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Indian States, Deradicalisation and Online Platforms

Indian States, Deradicalisation and Online Platforms
8th September 2020 Kabir Taneja
In Insights

Like many other countries, India has embarked on systemic deradicalisation programs over the past few years as part of its counter-terrorism thinking. Pushed through by the central government, some Indian states (policing is a state subject) have started their own deradicalisation programs, with pro-Islamic State (IS) cases pushing through the need for more holistic approaches to counter such threats of terrorism and ideological radicalisation.

The Indian state of Maharashtra, with a population of 112 million people, and the state of Kerala, with a population of 35 million, started the initial designs of their deradicalisation programs around 2016. While deradicalisation programs have been much debated, discussed and dissected in Western discourse, in India they mostly operate under the veil of a ‘national security’ argument, in which extremely restricted information flows and next to no public access to data on such issues exists, making studying the various moving parts of a deradicalisation program difficult.

The examples of Maharashtra and Kerala do offer some insights into the roles that digital ecosystems and platforms play, both as a user interface for potential radicalisation and recruitment, and law enforcement’s approach towards the same. As a largely human resource and intelligence-based policing system, these new avenues of radicalisation and terror activities are still being internalised by India’s security ecosystems, creating an ever-dynamic gap between technological advancement and public and security policy.

A recent study published by myself on deradicalisation programs in Maharashtra interestingly saw a lack of presence in both policy designs and practical implementation plans for these programs of online ecosystems and platforms. Examples such as Kerala’s ‘Operation Pigeon’, where the state claims to have ‘counselled’ 350 youths by “mining social media,” demonstrate how tactical design of such a program can bridge the gap between the online and offline. However, there is still not enough clarity on what role platforms themselves, both as companies and products, play in helping to develop long-term solutions that can be institutionalised, and developed as blueprints applicable to other states. The requirement for a more holistic approach towards these issues, even within Indian law enforcement, is palpable. In a recent television debate, a former senior Indian police officer recalled Mehdi Masroor Biswas, formerly known as the popular pro-IS propagandist @ShamiWitness on Twitter and as IS’s “secretary of online recruitment,” a claim that is patently false.

While arguments abound amongst both security practitioners and academics alike on what methodologies are best to bridge gaps between the online and offline ecosystems, specifically when it comes to policing, deradicalisation and counter-terror initiatives, India currently provides variables better than most countries to conduct trial-and-error technology-led solutions and counter-narratives to terror groups and radicalised ecosystems using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and so on as force multipliers. It is important to note here that India’s long tryst with facing terrorism has brushed away the usability and success of using online ‘counter-narratives’ as a tool; however, considering in most pro-IS cases in India the Internet was the first point of contact between individual and ideology, online counter-narratives, developed by localised sensibilities, remain a pertinent tool provided they are implemented effectively.

There is an increasingly observable need of further trickling down of these debates in both federal state structures in a polity such as India where policing and law enforcement is a state subject, and for state police ecosystems to be better equipped with knowledge and data of how online radical and terror ecosystems behave. The onset of far-right ecosystems such as the Boogaloo Bois and use of sites such as 4Chan and Gab also need to be filtered into the debate even though these ecosystems are not necessarily problematic in India. However, terms such as ‘right’ and ‘far-right’ do not only refer to white-supremacist groups. For example, right-wing Hindutva groups have also been using platforms such as WhatsApp, which is immensely popular in India, to disseminate Hindu right-wing propaganda and in some cases threats against minorities as well.

There are already good examples of Indian states taking strides in fighting disinformation and fake news, which also have cost lives in rural India. In states such as Telangana, officers such as Rema Rajeshwari have developed outreach programs covering 400 villages in the state, not to fight terrorism, but instead fake news, such as news of child abductions which have also led to communal clashes, and even deaths. India, the world’s second largest user of smartphones, and home to the lowest data and phone charges in the world, is an amalgamation of the pace of technology and relatively slow evolution of society both socially and economically. Systems created by the likes of Mrs Rajeshwari and Telangana police can be expanded, built upon and institutionalised with the help of multiple stakeholders such as the government, the public and industry.

Organisations such as the GIFCT, Tech Against Terrorism and others who are doing frontline work in this field are best situated to take these efforts vernacular in countries such as India, and construct a concoction of local government and public institutions in places such as Mumbai, Thiruvanthapuram, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Srinagar for regular consultations on best practices, trends, and knowledge, whether in a physical space or a digital one. My recent study on radicalisation and use of online platforms highlights a need to further democratise information and tools on how to use this information practically in both law enforcement and civil society spaces.