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Armed with information

SEVANTI NINAN

Concerned citizens are using the Internet to create alternative sources of information that provide an option other than the regular media, official or privately owned.

INFORMATION does not always have to come only from the media or the government, and thank goodness for that. A third source is concerned, proactive citizenry. As Republic Day rolls around this year in a particularly contentious climate, with armies on the border and acts of terrorism erupting in our cities, it might seem there is precious little to feel positive about, but that in fact is not so. The Government may block Internet access in Jammu and Kashmir, bar STD and ISD access in public phone booths in the State, stonewall on the Right to Information bill at the Centre, and be callous enough to exploit Kashmiris with some amazingly blatant corruption in Doordarshan's Kashir channel. But there are people who recognise that more information, not less, is the need of the hour, and are doing something about it. They are both Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri, living both here and abroad.

The Internet is this wonderful place where you get unlimited space to communicate at precious little cost. More power to those who know how to use it. There are government sites on the Net to tell you about terrorism, Kashmir, our armed forces and our preparedness. And there are non-governmental ones. Go for the latter. A few may go off the deep end screaming about human rights, but there are others which are both clear-eyed and clear-headed while being concerned about human rights.

If you expect the government-funded Institute for Defence Studies Analysis which is home to both TV and print pundits on defence issues to be a repository of information on the Internet you'll be disappointed. Their website is a plain institutional one, not meant to be a source of information on any subject. But the not so lovable K.P.S. Gill presides over an institute which has a very good web portal on terrorism. Run by a not-for-profit society, this South Asia terrorism portal is technologically spiffy, graphics-happy, well-organised and informative. Updated daily, you can click on the country or state of your choice to get a brief run-down under the following heads: assessment, backgrounders, time line, documents, acts and ordinances, terrorist groups and bibliography. The time line gives you incidents that have occurred day by day over the last year.

The countries covered are Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India and Pakistan. And the terrorism or militancy affected States which are covered are Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland and Punjab. The perspective is unambiguously Indian where the other South Asian countries are concerned, but it is a useful site.

For information on India's armed forces you could turn to www.armedforces.nic.in or you could visit www.bharat-rakshak.com. The former is a government site, the latter is the combined initiative of a lot of individuals working on it over the years, purely out of personal interest and initiative. Back in 1996 when the Internet was new to India and there was no official site for the armed forces a few Indians decided to put up websites related to India's Defence on the Internet using free web hosting available at Geocities. Three individuals had different initiatives initially on the army, navy and air force, later they decided to get together, merge these and build on them.

The combined site today has sections on land forces, navy air force, amar jawan, missiles, and space. Some sections more recently updated than others. The "Amar Jawan" section has a roll of honour which actually lists through the years, starting from 1965, the men who have laid down their lives in wars — commissioned officers, junior commissioned officers, and men of other ranks. None of this can be found on the official armed forces website at www.armedforces.nic.in. The latter is useful too, in a predictable way, but meanwhile the "Bharat Rakshak" site, spurred by the competition, has got itself volunteers feeding information from several States in India. In 1997 it had got itself a sponsor, a publisher of books on the military. It now calls itself a one-stop reference site for anyone wanting to know anything about the Indian Armed Forces, a claim which the official site certainly cannot make. And while the latter does not say anywhere how frequently it is updated, its most recent press release in the navy section dates back to 1999.

Among sites on the army, one run by a formation of the Indian army located in Srinagar is www.armyinkashmir.org. It is resourceful, while being propagandist in nature. The only human rights violations referred to on the site is of course by terrorists, and there are a lot of pleasant features on jawans donating blood and saving lives, the army organising medical and veterinary camps, rescuing hostages, constructing bridges and suchlike. Its Kargil section is detailed and useful. A less rosy view comes from a non-official site of the Indian armed forces, run by ex-defence personnel. At www.indianarmedforces.com, it offers comparisons of India's arsenal with Pakistan's, details areas in which there are shortcomings in the Indian armed forces, and so on.

Former officials of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the police, the army and other forces are now running institutes which run sites providing information on the whole area of security. Some of them have been described above, another is the one run by the South Asia Analysis Group, which refrains from telling you who exactly they are, but the initiative comes from one of the categories of former officials mentioned above. It posts collection of analytical papers, notes and updates at http://www.saag.org/aim.html. The site says that the aim of the group is not to compete with Governments, academics, NGOs or other institutions dealing with strategic analysis and national security but to provide another point of view for the decision makers and other national/international researchers and users.

As for the many Kashmir sites run by different sets of people, there is what looks like an honest effort at www.jammu-kashmir.com which calls itself the insiders guide to Jammu and Kashmir. It is the result of months of intense discussions by Kashmiris in India, the United States and London, and the feeling that a forum is required to tell the complete truth about the situation in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The media in Srinagar today often feels helpless in telling all the stories about the Government or about the Opposition parties and organisations. But the common people in Srinagar know what is what. This forum on the internet is meant to tell the rest of the world about what really is happening in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.''

It goes on to say that when it talks about Kashmiris, it is not referring only to those people who speak Kashmiri but all the inhabitants of the State including the Kashmiri Pandits, the Mirpuris, Ladakhis, Baltis, Sudhanese, etc. "We believe Jammu and Kashmir is the property of all these sub-nationalities that make up the state and not the property of the Kashmiris alone." The information on this site is fairly clear-sighted. So there it is. There are concerned citizens using the Internet to create alternate sources of information and they provide an option to the regular media, official or privately owned. In some cases, as with the saag.org site they also offer analysis on how the media is performing in its Kashmir coverage.

Meanwhile the government media is not exactly covering itself with glory. Doordarshan last week switched from DD News to DD Bharati with none of the transition issues of the news and current affairs programmes to DD National being properly resolved. The promised eight hours of news and current affairs on DD National therefore will not be available for some time. As for Kashir, the Kashmir channel purportedly set up to win hearts there, it is doing anything but. Three individuals were arrested for operating a neat scam involving some Rs. 82 crores worth of programming. The channel is now in a mess, to put it mildly.

Private channels are treading carefully too. Last week the BBC scheduled and again postponed its reality programme on the Indian Army, "Commando". It was to air on the date of the Calcutta terrorist strike. And the Internet access ban on both sides of the Kashmir border continues. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) had withdrawn access to cyber cafes at the beginning of the year, while withdrawing STD and ISD access from public call offices and the news from Pakistan is that there too officials have sealed off all telecommunications links, including Internet access, in several regions, especially those near the Indian-Pakistani frontier.

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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