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Most of the readers who come from India will probably be familiar with the names of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) and its director Arindam Chaudhuri, if for no other reason than the carefully planned publicity drive that the said names have featured in during the last few years. Right from its inception, IIPM has been subjected to criticism on several grounds, especially regarding the claims made on behalf of the institution regarding its reputation, infrastructure, academic excellence and future career prospects of its students.
Instances of such criticism include articles penned and published by Siddhartha Deb in The Caravan, Rashmi Bansal of Just Another Magazine, Maheshwar Pai’s Careers360 magazine and several others (for further details, see here and here). Among the allegations made, the lack of veracity in the claims voiced by IIPM in its brochure and website appears to be the strongest concern. The institute has reacted strongly against such allegations, going on to file lawsuits against the aforesaid authors, Penguin (which is publishing a book containing Siddhartha’s article as a chapter) and even Google India on charges of “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libelous and slanderous articles.”
However, in what appears to be a rather surprising move that has sparked off considerable furor amidst the advocates of freedom of speech and expression (especially in the internet), the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has come up with an order directing Internet Service Licensees to block access to 78 URLs from India, 73 of which contained such criticism directed towards IIPM. According to Gulshan Rai, director-general of the Computer Emergency Response Team-India (CERT-In), this order, signed by Subodh Saxena of the DoT is in pursuance to a directive issued by a court in Gwalior to such effect.
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The sheer range of the censorship is quite surprising as it does not seemed to have taken into account the widely differing nature and/or reliability of the sources these URLs pointed to. In the list were URLs belonging to humorous spoof news providers like Faking News and Unreal Times, as well as reputed names in the journalism arena such as the Outlook Magazine, Careers360, The Times of India, FirstPost, Rediff, The Indian Express, The Economic Times, MensXP, The Wall Street Journal and The Caravan Magazine. Even old blog posts from 2005-2006, such as the ones penned by Gaurav Sabnis and Rashmi Bansal criticizing IIPM have been pulled out, as have been the URLs on consumer complaints portals like Akosha and consumercourtforum.in, as well as a compilation of links on Bitly by Mahesh Murthy. For a detailed list of the blocked URLs, see here.
What is most surprising of all is how even official websites such as that of the University Grants Commission (UGC) have not escaped the purge! One of the URLs mentioned direct to a public notice given by UGC, which is the competent authority regulating Indian institutes of higher education, dated July, 2012 confirming the unrecognized status of IIPM. A judicial/ministerial order blocking access to a public notice by a competent authority meant for the benefit of the student community seems a far cry away from any semblance of democracy.
The entire Outlook Blogs sub-domain seemed to have borne the brunt of the block, at least for some time, although the order was specifically regarding certain blog posts relating to IIPM. Some of the authors, however, like Shivam Vij from Kafila, have openly defied the order by publishing the banned article elsewhere, which goes to show the degree of strong reaction that the censorship has kindled, especially given that the authors and publishers affected were not given any chance of fair hearing (audi alteram partem), which is one of the essential pre-requisites of a just legal system. Several others like Maheshwar Peri of Careers360 and Anant Nath of The Caravan have also gone on record of pondering legal actions challenging the order.
Arindam Chaudhuri has told Firstpost in an interview that while he’s no objection to satiric comments made in the democratic spirit, he’s still glad that “defamatory links with malicious interests have been ordered to be removed.” He even went on to term UGC and AICTE to be “organisations full of bribe-seeking corrupt people”, who, at the behest of “some of (his) petty competitors with dirty past records of filth and cheating…had been deliberately spreading misleading information about IIPM to hurt its business interests.” For IIPM’s ‘official’ response vide Mr. Chaudhuri’s Twitter Account, see here.
Well, the story is certainly far from over at this time and is likely to play out in greater details in the days to come. While there have been precedents of wholesale blocking of URLs ordered by the Indian Government as during the Assam violence row in 2012, this is perhaps the first time such a huge blocking has been precipitated by a judicial order. Several questions, ranging from whether the court has the legal authority to give such an order, especially regarding official organizations like UGC to whether the order is flawed from lack of fair hearing opportunities given to parties affected, are making rounds, to which the Spicy IP Team hopes to bring answers in the next few days for the readers’ benefit. Till then, as Mr. Chaudhuri himself might have put it, you’d better not count your chicken before they hatch!