Key Internet service providers, including Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, India's largest ISP with more than 800,000 subscribers, have blockedaccess to a web site, www.hinduunity.org
The web site is run by a Hindu activist from the US, Rohit Vyasmaan, and logs about 17,000 hits a day.
The site has been blocked on the basis of a request from the Mumbai police commissioner's office in a letter sent out to ISPs on April 28.
Sources at the Mumbai police commissioner's office said the directive was issued because the web site published inflammatory material against Islam. Joint Commissioner of Police (crime) Dr Satyapal Singh, a decorated officer of the Indian Police Service, authorised the note.
"They will go to great lengths to obliterate Hinduism, Hindu pride and Hindu culture from India," Vyasmaan wrote in an e-mail. "Today HinduUnity.org stands as a major roadblock to anti-Hindu forces. Patriotic Hindu youth are coming together by the power of the Internet and finding the truth behind the dark clouds of misinformation, propaganda and media-controlled brainwashing. HinduUnity.org flourishes as one of the major web sites that promotes Hindu defence, pride and patriotism."
The police commissioner's office countered that the web site was blocked on the basis of a complaint registered against it in Latur, Maharashtra. Details of the complaint are currently unavailable.
VSNL, India's largest ISP, has been quick to implement the request. It has blocked the web site, rendering it inaccessible to subscribers. Despite repeated attempts, VSNL officials were unavailable for comment.
Apart from VSNL, a host of smaller ISPs like Hathway and HCL Infinet also complied with the police request.
But one ISP has stood its ground. Sify, which claims to have 700,000 Internet subscribers, says it has not blocked the web site because the order to do so has not come from the right authority.
"Only CERT has the right to issue such an order," said Sify spokesman David Appasamy. "In case they do, we have no option but to comply. When we got the request from the police commissioner's office, we spoke to them and explained that we could block the site only if the order came from CERT."
CERT, or the Computer Emergency Response Team, which comes under the department of information technology in New Delhi, is the authority for issuing orders to Indian ISPs to block web sites.
In September 2003, CERT issued an order to block a Yahoo! e-group for allegedly carrying anti-India messages.
Sify, meanwhile, has spoken to CERT about the Mumbai police commissioner's request. The ISP has been told that CERT is "processing" the request.
The HinduUnity.org site has faced problems in the past too. The site posts messages and content against Muslims in a significant way. Its pages also have interpretations of Indian history offensive to Muslims, verses from the Koran that try to present the religion as bloodthirsty, and other anti-Muslim statements, presented from a Hindutva point of view.
Vyasmaan says he started the web site in March 2000 with the aim of "moulding the minds of young Hindus to take the initiative and responsibility towards a better India by making them completely selfless in their duties towards their motherland."
In 2001, the site's then host in the US, Addr.com, received complaints about the site and shut it down.
The blocking of the web site in India has raised questions about the freedomof expression available online to Indians.
Earlier, the blocking of the Yahoo! e-group raised a furore online.
Last September, the e-group called kynhun was blocked for allegedly carrying anti-national messages.
Kynhun was created by an outfit called the Hynniwytrep, which supposedly represents an ethnic minority in Meghalaya, and it discussed the idea of Meghalaya's secession online.
"This kind of blocking on the Internet does not have much of a point," said Arun Mehta, who runs a mailing list with over 1,000 members that discusses telecom-related issues. "It is just a figleaf. People who want to access the site can continue to do so using a number of means. Anyway, the Net has so much hatespeak in it that blocking just one site won't serve any purpose but to give additional publicity to it."
In 1999, Mehta approached the Delhi high court againt VSNL's decision to block Internet telephony sites and succeeded in getting the block removed. "In my case there was no question of Internet telephony sites offending anyone," Mehta said. "It was a clear-cut case and so we could go to the courts. But there does exist Article 19 of the Constitution that allows for situations in which freedom of expression can be restricted."
Vyasmaan says he is ready to fight the Mumbai police commissioner's move. He plans to file a public interest petition apart from sending petitions to the prime minister, the President, and various government officials.
"We plan to actively seek support from various US and other world organisations," he said. "It is a direct gag order to silence the Hindu voice in India. It is a fact that the dictatorial regime in Saudi Arabia blocks HinduUnity.org, but to even foresee Internet service providers in our democratic nation is an insult to every citizen of India as well anyone who believes in basic human rights."
Additional reportage: Vijay Singh