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This arts project doesn’t know why the Indian govt blocked its website

“I have no idea. There’s nothing controversial in the project. It’s just 14 artists, travelling to Kerala, Karnataka, Assam and Kashmir, and about how identities are constructed in the Indian context. That’s all. There’s nothing against any political party, or the ruling government or any other politician or anyone else. So I don’t understand it. I thought Section 66A was struck down by the courts.”

Ramnath Bhatt, co-founder of Maraa, a Media and Arts Collective, found that the website for their arts project UR/Unreserved had been blocked, “as per the directions received from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India”. Hat Tip: Anivar Aravind.

“We realised that the site has been blocked sometime last week”, Bhatt told MediaNama. “We’ve been running a crowdfunding campaign, and someone told us that the website is not working.”

UR/Unreserved is a traveling arts project, conceptualised and hosted by Maraa. It’s about 14 artists going on a train, with 35 stops across 14 states, to four destinations: Kerala, Karnataka, Assam and Kashmir. Each of the 14 artists come from four locations- Bengaluru, Dhemaji, Srinagar and Irinjalakuda – and will be guided by senior theatre practitioner, Anish Victor. Victor is a trustee in Maraa, which has conceptualised the project, and is one of the four hosts (one each for each destination). Victor has been writing about the block here.

What unreserved.in looks like when accessed using a VPN

How the block impacts UR/Unreserved

1. Impacts the documentation of the arts project: The arts project has two phases: “In the first phase the artists will engage with people on trains – through stories, song, sketches, and poetry around the theme of identities. The second phase will witness a collaboration with local arts organisations in the four locations to organise a series of inter-disciplinary events called Platform 1 – comprising of short performances, photographs, sketches, animation, audio recordings, etc. drawn from the earlier phase. These events will happen in public spaces wherein we will make a special attempt to engage with children and young adults.”

“We were using the website for our own artwork,” Bhatt says. “It’s a process driven project, so we started from a long time ago. The artists who were working on this project were uploading the sketches. So it was, first of all, a place to document the processes, which they can’t do now.”

2. Impacts fund-raising and grants: Unreserved has 7 days to go for its crowdfunding project on Ketto, wherein it is looking to raise Rs 400,000, in its current round. The site was directly linked to the crowdfunding page.

“We have a few days to go for the crowdfunding project, so this is a very crucial time for us. We had done a description (on the crowdfunding page), but if they wanted more detail, we were directing them to the website, so it has impacted our fund-raising for the project. Apart from (on) Facebook, we were also sending the website for grants, collaborators, theatre festivals who might want to apply. We’re not able to do that either.”

All in all, UR/Unreserved is looking to raise Rs.12,60,000, to sustain a 14 member team over 15 months.

The Confusion

UR/Unreserved’s blog points out that they checked with friends, and “Jio Goa-Blocked, Airtel Delhi-Open, Airtel Bangalore-Blocked, Jio Assam-Blocked, BSNL Bangalore-Open, Vodafone Bangalore-Blocked, the list is endless and random. So one has to keep second-guessing. Complaints lodged with Vodaphone and Airtel”, according to Victor’s blog post.

“I don’t know why,” Bhatt said. “The same ISP, for some people it’s working in some cities and not working in others. I’m not sure of what’s going on.”

We checked, and it’s blocked on Airtel Delhi, with a familiar Airtel ad that we see every time they block a website. 

The ISPs aren’t helping either:

“We called the telecom guys and they said DoT sent us that letter. They’re not willing to share a copy of the letter with us. Some people are saying that they can’t even locate a copy of the letter. It’s very confusing for us.”



How they’re dealing with the block

Firstly, Fidus Law Chambers (Noida), which represents Maraa, has filed a complaint with the DoT. Copies have been sent to the ISPs concerned.

Secondly, if there is no response from DoT, they’ll file an Right to Information request. This is unlikely to work, since such details can be denied by (government owned) ISPs and the DoT. They have been, in the past.

Thirdly, they might consider litigation, but don’t want to jump to it. “For that we’ll have to contact our trustees, to see if they’re okay, as a trust, to go to courts, and we’ll have to follow processes in Maraa, for that.”

Fourth, they’re able to access the back-end of the site, so their team has put up a blog, they will put up some of the content from the website. “It’s caught us a bit by surprise. We were not expecting a block,” Bhatt said. “Our team put up a blog and we’ll put up some of the content from the website. We’re also talking to a news website that has offered to host our entire content as a sub-site. We’re putting out messages on how people can access this using a VPN.”

“We’re just hoping that we can talk to these people (government) and if they can unblock it,” Bhatt said. “Maybe there’s some misunderstanding of some sort. I’m still having trouble that they would really want to block it deliberately. I can’t get my head around it.”


Editors comments:

  • Section 66A was struck down by the Supreme Court, but Section 69A wasn’t. It allows the government to do secret blocking of websites, because the government assured the SC that due processes were in place.
  • Blocks are often due to court orders, but ISPs don’t share these details. In the past, Shaadi.com owned app store Mobango was blocked in India, and for months, couldn’t figure out why. We’ve explained the confusion around website blocks here.
  • Blocks are typically for a specific domain name. UR/Unreserved should just get a new domain name for the time being and host its content there. Perhaps something like stillunreserved.in or comeunreserved.in

Updates: Changed name from Unreserved to UR/unreserved. Apologies for the error.

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