Rude encounters with Internet censorship

BY Vij| IN Digital Media | 01/10/2003
An Internet discussion group created by a militant outfit of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya invited government censorship, which in turn triggered a ban on thousands of Yahoo! Groups.


Shivam Vij


When one read news reports about Russia forcing Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) to install surveillance equipment, or Burma’s "Cyberspace Warfare Centre" hacking into computers that receive or send forbidden messages, or about the imprisonment of Chinese "cyber-dissidents", or internet censorship in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, one felt very secure about being Indian. Such regressively vulgar things as censorship of the Internet didn’t happen in democratic India. But after 22 September 2003 one has to reconsider that premise.


Shock and disbelief awaited Indian netizens who called up their ISPs to find out why they were unable to access the Yahoo! Groups website, They were told that the government had ordered them to block access to it.


Yahoo! Groups is a forum on which anyone can start a ‘group’ and use it as a discussion forum or a newsletter or for any group communication. Thousands of Indians subscribe to one yahoogroup or another. Apart from pornography, there are Indian yahoogroups on all sorts of things: groups for college alumni and old school pals, groups for cities and states, technical groups for engineers and doctors (like Varun Singh’s Campusology), groups for creative professionals (like Arun Verma’s Creativegarh) and groups that do nothing other than discussing Naipaul or Tagore. There are even a couple of journalism groups (like Chennai-based Subhash Rai’s Indian Online Journalism group). Some Indian websites use Yahoo! Groups to publish their newsletters.


There are other such ‘groups’ or mailing lists on the net - like, but they aren’t half as popular as A Google search for the words India yahoogroup yields over 12,000 results. So when a North-Eastern secessionist group wanted an online presence, the easiest option was a yahoogroup which, unlike a website, doesn’t cost a thing and needs no web-designers.


The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) is a militant outfit of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. The group is struggling to transform Meghalaya into an exclusive Khasi province and free it from ‘domination` by the Garo tribe. The outfit, which has close links with the Issak-Muivah faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), is engaged in a militant separatist movement for this purpose. Indian intelligence agencies claim that the HNLC promotes circulation of fake currency notes in Meghalaya at the behest of Pakistani spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). In November 2000 the Indian government had banned the HNLC.


On 10 August 2002, the HNLC created a yahoogroup for itself and called it "kynhun · Bri U Hynniewtrep". Yahoo! Groups requires each group to put itself in a category, and the Kynhun group is found under the category of ‘issues and causes’. Each group gets a homepage available to anyone anywhere on the Net, and the Kynhun URL is The group seeks to form an independent country — Hynniewtrep.


Government sources told the press that the Kynhun yahoogroup was blocked because it was "promoting anti-national news and containing material against the government of India and state government of Meghalaya." The government issued orders to hundreds of ISP’s to block this group. However, for want of technology to block just one group, these ISP’s ended up blocking the whole of Yahoo! Groups, thus blocking access to legitimate groups, like the ones named above, as well. They intimated the government about this, but it is not known if the government has explicitly issued orders to block the Yahoo! Groups domain.


The one-year-old Kynhun yahoogroup’s homepage now indicates — if you can access it, that is — that it has 82 members and 33 messages, but before the action it had just 25 members and 20 messages. Clearly, the government should know that banning free speech is counter-productive: it only ends up providing free publicity. But more than that, one wonders how a tiny email discussion forum can become a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the Republic of India. The Kynhun group’s contents are nothing but propaganda, and if it’s false the government should expose it by countering it.


One lengthy post, for instance, titled ‘Uranium Mining and Hynniewtrep People’, says: "I want to tell you how I feel about uranium and how the whole nuclear cycle affects our land, our lives, and our traditions." The yahoogroup also publishes a fortnightly newsletter.


Did the government block the group partly out of embarrassment? Though some of the messages call for independence, many of them are about corruption, police brutality against minorities and lack of public infrastructure.  It also carries messages about the alleged victimisation of minorities in Meghalaya. The HNLC’s objectives include getting rid of Garo tribes and ‘outsiders’ from Meghalaya and forming an exclusive State for Khasis and ‘Hynniewtrep tribes’ who trace their roots to "seven celestial families".


The homepage exhorts members to use English in their messages so as to reach a larger audience. Despite this, a lot of the messages use a language not known to this writer. An example:


Subject:  katto katne


bah kyrmen,


nyngkong eh nga iaroh ia ka kynhun ba ka la pynmih ia ki views jong

ka seng ha ka internet. wise decision. i have been searching for ur

website for quite awhile and this group will do just fine.


a few questions though :-


1. the finance secy of hnlc was arrested just some time back. my

question is ... why only recently? when authorities had sort of known

his whereabouts all along. has the hnlc, in any way, found disfavour

in the lapang govt.


2. it seems the hynniewtrep mafia is just a creation of police and

shillong times. yes, there may be deserters, but i don`t think a riew

ieit-ri would corrupt the name hynniewtrep.


3. police are known to be hand in glove in petty crime as well as

high crimes. could u care to throw light on the involvement of mlp

top brass in coal trade.


lad phi shem ba ki jingkylli jong nga ki long too frank, ngan

sngewthuh lada phi refuse ban post ia ka ha ka group message. u could

send me a mail though.


khublei. wat duh jingkyrmen. ka jingialeh ka don bun rukom.


khla-wait stad-pyrkhat


Had it not been for this fuss creating by the government order, this group would not have received the kind of attention that it is now receiving. The ban has made many curious to find out what this controversial group is about. I, for one, asked a friend abroad to access the group and send me its messages. But the entire blocking of can be circumvented by using ‘anonymiser’ services such as or Besides, a Google search for Kynhun can give you access to cached pages where you can read their messages. The Internet is really too vast for governments to stifle voices of dissent like it can in the real world. Even if the government makes it difficult for Kynhun yahoogroup to continue its activities, the secessionist militant group can find another free email list.


We do have the precedent of the government banning the online edition of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper during the Kargil war in 1999, but does the Yahoo! Groups case portend greater Internet censorship in India? In 2000,  Parliament passed the Information Technology Act which does not give the government the power to censor online content. But through the Act the government created a body called CERT-In: the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, which comes under the Department of Information Technology. This organisation became functional two months ago — in July 2003 — and one of CERT-In’s jobs is to ensure "balanced flow of information", which is apparently a euphemism for blocking websites. Their first accomplishment is the Kynhun trophy, which has, wittingly or unwittingly, inconvenienced thousands of Indian netizens. Now that we have a bunch of bureaucrats paid to block  websites, we can expect more of this.


Organisations like CERT-IN exist in many countries, but they don’t perform the function of political censorship. They stick to dealing with hackings and things like "W32/Blaster worm taking advantage of Buffer Overrun In RPC Interface", which, by the way, are CERT-In’s other functions.


Before blocking Yahoo! Groups the government should have told Yahoo! about it. The government says it did. A government statement said: "The representatives of Yahoo! in India were requested to remove the objectionable material from the reference, however they declined to comply with the request." The Hindustan Times, however, quoted a Yahoo! India spokesperson as saying that they had not been approached. In any case, the Yahoo! Groups site comes under their parent company in the US, and Yahoo! India as such has no control over it.


The upsurge of protest against the move on the Internet is obviously not as much out of concern for Kynhun’s right to freedom of speech as out of the inconvenience caused to users of other Indian Yahoo! Groups. Moderators of some of these Yahoo! Groups have been writing to newspapers and circulating online appeals. "This is a violation of freedom of _expression and sets a dangerous precedent of censorship and control over the Internet in India," said Paris-based Harsh Kapoor of the South Asia Citizens’ Web in one such message. He says he is surprised why human rights activists in India haven’t got their act together on this issue.


About whether the Kynhun group itself should be blocked or not, the issue is not settled amongst netizens. Bombay-based media analyst Pradyuman Maheshwari commented in the Mediaah! Newsletter: "At the cost of sounding like a prude and going against the popular sentiment amongst liberally minded mediapersons, we would think that Yahoo! must block or delete the anti-India forum that has been set up as a group… If there are laws and they have been imposed, then every Indian enterprise must toe the line. The options are clear. Yahoo! India can contest the decision in the Courts or exit the country."


Harsh Kapoor however sees it as a larger issue of civil liberties and rights of Internet users. He says the Internet is a full fledged extension of the public sphere and public space, and the time has come for rights activists in India to take up these issues and not leave them to techies.



Shivam Vij runs a yahoogroup called Zest which you won’t be able to access so long as this ban lasts. Contact:


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