TECH
24/12/2019 3:43 PM IST | Updated 27/12/2019 4:25 PM IST

CAA Protests: ‘Apolitical’ Techies Are Risking Jobs To Turn Up

Despite violent police action and company rules, many tech workers are showing up to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Screenshot/ Twitter.
The protests against the CAA and NRC are widespread across the country, and have seen participation from a huge variety of people.

BENGALURU, Karnataka—“It’s so bad, even the techies are here,” read a sign at a recent protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Bengaluru.  “Error 404: Hindu Rashtra Not Found,” said another. 

Like other Indian cities, citizens of Bengaluru, too, have been turning up in thousands to protest against the CAA and National Register of Citizens (NRC), which, if implemented, will put the onus on 1.3 billion people to prove their citizenship. The CAA, in particular, will ensure that Muslims are disproportionately affected, a clear violation of the secular nature of the Indian republic.    

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders have tried to portray the uprising as one manufactured by political rivals, but participants include many first-time protesters and even people who earlier voted for the BJP.

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In Bengaluru, especially, hundreds of tech workers have been actively showing up for protests, overturning the perception of the community as ‘apolitical’ and insulated from India’s social issues. Many, in fact, know they are risking their employer’s displeasure by showing up to protest against the government. 

“In my office, most people had voted for the BJP in 2014. In the 2019 election, it was more mixed, as people aren’t seeing development, only lynching and Internet shutdowns. But even now, our office doesn’t want us to be here,” said a young man who had come to Town Hall from his office in Manyata Tech Park, taking a sick half-day. He asked us not to name him or his company, although he had shown up wearing its logo on a sweatshirt.

“I saw the pictures from Jamia, people sitting in libraries getting dragged out and attacked, and this is not supposed to happen in India, right? So, I had to show up.”

Big tech companies have multiple reasons to keep the government happy—not only do they run the risk of being labelled ‘Chinese’ or ‘anti-national’ if they get on the Hindu nationalist BJP’s wrong side, they often actively profit from million-dollar contracts from the government.

One example is Wipro—in Assam, it was the sole bidder for the NRC re-tender in 2014, and according to a (now deleted) page on its website, deployed 8,000 data entry operators to gather and verify people’s forms for the problematic, error-prone exercise that has left 1.9 million people struggling to prove they belong to India. Wipro was later taken to court for violating labour laws in the NRC project.

A senior executive at a smartphone maker  told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity, “I want to speak out against this, but immediately we’ll be branded as a Chinese company, and this government could then crucify us. The whole tech industry needs so much support from the government, and if anyone speaks out, there’s a very real risk to the company.”

Screenshot/ Twitter.
This protestor in Delhi also highlighted the Internet bans across India.

What made tech workers turn up?

The police action in Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi and subsequent reports of more brutality were a turning point for many in the tech community, as for others. The politicisation and community building on youth-centric platforms such as Instagram and TikTok also helped bring undecided people into the fold. And as Delhi’s Internet was also shut down, people in Bengaluru, whose livelihood often depends on the Internet, started to worry when it would be their turn next.

And Internet shutdowns are definitely bad for business. According to Firstpost, shutdowns have cost India over Rs 21,000 crore in the last five years. Telecom operators, on average, lose Rs 2.45 crore every hour in every circle there is an Internet shutdown or throttling, according to industry body Cellular Operator Association of India (COAI), which counts Airtel, Vodafone-Idea and Reliance Jio as members. Beyond that, cabs, grocery deliveries, e-commerce, and a number of other online businesses also suffer when there are shutdowns. Rajan Mathews, Director General of COAI, placed the estimated total loss in business per hour to about Rs 3.67 crore, per hour. 

An anonymous US-based engineer, who is going by the handle TechAgainstFacism, has made a Medium post asking people to show their solidarity. Almost immediately, over a hundred signatures showed up, from India, the US, and all around the world, with employees of companies such as GoogleFacebookAmazon, and Uber signing up to show their opposition.

“Our hope is to demonstrate the diversity of tech voices across the world that stand firmly against the government’s authoritarian and regressive actions,” they wrote in an email. “We went public with the letter couple of days ago and are hoping to gain more visibility and momentum with various tech circles.”

Aside from opposing CAA and NRC as anti-Muslim efforts, TechAgainstFacism called out state-sponsored brutality, and noted that Internet bans are being seen as a means to suppress protests. They also asked Indian tech companies to not work on implementing or utilising “surveillance and discriminatory” technologies, like NRC, Aadhaar, and the proposed nationwide facial recognition system backed by the NCRB.

“The teargassing, sexual and physical abuse, and unlawful arrests by the police all over the country are a gross violation of universal human rights,” wrote TechAgainstFacism. “The Internet—the open ecosystem that we, tech workers, worked so hard to build, and our entire humanity benefits from—is banned in Assam, Delhi, elsewhere, as well as in Kashmir for the fifth month in a row,” they added. “We also call upon technology leaders like Sundar Pichai (Alphabet), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Dara Khosrowshahi (Uber), Mukesh Ambani (Jio), Gopal Vittal (BhartiAirtel), Kalyan Krishnamurthy (Flipkart), and Shantanu Narayen (Adobe) to take a stance and publicly denounce the fascist acts by the Indian government.” 

Another reason why Indian engineers may consider protesting is because the government’s stance could put off international investors. Prominent US investor Tim Draper, of DFJ Venture Capital, tweeted: “India choosing one religion over another makes me seriously concerned about my plans to fund businesses there.” Drape has invested in companies including Baidu, Skype, Tesla, Twitch, and in India, Cleartrip, Komli Media, and iYogi among others.

Screenshot/ Twitter.
Variations of this sign, saying CYNICS, PRIVILEGED, and TECHIES, instead of INTROVERTS have been seen at protests around the country.

Abhinav Kr. Gupta, founder and CEO of video analytics startup Silversparro, was among a small number of Indian entrepreneurs who tweeted against the Act, asking Amit Shah and Narendra Modi to take back the CAA and NRC. “In a country which aims to be a 5 trillion dollar economy and a startup nation, such laws have no place,” he said.

Many of the tech workers who have signed the document uploaded by TechAgainstFascism have either done so anonymously, or not given their full details. Among the people that have given their information, roughly a quarter are from India, and about a quarter from the US. A tenth of all the signatures are from Google employees, while among Indians, some of the familiar names include InfoEdge (Naukri.com, principal investor in Zomato), HCL, Google, Grab, Microsoft Research India, Intel, and Wipro.

Among the international companies, there are people from Uber, Microsoft, Ford, Dolby, Salesforce, and belonging to institutions like McGill University in Canada, and Northeastern University in Boston. Some of the more common designations listed are Product Manager, Program Manager, Research Scientist, Data Scientist, and leading the pack at 25%, Software Engineer. 

Companies are still silent

The big tech companies—many of which have made their support for immigrants clear in America—have largely kept silent on the CAA/ NRC process. “The tech industry has been silent on the issue,” TechAgainstFacism wrote. “There is an environment of fear in the industry due to current events such as firing, union busting, political affiliations/ pressure etc. The presumption is that the top level executives and tech companies may not want to perturb business relations with the Indian government, as India is a huge business opportunity.”

An executive pointed out that the vast majority of funding in India happens from outside the country—“everyone is scared of speaking because then you’re called foreign propaganda.”

In the US, despite calling out Trump’s immigration policies, companies like Google and Microsoft were still developing systems for organizations like ICE and cloud solutions for the CBP. Both these government agencies have been criticized for their treatment of immigrants. In India too, Wipro has drawn flak for its support of the NRC project, but tech companies across the nation are still enabling surveillance and empowering the police state.