We live in a hyper-connected world, which is good for building communities but equally so for threatening them. This has come to the forefront over the last few days as special trains full of people from the Northeast have been conveying them back home from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. All on the back of terrorising SMSs and internet-enabled rumours that bypassed the majority population but struck the target audience in its vulnerable spot. But what does it say of our intelligence and policing authorities that even they appear to have been caught completely by surprise? Why didn’t they intercept the chain of events leading from Assam and Maharashtra to Karnataka and now to Kerala, unfolding over weeks before igniting into a terrorised exodus? Now, websites have been blocked, SMSs have been limited, individuals have been arrested for intimidation and inflammatory messages. But just as last month’s violence in Assam wasn’t arrested in time although it could have been, should have been, the alarm bells didn’t ring in the administration on time this time either. Physical policing wasn’t pre-emptive, and cyber-policing has been no better. Yet, the demands of vigilance are even more taxing on this front. P Chidambaram himself said recently, “I think all that we have done to protect the infrastructure in the physical space seems to be a lighter task than when we face threats that have been outlined in the cyber space.” And FBI director Robert Mueller has stated that the cyber threat will be the number one threat “tomorrow”.
We are not suggesting the task is a simple one. As many websites as the government takes down, circumnavigating servers in a host of countries, incendiary images of violence and exhortations to violence cannot be wiped out. And in a country with around 700 mobile phones, hateful SMSs can’t be rooted out either. But smart policing, proactive rather than reactive actions, these can make a lot of difference in the future. Special trains can be conjured up at short notice, and the same must hold for smart, cyber counter-campaigns. Next time something like this happens, can we expect the administration to ensure that it’s the SMS of calm that goes more viral?