Why Militant Maoists Are Attacking Mobile Phone Towers in India

Photo courtesy of Kadir Aksoy

Early in the morning on September 19, radical Maoists allegedly set fire to three telephone towers and a bus in rural Bihar, India, continuing a trend of targeting mobile towers. From 2008 to 2013, 245 similar attacks were recorded.

Daily newspaper The Telegraph India reports that 20 to 25 Naxalites, as the far-left Maoist guerrillas are also called, raided Goda and Vitiya village in Bihar. They allegedly fired shots close to a local market in response to the fact that shops had stayed open despite a 24-hour strike the day before. The strike (or bandh) was initiated after an altercation on September 13 in which three Naxalites were killed.

The Naxalite or Maoist insurgency, which leaves hundreds of civilians dead each year, is a complex issue dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Naxalite movement began in the town of Naxalbari, West Bengal, in which farmers rose up against oppressive land owners. According to an analysis in newspaper DNA India, “While the Naxalite movement thrives on the original spirit of Naxalbari; the Maoist struggle is an outcome of the 1967 uprising.”

In the last 15 years, the Maoists have advocated for a mass revolution by the people. This has mainly focused on farmers, tribals and indigenous people (adivasis). The aim of the Maoists is to “seize political power through Protracted People’s War (PPW) – armed insurrection,” as V. Balasubramaniyan describes in an article for Canadian geopolitical consultancy GeoPolitical Monitor.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Maoists said they are defending the rights of the poor and marginalized:

They [Maoists] call for a revolution, demanding a radical restructuring of the social, political, and economic order. The Maoists believe the only way marginalized communities can win respect for their rights is to overthrow the existing structure by violent attacks on the state.

The burning of mobile phone towers has been a continuous tactic for Maoists since 2008. They have targeted phone towers on several occasions and in the last four years, Maoists have “blown up” over 200 mobile towers in nine states, according to D. M. Mitra, a former official in the Ministry of Home Affairs and an expert on Indian left-wing extremism. Mitra writes that Maoists alleged that security forces were able to track the location of Maoists with mobile phones.

In an article for Global ECCO (a network for alumni of the U.S. Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, which funds anti-terrorism training for military officers from other countries) called “The Relevance of Technology in the fight against India’s Maoist Insurgency,” he discusses Maoists use of mobile phones (or lack thereof) in their operational areas. He writes:

They may even kill people they find using mobile phones, on the suspicion that they are police informers.

In 2013, India introduced the Central Monitoring System (CMS), which is meant to allow authorities to access phone calls and communication for the purpose of national security. The CMS offers the government a way to “lawfully” intercept calls, texts and emails; it is considered to be one way the government has responded to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during which armed attackers left more than 150 people dead.

Also last year, in a report compiled by the Indian Social Institute, a centre for socio-economic development and human rights, the government states the goal of building mobile towers in “remote and inaccessible Maoist strongholds,” with the aim to bring mobile connections to 987 villages of Jharkhand, with a total of 2,200 mobile towers by the end of the 2013.

According the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA):

Maoists recognize the threat that an efficient – or even minimally working – cellular network constitutes to their own security and survival, and have systematically attacked isolated mobile towers wherever possible.

Responses and commentary within social media have been sparse, but the “Naxal Movement in India” does have a community page on Facebook and Twitter responses have included:

Other responses have referenced the violence in response to International Day of Peace on September 21. Writer and disarmament activist Binalakshmi Nepram wrote:

In response to the most recent torching of mobile phone towers in Bihar, police raids are being conducted with patrols in place to find the people responsible.

Pop-up African home, in an Oakland park, marks Ethiopian and Eritrean New Year

zena artist talkUsing the stories and voices of Ethiopian and Eritrean taxi drivers as inspiration, ten Bay Area artists have created a special pop-up art installation called “Home Away from Home” on a park lawn near Lake Merritt. The show is part of a series of local events honoring the Ethiopian and Eritrean new year.

Ethiopians and Eritreans around the world hold their New Year’s Day on Thursday, marking the end of the rainy season in eastern Africa and the start of that region’s spring. Though Bay Area Ethiopians and Eritreans will not be celebrating the day with a change of weather, one of the highlights of the week here is “Home Away from Home,” a temporary gallery set up in traditional-style circular home— an Ethiopian gojo, or Eritrean adjo—right in Eastshore Park, next to Lake Merritt.

“We wanted the theme to be ‘home away from home,’ and we thought, ‘Why don’t we take a home, away from home?’” said co-organizer Ellias Fullmore, an Ethiopian American musician and artist based in San Jose, California.

The Eastshore Park lawn welcomes curious passers-by. Along the gallery walls, the wood designs in the circular structure cast patterns of shadows on the artwork, and the shadow art seems to take on a life of its own as dusk approaches. A nearby soccer practice and the sounds of cars driving by make it feel less like a museum and more like a home.

Each of the artists who participated was given in advance a recording and a transcript of an interview with an Eritrean or Ethiopian taxi driver. Though not all the artists are Ethiopian or Eritrean, they all have ties to the community. Without meeting or knowing the name of the drivers, the artists then used the taxi cab stories for reflection and inspiration.

The art goes beyond the individual taxi drivers and touches on themes of home, travel, identity and space. Organizers Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopian-American singer, musician and cultural activist, andSephora Woldu, an Eritrean American visual artist and filmmaker, conducted the initial interviews with the drivers, and each of the ten artists created his or her own interpretation through art, music and poetry.

In explaining the importance of taxi drivers, Woldu said theirs are “stories of migration” that “inspired new artwork from artists who wanted to honor their experience.” Many Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants settle into taxi driving, Hadero said. “Everyone has an uncle or cousin who is a taxi cab driver,” she said.

Zéna, a visual artist and musician who goes by one name, said, “It’s important for people in the world to see their stories on paper.” She added, “Some people’s histories are left out of the picture.”

The Bay Area is home to a large Ethiopian and Eritrean population. While the statistics do not account for people who are originally from Ethiopia, but traveled through other countries, according to Hadero the population is close to 20,000. “It’s huge and it’s growing,” she said. In many cases, working as a taxi driver is also an immigrant experience around the United States. In 2000, a Brooklyn-based consulting company found, nearly 40 percent of taxi and limo drivers in the United States were immigrants.

Zéna happened to be matched with the transcript and audio from a female taxi driver. Her watercolor painting for the show, which she calls “what was lost, what was gained,” has an almost religious feeling. The dominant image is a woman’s face, with bright purples and reds surrounding her. The neck gives way to what appears to be a deer, and hands that hold strings woven into an old-school boombox.

As she listened to the tape recording she had been given, Zéna said, she noticed hip-hop music in the background, and the tone of some of the language favored by her cab driver, “African-American culture and hip-hop had impacted her,” Zéna said. “One of the first things I thought of was her holding a boombox.”

Home Away from Home is part of a larger initiative sponsored by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Bay Area Now (BAN7). BAN7 aims to make art more accessible to all people.

BAN7 pairs artists with community members for projects like this, to provide participatory arts experiences in places like parks, neighborhood centers and housing complexes. Other projects include collaborations with artists in SOMA, Mission, Excelsior and West Oakland.

“Mostly I do my art for myself,” said Natasha Shompole, a Kenyan-born visual artist, now living in El Cerrito, whose painting in the show is called “Nara.” The taxi driver Shompole was paired with, she said, had traveled through nine different countries to reach the Bay Area. Shompole’s piece depicts the profile of a face at the bottom left with an elaborate crown of shapes with nine points. The lines from each of the nine points are strung together like a geometrical spider web.

“I am hoping people will see, or at least think about, how the small components make a whole,” Shompole said.

She might just as easily have been describing the Ethiopian and Eritrean community in Oakland.

5 Things You Should Know About India’s New Prime Minister Narendra Modi

This article originally appeared in Global Voices.

Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Indians have chosen Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a historic landslide victory that unseated the ruling Indian National Congress party and signifies the return of a single-party majority.

Modi will soon be at the helm of the world’s largest democracy and an economic powerhouse. He has received criticism from many people, including writer Salman Rushdie and Harvard University professor Homi Bhabha, among others, in a joint statement against his candidacy.

But who is this charismatic but polemic leader? What does he stand for? There are things that are important to know, and not all of them bad.

1. He is controversial for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots

Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when riots broke out in the city of Godhra after a train carrying Hindus was burnt down as it was coming from the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. In the ensuring Hindi-Muslim violence, between 900 and 2,000 people were killed, predominantly Muslim.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, reportedly expressed satisfaction after the dismal events of 2002. His only regret was that he did not handle the news media better, according to the New York Times.

Though he has been cleared by the courts of India, some still believe he allowed the Gujarat riots to rage on. Senior police officer in the Gujarat intelligence bureau Sanjiv Bhatt alleges that Modi told officials that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson.

2. He may prove to have a positive impact on the economy

Modi’s win is expected to improve trade with the United States and boost the Indian economy. After interviewing 68,500 voters before and after the elections, a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Endowment and India’s Lok Foundation reported that 57 percent of interviewees mentioned economic issues as “most important.”

As chief minister of Gujarat, he oversaw the rapid industrialization of once sleepy areas, a feat he says he wants to replicate elsewhere in India. Modi has used his successes in Gujarat as election leverage, holding up the “Gujarat model” to differentiate himself, as news site Live Mint reported.

If the 2002 riots hurt his campaign, the economic angle helped boost him back up. As Rajeev Malik, a Singapore-based economist, said in a Financial Times column:

It is not as if the 2002 [Gujarat riots] blot has been wiped out; it is just that the broader current urgency of economic well-being has overtaken a dated tragedy.

3. His track record on women’s issues may be lacking

Will the role of women improve under a Modi lead government? In an article for the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Hardeep Dhillon criticized both candidates for seeing women through the lens of safety, security and education. She argued Modi specifically sees women as passive:

women are imagined to behave, think, and perform in uniformity and their politics are established prior to their emergence on the political landscape. As a result, Indian women are stripped of the very political agency Mr. Modi claims to advocate for, rendering them as passive – rather than active – political actors.

The author also raised concerns about the contrast between Modi’s vocal condemnations of the “rape culture” that led to the 2012 Delhi gang rape and his silence on the treatment of Muslim and minority women in his state. His “secret wife” – Modi had presented himself as a bachelor until this election cycle – has also caused some to question his treatment of women.

4. He maintains an anti-immigrant stance

significant number of Bangladeshis have migrated to India in the past decade to reunite with family members, for job opportunities, and to escape environmental crises, among other reasons. The wave of people has prompted India to step up security along its border with Bangladesh, including installing barbed-wire fences.

If Modi has his way, he would send all the undocumented Bangaldeshi immigrants back. In a speech on April 28, 2014, Modi threatened:

I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write down, that after May 16, will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages.

The reaction to Modi’s speech on social media showed people are listening. Posts under the #deportbangladeshis hashtag made it to at the top of Twitter’s trend list in India.

5. His past religious fervor sets a questionable example for a secular India 

Modi was a youth member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, volunteer Hindu nationalist group, and describes himself as a Hindu nationalist. In contrast to his youth as an RSS member, Modi has recently said he does not believe in dividing voters along religious lines.

Yet some still worry his election doesn’t bode well for religious tolerance. AsSunny Hundal wrote in an opinion piece for CNN:

The broader context is that India is seeing a rising tide of intolerance whipped up by Hindu nationalist groups that have forced books to be bannedintimidated journalists and threatened people for criticizing their leaders.

French Political Scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in an interview with Scroll.in, alleged:

Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising on Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B.

Indian author Pankaj Mishra painted a particularly dark picture in The Guardian, saying Modi’s election means “a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947.

For his part, Modi has maintained he speaks to all of India, regardless of religion:

For the nation my mantra is 125 crore Indians. Hindu, Muslim, Christians… The country had enough of all these terminologies. The new terminologies will be youth, poor, farmer, village, city, education.

Time will tell if he means that.

India: Mapping Street Harassment and Promoting Safe Cities

It may be a challenge to find an Indian girl who has managed to avoid being harassed on the street. Elsa Marie D’Silva is one of the founding members of Safecity, a crowdbased mapping service to “pin the creeps.” When asked if she’d ever experienced street harassment, D’Silva responded, “I haven’t met a single Indian girl who hasn’t faced street harassment.” Most women are trained to walk off quietly without creating a scene.

Safecity strongly believes all women We strongly believes that 'all women have the right to live safely"

Street harassment is pervasive in India and around the world, prompting many organizations to take action in order to combat this problem. In India, some of these include Freeze the Tease, andHollaback India. Safecity takes a different approach, the focus is not just to ask for people to respond to the harasser, but to “pin” the location of the incident on a map.

Part of a Safecity Bystander Campaign, courtesy of Safecity's Facebook page

Safecity (also on Twitter and Facebook), inspired by a similar project in Egypt calledHarassmap, began as a response to the massive protests after the now infamous Delhi gangrape in December 2012. The creators aimed to establish a platform and forum to address harassment on a long term basis. Safecity is an information aggregation platform to help identify hotspots in a city where abuse has been reported. To create a safe space for all people, Safecity asks users to “Pin the creeps!” sharing stories, photographs and/or videos and, most importantly, the location of where the event happened.

Thus far, there have been over 2700 reported incidents. While the focus is on larger trends, rather than individual cases, Safecity has been working with police in two states to see how this information might be used in coordination with law enforcement.

A poster for schools available on the Safecity website

Safecity may also be a prevention tool. In one case, referred to as the “Shakti Mills Case” the accused confessed that they had raped four women at the same spot. According to the organizers this means other attempts could have been made, as D’Silva and Saloni said, “If a few people had reported the spot as a harassment prone area, different action could have been taken.”

The founders of Safecity are a small group of like-minded citizens who believe in the right to live in a safe society. “We also believe that a woman should be able to move around without fear or distress; without having to calculate which road she has to travel on so that she will be safe; without having to worry about the clothes she wears or the people she is with.”

As D’Silva and fellow founder Saloni Malhotra wrote via email, “People who harass do so in their own comfort zones. Silence on the part of victims and bystanders makes them more confident and the harassment only grows.” Instead of feeling hopeless, the organizers ask, “What can we do as ordinary citizens to change the situation? Isn’t it the society that created this problem in the first place? What can we do to make change?”

Screenshot of the Safecity map

With this in mind, Safecity is working on a series of videos discussing the importance of women knowing how to keep themselves safe. Some of the suggestions Safecity has compiled include: avoid traveling alone, never accept food or drinks from a person you don’t know, and always get your own drink at a party, among others. Let’s hope it won’t be long before these lists are no longer needed.

Training Videos by Farmers, for Farmers

Some days, community agricultural extension workers in India have to travel many miles between several villages in one day. Would it be possible to make these jobs easier through technology, to tap into existing organizational structures?

What started as a research project in Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Marketsteam in 2006 evolved into an independent nonprofit just two years later. Digital Green by linking technology to field workers (also known as extension workers)  they can transform the lives of the poor around the world. How? With videos made by and for community members and screened locally with a mediator. Digital Green works with partners to “communicate good practices to the community using locally produced videos and mediated dissemination.” Here is one of their videos: Sugari Bai.

Since 2010, Digital Green has reached over 3,100 villages and engaged 234,360 unique viewers. In August 2012, they began scaling up their efforts, hoping to reach 10,000 villages and one million farmers in India in the next three years. They have produced over 2,600 videos in 20 different languages.

Lakshmi Iyer is the Deputy Director of Strategy and Innovation at Digital Green. Through a Skype interiview, Iyer described Digital Green a “learning organization”, meaning that the organization itself learns and adapts as they analyze data. She says the power lies with the community. The program is..

…80% about community and 20% about technology. It is really more about layering technology to amplify the effectiveness of what is already in place.

Iyer describes the technology as an extra layer to the groups, mediators and the video production teams which make Digital Green effective on the ground. The video production training for community memebers involves storyboarding, camera work, and editing, with three to four people in every district being trained – usually those who are already literate.

Founder Rikin Gandhi said in the Hindu of the participants,

As they learn video production, they also develop greater self-confidence. They are seen as professionals in their communities.

While other organizations such as Farm Radio International and AgroInsight may be doing similar things, Iyer says doesn’t think any other organisations are engaging with video to the same extent – a commitment resulting from an extensive study published in the journal Information Technologies for International Development.

Digital Green pays constant attention to monitoring and analytics, gathering data on how videos are being shared and adopted – and then responding to that data. If there are consistent, similar questions, a new video may be made or revised to ensure clear delivery.

Graph - Distribution

Here is an example of their extensive analytics. In this example, 81% of the viewers in the past year in India were female, and 19% male, in part due to a project working to leverage pre-existing women’s community groups.

While the initial focus was on agriculture, the organization is now expanding into nutrition and health. Iyer says:

We realized that in order to improve the livelihoods and lives of individuals we work with, it would be necessary to include nutrition and health as converging topics to agriculture.

Digital Green has received a learning grant from DFID India to test the effectiveness of the approach within new geographies (Ethiopia and Ghana) and expanding the approach to other domains of health and nutrition. Focusing on enhancing the capacities of government health workers, the idea is to “leverage the strength of local service providers”. Currently, the health program is aimed at maternal and infant child health.

In November, Digital Green was included in the 2013 Nominet Trust 100 as an example of an organisation “using tech to accelerate social change.” Iyer says one of their main strengths has been on data analysis and response “We have stayed open and a learning organization. It is not a cookie cutter, by any means.”

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Government of India, as well as local partners on the ground, Digital Green is poised to scale up without losing its grassroots focus.

Taking Back the Tech: Using Wikipedia to Counter Violence Against Women

This article originally appeared in Rising Voices, December 13, 2013.

On Saturday and Sunday, December 7th and 8th 2013, Breakthrough and
Hacks/Hackers New Delhi hosted the first Hack4Change in India. The event included a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for creating and expanding articles focusing on violence against women as well as an opportunity to collaborate on digital media projects using data sets related to women’s rights in India.


The event called on journalists, developers, researchers, storytellers, activists and other members of civil society to join together. Hack4Change also encouraged “remote participation as a mark of solidarity and an effort to expand the movement.”

Multiple errors in Wikipedia articles about incidences of sexual violence in India triggered the event. In some cases, articles do not articulate the politics of writing about sexual violence, or do not use vocabulary that represents rape survivors without victimizing them.

Noopur Raval, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi is actively involved in supporting free knowledge and women’s participation in technology in the Indian context. The idea was conceived with Satabdi Das, a fellow supporter and active member of Calcutta-based support group Womoz and Women in Free Software (WFS – India).

Raval believes we are,

Living in a world where all activism and the pace of legal and political changes are being directly influenced by information. At such a juncture, it is crucial not only to populate resources like Wikipedia with more information but also diverse information.”

Raval also says that there is a lack of information available; as a researcher, she is consistently unable to find information online around women, domestic issues, cultural traditions, and so on, from developing countries.

She also noted that when it comes to online content creation, local misconception can be a problem. While she was working on the WIkipedia article about the Guwahati Molestation Case in 2012, she felt that well-meaning editors saw this article as the publication of a shameful incident and a misrepresentation of the Indian people. She says,

To write responsibly and acknowledge women’s expression — is not a universally obvious and accepted notion and runs into obstacles given the stakes of people involved in women’s projects.

Raval also believes that there are other examples in which Wikipedia’s rules need to be negotiated and discussed when writing about these types of incidents. For example, in the case of Asaram Bapu, in which there was alleged sexual harassment leading to discussion around whether to use the word “rape” or not as well as whether or not to mention explicit details.

While the Wikipedia edit-a-thon is just part of a bigger event, Raval would like to see 2 or 3 comprehensive articles written on topics pertaining to gender issues.

Shobha SV works for Breakthrough, an organization that uses media, pop culture and technology alongside community mobilization to raise awareness and inspire action. She says:

The Internet is just like any other public space. Women face the same discrimination and harassment that they end up facing on the street. Virtual harassment will only lead to marginalising of women and we need to reclaim the space. Reclamation of virtual space can only happen if more women use the internet and by populating all mediums with more women’s voices.

Shobha believes that the beginning of democratization of data in India with new and emerging digital tools allows for the opportunity to tell stories in a creative way.

Approaching almost one-year since the Delhi rape case, Raval says:

Generally, the feeling is that people have woken up to the fact that rapes don’t only happen in slums or dimly lit areas, they can happen anywhere. I also read that the numbers on rape only reflect reported rapes. But, it’s heartening to see everyone at least talk about an issue that is brushed away otherwise.

Hack4Change was organized as part of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. During the 2-day event, teams edited articles on the Mathura Rape Case, the Vishaka GuidelinesMuzaffarnagar Riots in 2013 and Violence against Dalit women. In addition, participants worked on different types of data including statistics, audio files, video files, and tweets, working on creative visualisations. The organisers plan is to share the final products of the event under a creative commons license.

Event information and photographs are available on Facebook.

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