Written by Deepa S Reddy
Photographed by Ankush Samant

Mobile Autonomy

With 930 million mobile phone subscribers—a million of whom were added in March 2014 alone—India is easily one of the world’s largest and fastest growing mobile markets, sandwiched between China and the United States. Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron’s chronicle of the impact of cell phone diffusion in India in Cell Phone Nation (Hachette, 2013) confirms that much of mobile’s exponential market growth has been driven by the increasingly ubiquitous “cheap cell phone,” which made the technology accessible to workers and their bosses like.Life in India would never be the same.

This excerpt is part of a larger essay in progress for Deepa S Reddy to be published in Contemporary South Asia, 23/4 December 2015.

Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston—Clear Lake and Director of India Outreach Programs of the University of Houston System. She has written on the contestations of identitarian politics in India, the globalisation of caste via the discourses of race and human rights, and on how sample collection and donor registration initiatives, such the International HapMap Project and the U.S. National Marrow Donor Program, facilitate reconceptualisations of bioethics, civic identities, and even the role of the market in medicine and genetics. Her book, Religious Identity and Political Destiny, was published in 2006. Her current research interests range from public expressions of Hindu-ness to (bio)ethics, medical tourism and drug development in India.

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Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron’s chronicle of the impact of cell phone diffusion in India in Cell Phone Nation (Hachette, 2013) confirms that much of mobile’s exponential market growth has been driven by the increasingly ubiquitous “cheap cell phone,” which made the technology accessible to workers and their bosses alike. Life in India would never be the same. The mobile’s potential to democratize or otherwise open spaces for creative disruption was tremendous—and unprecedented.

Social disruption of the sort that the cell phone represents, however, is double-edged. The very accessibility and ubiquity of the mobile phone has provided anonymous cover to those who have used it as tool of sexual harassment, financial fraud, and extortion. Pakistani terrorists remotely directed the November 26 (2008) attacks on the Taj hotel in Mumbai via VoIP mobile phones carried by the gunmen. Mobile sharing has made pornography more widely and quickly available than ever before. As early as 2004 in India’s mobile boom, a video of two Delhi Public School seventeen-year-olds having sex on school premises went viral via MMS messaging, raising all manner of anxieties from school regulators about cell phones, teenagers, sex, and the deterioration of public moralities. Another oft-cited case is the 2012 “porngate” scandal, in which two Karnataka (Members of Legislature) were caught watching pornographic videos on a mobile phone while assembly was in session.

Leading image:
In remote places, the person having the mobile phone is not as important as the person who knows where the mobile phone can be used. These secret places where the phone can connect to a network are called phone booths.

The mobile phone’s exponential market growth has been driven by the increasingly ubiquitous “cheap cell phone,” which has made mobile technology accessible to workers and bosses alike, radically altering how work gets done, how people interact, how individual and communal relationships are organized, and indeed, how identities are shaped and projected.

It might seem superfluous to point out that in none of these cases was the mobile phone itself responsible for the wrongs committed. And yet, it is the device which becomes the object of regulation—on the logic that controlling access to the device keeps in check the undesirable behaviours or outcomes in question. We see this most clearly in the opposition to women using mobile phones, which is both regional and class-specific. Jeffery and Doron remark on the presence of “mobile wali” (literally, mobile woman) in Bhojpuri popular music: a seductive image of a jean-clad alcohol-consuming woman who dances freely while talking on her mobile phone. Tasveer Ghar, a digital archive of South Asian popular visual culture, places mobile wali alongside paan-wali (woman betel nut vendor) and bicycle-wali (woman riding a cycle): together, the new symbols of women’s emancipation and progressiveness. In my own conversations with cell phone users in the southern states, it has not been unusual to find conservative lower-to-middle and middle-class families regulating and even disallowing the cell phone use by grown daughters, and particularly daughters-in-law. Explanations range from the avowed absence of need—difficult to prove, difficult to deny—to less conscionable theories of how mobiles foster “rape culture.” Just this July 2014, Karnataka MLA Shakuntala Shetty, who chairs the Legislative House committee for Women and Child Development, blamed the device for rising rape and molestation cases—to considerable public outcry. The committee proposed a ban on mobile devices in schools and colleges on the grounds that “mobile phones are debasing the educational atmosphere in schools and colleges.” A community leader from Haryana, the rural state adjoining Delhi in which unelected all-male panchayats can exert considerable social influence, explained it thus to Ellen Barry of the New York Times: “The mobile plays a main role… You will be surprised how this happens. A girl sits on a bus, she calls a male friend, asks him to put money on her mobile. Is he going to put money on her mobile for free? No. He will meet her at a certain place, with five of his friends, and they will call it rape.”

Such narratives can be perplexing, to say the least. Analysts often respond by explaining that the mobile phone challenges traditional sources of authority enough to generate profound anxieties. For example, Jeffrey and Doron cite Manuel Castells’ insight that “mobile communication is not about mobility but about autonomy.” The mobile phone unsettles old social structures by introducing new forms of autonomy, they conclude.

It is not difficult to appreciate the mobile phone’s transgressive capacities, or how it can enable the assertion of independence and agency against convention and hierarchy. The mobile phone is often celebrated for its equalizing, democratizing capacities, always centred on empowering individual users to break free of constricting traditions. Ironically, it is the mobile’s association with individual autonomy to which social conservatives object. They group it then with objects like jeans, or practices like consuming alcohol or holding “DJ parties” as quintessential signs of individual agency in a highly contested Indian modernity. Compelling though it may be therefore to pivot the mobile phone between “tradition” and “modernity,” “hierarchy” and “democracy,” communality and individualism, such explanations remain somewhat wanting. Neither do they address the ways in which the mobile phone meshes these binaries, recalling the modernity of tradition or the hierarchies within democracy, nor does flattening the mobile phone into a simple instrument of individuation quite capture the force or the power attributed to the device itself. End