Broadly Beleaguered: Mobile Technology in Rural India

by Tao Tao Holmes

Mobile phone technology and India. These are two recent buzzwords, very often found together. This Wednesday, the Council on South Asian Studies at Yale hosted Sira Tenhunen, of the University of Helsinki. Tenhunen addressed an audience of thirty on the impact that mobile phones have had on rural politics in rural Bengal, India.

A village in rural Bengal, similar to where Tenhunen may have studied. (Creative Commons)

While her topic was fascinating, Tenhunen presented a very shallow analysis and explanation of her work, which was completed over the course of a year, during which she lived in one of these rural villages. She began with a vague background on local politics and the theme of growing resistance to party leaders. Then, laying out the central theme of her lecture, she pointed out how mobile phones have aided villagers in coordinating resistance against regional members of the CPIM (Communist Party of India), who abuse their power to burn down paddy fields or poison ponds. With the introduction of mobile technology, Tenhunen said, villagers can communicate and prepare against such attacks, mobilize, and keep in close touch with police. In effect, with the protection mobile phones provide, the CPIM will not be able to torture people. The cell phone network acts like an invisible moat around the village.

Tenhunen then introduced a scattering of other issues that she left lingering, half-baked, for the audience. These included the use of mobile technology as a tool for oppression of activism (think China and Iran), and the effect of phone use on gender relations (an unclear survey that failed to draw any cohesive conclusions). Tenhunen’s research presentation could have benefited from great specificity and a more structured, detailed analytic approach. Her work did not center around a specific research question, which is where she erred. In a realm as multifaceted and shifting as mobile technology in a region as complex and in flux as rural India, an unambiguous research question is imperative.

The conclusions she did draw at the end of her presentation were very broad: mobile phones do help strengthen the networks of society and allow organizations and businesses to broaden their reach and act quickly. What took 24 hours in rural areas now takes 20 minutes, thanks to the cell phone, said a village leader in a short film clip shown to the audience. The cell phone has made politics faster, more heterogeneous, less vertical, and more translocal. Who, exactly, has the power is now more nebulous. Will this make local politics more volatile and violent?

Fascinating dynamics are at play in this growing sphere of the developing world. When Tenhunen began her studies, researchers had only begun to dip their toes in the topic. However, a multidimensional issue like this one deserves much closer, more detailed attention than toe-dipping permits. In some rural Indian villages, over 90 percent of families own cell phones. Today’s talk highlighted both the potential of further research and the reminder that such research must be carried out with very clear thought and care.

Tao Tao Holmes is a Global Affairs major in Branford College. Contact her at