were used to print propaganda on hand bills. Others exclusively operated in secret, printing more hand bills advertising boycott’s, places to gather for a protect march and other civil disobediences. These hand bills were distributed by 8 to 10 year old children who were less likely to be caught and questioned by the police. Hand bills were distributed to people you knew and trusted (Your friends). They passed on copies to their friends, and so on. The old-school way of ‘Sharing’ and ‘Re-Tweets’.

Fast forward to 2011.

India is now the world largest democracy, but with a new set of rulers and problems. Several corruption scandals at the highest levels of Government (examples, Commonwealth Games scam, 2G Spectrum allocation scam etc) and also within the Corporate sector (Satyam) have emerged in the last few years. (See list of scams in India)

This has lead to the revelation that even the highest levels of Government and Corporations can be corrupted in the lust for power and money. Tax-paying Indian citizens are being taken for a ride as their money is going in to fill the pockets of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and heads of corporations. When such cases are unearthed, the individuals involved almost never get punished. Cases are buried by political parties, and in some cases witnesses die under suspicious circumstances.

The country’s new freedom movement has begun. This time it is a movement for freedom against corruption that threatens to upset the financial stability of the country.

To counter this, several prominent public figures have come together to lead India’s latest revolution, to rid the country of corruption forever. To do so, the first step is to implement an independent body called the ‘Lokpal’ (Citizen’s Ombudsman) with the power to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without prior government permission. The bill is designed to create an anti-corruption and grievance redressal system that deters corruption by introducing severe punishment while providing effective protection to whistleblowers.

Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare went on hunger strike (a fast unto death) on April 5, 2011, pending the enactment of a Jan Lokpal Bill. Many Indians also began hunger fasts in support of his demand. Protesters chose yellow as their color and were seen wearing yellow dresses, T-shirts and waving yellow banners. All over the country people peacefully supported the new movement against corruption.

Online, loads of people (including many celebrities) signed up to the India Against Corruption feeds via Facebook and Twitter. They tweeted, shared, commented and raised an army of online supporters that spread the word about peaceful offline support actions happening worldwide. Information could be exchanged easily and instantly, and the movement gathered momentum within hours as the mobile phone has become the modern day version of the clandestine printing presses of the 1940s.

Today’s anti-corruption movement has become a symbol of people power in India. After being widely televised by the Indian media, and widely supported by almost every Indian citizen, the movement has attained credibility in the eyes of the Indian masses.

Its uniqueness in the fact that it was completely apolitical; was a movement solely of the people; did not wish to put in disarray the country as in the case of strikes organised by politcal parties; was completely peaceful; and was able to bend government will opposed to the creation of the Ombudsman – is a new win for Indians.

Social networking chatter has been filled with fears that Indians will once again go back to ‘sleep’ over this issue with time. However, we dont think so. Its the first time the country has come together as a nation, outside of the game of cricket. The voices of 1.2 billion people protesting to end corruption cannot be ignored forever. The government will be forced to submit to the demands of democracy or risk being overthrown. A deadline has been set, and the country now waits to give the government a chance to react to its demands.

Anna Hazare, planning to go on a hunger strike starting 16th August 2011 was arrested this morning by the police alleging that his hunger fast would incite the public. Anna released this video just before going to jail, asking Indians to spare 8 days of their lives to a corruption free India.

In the video he calls on everyone to ensure the protests are peaceful with no damage to Government or private property.

[Editor’s note: Very little is documented about how the people of India communicated and coordinated mass movements in the early 1940’s. Details provided above are first hand accounts from a courier who participated in the 1940s Indian freedom movement.]