The British always claimed that their construction of the railways gave India its modern sense of oneness as a nation. This claim is heavily disputed today, but something else is much less contentious.
The impact of the spread of digital technology, at the world’s cheapest data rates, has, and is, giving a common vocabulary to this diverse country of countless tongues and sub-cultures.
The use of the word platform—common, it is interesting to note, in the railways and in digital technology—has a vital role to play in building this sense of shared assets. A platform —for instance like the Aarogya Setu, built to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic—gives a sense of unified response in every part of India to a calamity, and a commonness, an equity, even, of structural resistance to a crisis.
The question of platforms cannot ignore social media, a contested territory, but whether in the mass use, or in some cases protests on, social media giants and their behaviour, once again a common ground is paved.
As technology advances, it is bringing forth the ability to bridge longstanding divisions in cultural behaviour in India—for instance in the use of instant language translating apps on the mobile phone so that travellers from one region of the country to the other where they do not speak the local language can easily overcome this challenge.
The use of digital technology is also connecting one of the biggest disconnects of India’s liberalisation era—that between rural and urban India. As more and more Indians shift to cities, the perception that there is little or no opportunity outside major urban areas is being consistently disproved through the use of such technology. As India rolls out fibre-based Internet connectivity to all its villages, alongside a mass electrification programme, the village and its products are closer to the city than ever, and the best part is that the only intermediary between this exchange or transaction is a digital tool rather than any ‘middlemen’ or wholesale corporate distributor.
Digital technology is also enabling conversation which had been stifled due to social anxieties and limitations—for instance, consider the loquaciousness of feminist issues on Clubhouse, the voice-based social media platform.
Like currency, an ingredient of commonality, India’s success in building a world-class digital transactions ecosystem through the United Payments Interface has created another connector between peoples, regions, and sub-cultures in the country. The use of the ubiquitous mobile phone for all purposes has created a common ground for Indians to rejoice—and when the network grows intermittent—to complain about. Like the weather in England, mobile connectivity issues now give most Indians a source of bonding over common lament.
Whether it is in education, and more recently, health, the use of digital technologies is growing deeper and more robust by the day in the country. It is naturally raising questions of security and privacy—but these questions are both necessary and inevitable. Without them, the strength of the architecture cannot be tested regularly and ascertained to be sound.
Step by step, digital technology is breaking barriers not only of distance (physically) but also of cultural separation among regions and groups in the country. In the same way that cheap flights triggered a revolution in domestic tourism, cheap data is bringing Indians closer to other parts and peoples of their country in an idiom and voice that they can comprehend.
The importance of the sweeping thrust of digital technology in the country is in its ability to deliver a sort of rediscovery of India for many of its citizens.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.