Sunday, May 20, 2007

Moral Policing and Elite Indian Institutions.

There has been a lot of furore over the painting of arts student Chandramohan. We know how our government protects every micro-community in India that takes offence to anything ranging from art work to some one even thinking offensive thoughts. How they manage to read someone's thought, I leave it up to your imagination. (I was making that one up.)

But the subject of my discussion here has got to do with policing something else - the online world in institutions of higher learning. The subject of my ire is the Indian Institute of Technology - Roorkee.

Before I go ahead, though, I would want to make certain things clear. I am very proud of my alma mater. It is a great institution with great tradition and I was really happy to learn that they were one of the first few institutions of higher learning in India to introduce wi-fi in hostels. It is a very progressive institution in that sense; with students manning a lot of the Institute's networks, and has made great strides over the past couple of years on many counts, despite being at a semi-urban locality. And yes, it's an IIT, so it is a prestigious institution in our country.

It then pains me to hear that students in such an institution are facing a situation where they will be not much better off than their Chinese counterparts in the internet domain. Based on chat conversations with juniors of mine, I have come to learn that quite a lot of sites have been blocked and many more are in the pipeline. While I respect the need for an educational institution to block certain things which it believes might impede the educational purpose of having internet in the first place - such as blocking P2P networks that apart from promoting illegal file sharing is a major bandwidth hog, and porn sites (yes I know it's not completely right but hey, you can't argue with your profs about that, can you?) - but I don't approve of blocking a host of other sites such as youtube, dailymotion, santabanta etc.

Santabanta, you ask? Yes exactly, even I thought it was a site for one's harmless guilty pleasures! Now again I may not have given a convincing enough argument yet. Youtube and Dailymotion are not blocked as yet, but they are going to be blocked pretty soon and many more sites will come up in their queue. I don't have official reasons for this, but the word going around is that these sites are 'potential time wasters'. Now hang on. I know Youtube started off as just that, where you probably saw your friend's home video or TV shows or soccer/cricket clips. But these sites have now more prominently come up as brilliant digital repositories of screen casts and plenty more that might prove more useful than maybe the daily Times of India gossip page that students in Govind Bhawan hostel wake up to every morning. Or more useful than the hours (sometimes even days) students spend bombing each other on Counterstrike or Age of Empires or whatever new game that's the in-thing on the hostel LAN.

Fact of the matter: You will waste time if you want to. There is no stopping a Roorkee bakarbaaz, as they call them there.

So what now worries me is, when an authority starts deciding that a certain thing is worth blocking and starts doing so, there is no stopping him from blocking many more sites. And once this culling is in full effect, the issue of drawing the line gets shelved once and for all. I am tempted to insert an Orwellian analogy here, but that might be a little extreme, so I'll let it pass. But one may decide that checking your Gmail is a potential time waster as there's this chat client inside Gmail. So off with your heads!

So far this seems to be just specific to Roorkee, as IIT Delhi and a couple other IITs don't seem to have these issues. So I hear.

Again, this is one of seven institutions dreamed up by Nehru, who despite a lot of criticism for his many failings, had got the IIT system right and it still remains among India's crown jewels. These are intelligent students here who might know a thing or two about priorities in life. Enough to not get 'morally corrupted', if that's the reasoning - the other being 'time wasting' - for this widespread cull. I am not trying to alienate other engineering students here. Most youth these days are aware of what they do online and are drawn to a site of their own volition because they want to visit it, and not as if by some magnetic force of attraction.

In a free country there must be some amount of personal freedom given to individuals to do whatever they personally deem right in the online world at least. If even such supposedly aware citizens are denied their freedoms, then it remains no surprise why the situation for other less aware citizens are grim. Of course, other than flaming bloggers in comments, or indulging in illegal activities there is not much of the offline-offence-taking-community that you can offend, can you?

Oh yes, I hear someone saying Orkut communities. It is surprising, Orkut is not blocked here in Roorkee. Or is it?


  1. Any kind of ban enforcement based on moral policing even if it is porn leads us down to proverbial slippery slope. Heck, even how porn is defined is debatable (Mid-day Mate is porn?). Educational institutions can block sites only if they are compromising network security or causing an unreasonable burden on their servers. anything else be it sites that students 'waste time' on are beyond their jurisdiction.

    As you point out, students will waste time if they want to and let the students be responsible for their time. As long as they are completing their assignments and faring well on their exams, the institution shouldn't care what students do in their spare time.

  2. [Patrix]
    Yes very true. There is a very thin line that separates the vulgar from the aesthetically pretty (so you cannot define porn that way) I do not mind the Institution blocking things like P2P networks for their load. But the internet is so huge a thing to go on a blanket site-blocking spree.

    I have seen brilliant students get academically screwed, thanks to AOE and Counterstrike. And if the net is going to affect more people, so be it. It is one's personal sense of priority in life on what's good for him or not, and the net in general does more good than harm.

    Institutions can provide for an educationally conducive and vibrant environment. The personal likes and dislikes of a student however, should remain out of their domain.

    Unfortunately elite institutions are good at keeping these injustices out of the media spotlight. And this will also remain within the confines and chatter of the campus and students respectively.

  3. maybe the people of feel the need to do the moral policing just get a bit too insecure. they should realise that younger people are always more intelligent and have access to more current information and therefore are more than capable of making right decisions for themselves.

  4. oops! i meant people "who" feel the need.. :D