Malavika Jayaram: From classical dance to Internet policy

//Malavika Jayaram is currently running a research project for Internews, studying internet policy in India. She will be speaking at Annenberg on March 28th on India’s civil liberties crisis. Below she discusses her path to finding her current research interests.

I used to be a dancer. I was always fascinated and moved by Indian classical dance, and gave up a promising career as a soloist to go to law school (much to the horror of my dance teacher). At the time, a career in the arts was a deeply fraught choice, one dogged by a labyrinthine of government policies and grants, and a fairly brutal, sexist, and patronizing environment in which to be a performer. India has come a long way since then, with many more people pursuing unconventional careers and steering away from the stranglehold of medicine and engineering (which used to be the only careers worth pursuing). The privatization of the cultural sphere, the democratization of what was once the haven of either the elite or the extreme outliers, and increased wealth and social one-upmanship have all resulted in a vibrant arts scene in modern India. When I was a teenager, the options for a fulfilling life after my 15 minutes of fame (and fitness) seemed very limited; dancers became either teachers or critics. I chose not to make the thing I loved above all else my means for earning a living, as the environment of the time involved compromises I wasn’t prepared to make. I could suffer for my art, but not debase myself to get the right gigs or the right audience.

Fortunately, law fulfilled other creative urges and coaxed my other loves – language and logic – towards productive ends. Today, I wear 3 hats; as a practicing lawyer handling technology and media related matters, a PhD scholar working on privacy and data in India (with a special focus on the biometric ID scheme being rolled out) and a Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society, India’s preeminent think tank for new media, internet governance, telecommunications, openness, and access. Practicing law allows me to stay current and relevant, working on a PhD keeps my academic skills sharp and nimble, and being a Fellow locates me within a community of people advocating for policy changes and making a difference. I believe that each role enables and supports the other 2, and the mix draws on a range of abilities that would be suppressed had I chosen a narrower path. The dancer in me has learned to work with a structure and form, yet free associate, improvise and riff. Choreography is nothing without the unexpected turn, the unplanned gesture, and the space between steps.

My professional interests lie along the spectrum from privacy to free expression. I believe that they are part of the same discourse in India, and that the right to be private and the right to speak freely are not as distinct as they might be in certain other countries. Both are currently under serious threat in India, and my work right now examines the broader internet policy space, while also providing a closer look at the challenges posed by various well-intended, yet often badly architected (and even more poorly realized), e-governance schemes. The implications of certain welfare driven, or national security induced, projects on civil liberties, privacy, and/or free expression are what keep me awake at night.

On a purely personal level, I have experienced the shift towards greater intolerance and censorship from the time I moved back from London to Bangalore 7 years ago. While I am mindful of the problems posed by India’s geography and culture, by its diversity of languages and religions, by its poverty and lack of development in certain basic arenas, I do not, for a moment, believe that these are easy problems to fix. I do challenge the ease with which precious and inalienable rights are up for grabs in a capricious and arbitrary manner. I contest the catchall approach that assumes a hierarchy of values and advocates a trade-off between allegedly competing interests (the usual zero-sum games pitting privacy against security, freedom against safety, the personal sphere against the collective public good). India has shown itself to be a swing state in the recent discussions at the World Conference of International Telecommunications, and recent incidents of censorship, surveillance, and data breaches have intensified the debates around the relationship between the citizen and the state. The importance of India’s democratic traditions prevailing over regressive policies and nearsighted actors is something of global importance, and something many stakeholders the world over have a keen interest in preserving. I hope my work contributes in some way to preserving an India that I can live in and feel proud of. And where I might one day have a second crack at dancing….

//Malavika Jayaram

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