Shubhranshu Choudhary, a BBC journalist turned peace activist in Maoist-infested areas in central India – who won the Google Digital Activism Award five years ago – is among those whose data was stolen by spyware. He speaks to Ruchika Uniyal about the data theft and his work:
When were you subjected to a spyware attack?
In May, I got a message on WhatsApp from The Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, warning me that a malware attack on my phone was leaking my data. I didn’t take it seriously at first. But when I started getting calls from their number, I checked up on their background and realised that this could be serious. So I got in touch with them.
Did it bother you that your data was at risk?
I have nothing to hide. And I have been subjected to surveillance before, when as a BBC journalist in the 1990s I used to cover Jammu & Kashmir. I can’t prove it but one gets to know these things.
Have you upgraded your digital security now?
Well, I’m still using WhatsApp and the same phone. I did take a five-day digital security course where I learnt a thing or two about encryption etc but then again any electronic conversation today is like a postcard; anyone can view what’s in there.
Who was responsible for the spying and why?
It is very unlikely that it wasn’t the government, but I can’t be sure. I could have been targeted because I have been working on achieving a peace process in Bastar (Chhattisgarh). What the government should realise is that it has a window of opportunity for dialogue with the Maoists that hasn’t come up since the last peace talks in 2004 were inconclusive. There has never been a better time to initiate the process for deep cleaning Maoist violence.
Is it because the top Maoist leadership has either been exterminated or is now too old?
Yes, they do not have a strong second-rung leadership now. But really the war in Chhattisgarh is on two levels. One includes a small fraction that is committed to taking the route of violence. The other is the majority of their followers or those living in affected areas, mainly poor adivasis, some of whom picked up arms because they ran out of hope.
These are people I grew up with in Chhattisgarh and went to school with. What they really want is jungle, zameen and samman (rights to their forests, land rights and respect for their culture). These are rights already granted by the Constitution. By now, they are disillusioned with violence and want to be heard. So we gave them a democratic platform where they could raise their issues. They needed a voice, so as a small experiment we started CGNet Swara, a cellphone-based news network, where locals could share issues in their Gondi language, but it would reach the outside world as well in other languages via a website.
But internet access in these areas is very low?
Yes, but you will find cellphones in all villages. With CGNet Swara, people phone in and talk about lack of education facilities in their area, corruption, anything that affects them. The reports are verified by our team and then published, meaning anyone who dials in can hear them by pressing a button. The idea is that the larger community of our listeners will then put pressure on authorities concerned to rectify things. We also upload the reports on our website to appeal to the government to take action. We get about 15 calls a day. We also have some apps for similar purposes like the Bultoo app.
Interesting name, Bultoo.
It’s an interesting story. How do you download songs and listen to them on your phone when you have no internet? You use bluetooth. In weekly haats (marketplaces) in remote areas in Chhattisgarh, those with access to internet sell audio files, mostly songs, which the buyer receives over bluetooth. But they are unable to pronounce bluetooth so they end up calling it “bultoo”. Now we have our team members and others distributing audio files downloaded via Bultoo app in a similar way in these haats.
Giving the adivasis a voice via technology has brought them together. Last year, about 200 people from Maoist-affected areas marched for peace from Andhra Pradesh to Bastar. We are calling it the new peace process. Guerrillas have started surrendering in the past three years, many would be open to dialogue. The government should take the hint.
And you believe PM Modi would be the person to do it?
Yes, why not? He is the first politician to sit up and take notice of Bultoo’s work. Even the Chhattisgarh CM didn’t do that. The PM read about Bultoo in a media report and called us to meet him. We met him in 2016 and he suggested that the Bultoo model could be replicated in rural areas to aid farmers in adapting better agricultural practices. He gives me hope.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.