Reinventing ‘Dissent’: Attacks On Jio’s Telecom Infra

Reinventing ‘Dissent’: Attacks On Jio’s Telecom Infra

by Kanchan Gupta - Wednesday, December 30, 2020 03:53 PM IST
Reinventing ‘Dissent’: Attacks On Jio’s Telecom InfraDestroying infrastructure is nothing less than terrorism.
  • What merits comment is the intelligentsia’s failure to call out the multiple organised targeted attacks on critical communications infrastructure in a strategically located border state for what it is: Terrorism by another name.

    Instead, the Commentariat prefers to call it ‘dissent’.

There was a time, before the authority of the state was re-established over much of India’s ‘Red Corridor’, when Maoists would routinely attack and destroy telecommunication towers, especially in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar. These attacks on strategic communications infrastructure were not random acts of violence. They were designed to show the state as weak; interrupt development work in the hinterland; and, disrupt telecommunications which are crucial both for civil administration and counter-insurgency operations by security forces.

The targeting of telecom towers was labelled as ‘Red Terror’ by those aghast at the audacity of the Maoists. The government was rightly criticised for failing to protect critical infrastructure from Mao’s marauders. Telecom firms were understandably in a tizzy. According to an apocryphal story heard those days, a telecom company hit by these attacks hired a rabidly militant far-Left activist at an astronomical fee for ‘Public Relations’ who, it was said, became an intermediary to strike ‘cash-for-peace’ deals.

In recent days, similar violence has been witnessed in Punjab with mobs damaging telecom towers that support Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd’s network in that state, looting expensive equipment and setting fibre stocks on fire. Unlike Maoist attacks on telecom towers in the darkness of night, the attacks in Punjab have been carried out with impunity and in broad daylight, brazenly and on camera. The videos have been shared on social media and broadcast on news channels. Photographs have appeared in newspapers. The faces of those carrying out the attacks are clearly visible.

The mobs claim the attacks are part of the ongoing Punjab farmers’ protest against three agriculture reform laws enacted by the Union Government. They have been hailed as ‘protesters’ who are opposed to ‘big corporates’ buying farm produce directly from the field. A manipulated photograph, purportedly showing stacked sacks of wheat stamped ‘Jio’, has been circulated on social media and has gone viral, in large measure because intermediary platforms have allowed the patently false and malicious allegation, with its obvious mischief potential, to pass their much-publicised ‘fact check’.

This manipulated photograph was used to spread the canard that Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd is ‘already buying agri-produce at low prices’ in Punjab under the new laws. That is mendacious: Reliance does not procure any farm produce from farmers in Punjab. Such fake visuals and the repeated assertion of the fiction, duly amplified by mainstream media and India’s politically bankrupt opposition parties, that the new laws are ‘designed to favour Adani-Ambani’, have been used both to fuel the attacks on Jio network’s telecom towers (which follow picketing of Reliance fuel outlets and vandalising of Reliance malls) and legitimise the criminality of damaging privately owned infrastructure and property in organised targeted attacks.

There is sweet irony in the fact that these towers, along with other towers in the country that sustain the Jio network, are owned by Canada-based Brookfield Infrastructure Partners LP and its institutional partners, including Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund manager GIC. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, with an eye to the votes of extremist Sikh Canadians, has come out in support of the hugely disruptive farmers’ protest in Punjab. Khalistanis based in Canada (as also in the UK, the US and other countries) have been organising rallies in support of the Punjab protesters.

There are 9,000 Jio communication towers in Punjab, supporting voice and data network operations of India’s foremost telecom company. Across India, 135,000 communication towers sustain the Jio network. Of those in Punjab, more than 1,500 have been vandalised or severely damaged, and their equipment like power generators stolen, in a matter of days. The Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, who has been openly supporting and instigating the protesting farmers of his state, chose to turn a Nelson’s eye to the damage and destruction being wrought upon Jio network towers.

Only after there was national outrage and condemnation,and the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association lodged a protest and the Cellular Operators Association of India put in a proforma complaint, did he open his mouth — first to issue a wimpish appeal to the mobs, which was scornfully ignored, and then to ask the state’s police to act against the marauders. What action has been since initiated by the police remains unknown and unreported. But that the Punjab Police failed to act while these targeted attacks were happening, without waiting for the Chief Minister’s ‘instruction’, tells its own story of the alarming situation that currently prevails in a strategically important state which shares its border with Pakistan.

In any event, such attacks are a violation of the Indian Telegraph Act and a wilful disruption of essential services as mandated by law. In this pandemic year, telecom has played an important role in combating the Covid-19 outbreak and coping with the challenges posed to both government and the people. Like other telecom providers, Jio has played a significant role in enabling IT-enabled online services, including classes for students, access to household requirements, healthcare consultation and emergency health services. The disruption caused by the attacks on Jio network towers is enormous and debilitating, a fact that appears to have escaped an indulgent Chief Minister’s attention.

By the time Captain Amarinder Singh woke up to the enormity of the targeted attacks, considerable damage had already been done — to critical infrastructure and to Punjab’s prospects as an investment destination. His admission, that “the disruption of telecom services would seriously affect the state’s already disturbed economy”, is an understatement. The stark images of telecom towers being attacked and employees being assaulted, with the civil administration and the police failing to even so much as wag their fingers in remonstration, are not going to disappear from investor memory any time soon. Reliance alone has invested more than Rs 10,000 crore in Punjab in the recent past. These images will not quite inspire investor confidence in the future.

While the loss is obvious to all, some entities may have gained from the attacks on Jio’s network towers. Media reports say that Jio had written to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on 14 December, pointing out that Bharti Airtel Ltd and Vodafone Idea Ltd have been indulging in ‘unethical and anti-competitive’ mobile number porting by using their employees, agents and retailers to urge Jio subscribers to migrate to their networks to show their support for the farmers’ protest. Both Airtel and Vodafone Idea have been severely hit by Jio’s success and it would not be surprising if they are using this opportunity to strike at their foe. What it says of their corporate ethics does not merit comment.

What does merit comment is the intelligentsia’s failure to call out the multiple organised targeted attacks on critical communications infrastructure in a strategically located border state for what it is: Terrorism by another name. Instead, the Commentariat prefers to call it ‘dissent’.

Kanchan Gupta is Senior Advisor in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India.
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