The What, Why and When of Free Software in India

by Frederick "FN" Noronha

Free software is not yet as media-visible as its breakaway sibling open source. Consider GNU/Linux, for example, which you hear about much less often than you do Linux. Quietly, however, and away from the glare of publicity, a small group of committed techies in India is using its skills to bring more attention to free software.

Some of the Free Software Foundation India's (FSF-India) accomplishments include helping to fight patent threats in the country and promoting the use of free software in schools, government and other cultural institutions. In mid-2005, FSF-India put together an ambitious four-nation meeting in Kerala, India, which featured representatives from Venezuela, Brazil, Italy and India.

Some of the FSF-India techies have achieved amazing feats, spurred on not only by their skills but also by the underlying ideology of free software. For them, free software isn't only about producing good quality technology. It's also about sharing and ethics, as the group explains on its Web site:

Free software is a matter of freedom, not cost. It is a matter of liberty, not price. The word 'free' in free software has a similar meaning as in free speech, free people and free country and should not be confused with its other meaning associated with zero-cost. Think of free software as software which is free of encumbrances, not necessarily free of cost. Think of it as Swatantra software.

To get a better understanding of this organisation, I spoke to Mumbai-based G Nagarjuna, the chairman of FSF-India. Nagarjuna, an alumni of India's network of prominent technological training centres called the IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology), is a cognitive scientist, epistemologist and philosopher. He works at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, which is linked to prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. About the formation of FSF-India, he says:

We thought of forming FSF-India in 1999. That was when we put together a conference in Thiruvananthapuram [located in the Southern Indian state of Kerala] and a free software festival was held in the city. At that time, a core group was formed with M Arun, myself, V Sasi Kumar and many others from Thiruvananthapuram, [including] TeX guru C V Radhakrishnan--who's better known by his initials of CVR--Raj, RaghOO from Kochi and a Math professor from Thiruvananthapuram Krishna.

At this point, the organisation informally took shape. "We identified a working group and board members. Then we all came down to write the memorandum of understanding", Nagarjuna recalls. At that time, the FSF enthusiasts declared Thiruvananthapuram, a city tucked away in one corner of India, to be the free software capital of India. "Even then, it was likely that this place [would] be more vitalised", Nagarjuna says.

Since then, a series of events, ranging from an international TeX users meet to the recent four-nations conference, seems to be underlining the role of Thiruvananthapuram as a free software mecca. Incidentally, the city also is home to a non-profit organisation known as SPACE, the Society for the Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment. SPACE aims to promote and enable youngsters to enter the world of free software, both for skill-building and job-getting.

FSF-India has registered itself as a not-for-profit company under Section 25 of the Indian Companies Act. It took them about a year to complete all of the paper-work necessary for this designation. Nagarjuna says the organization took this unusual step because:

We were thinking big for one reason: we wanted to have a large number of smaller units scattered across the country. If we didn't form a company, in each place everyone had to form a society. It would be a huge [amount of] paper-work for each group. So we thought we [would] have one office which would take care of everyone's accounts and paperwork. That was the thought. Whether it happened or not is a different story.

Currently, the FSF-India network has FSF units in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai. In a country of one billion people, each of these federal states can have a population larger than many countries on the world map. Another city in South India, Kochi (formerly known as Cochin), also has an active Free Software User Group (FSUG) that is one of the first free software group in the country.

The FSF-India network is open for membership. It also is possible to become an individual member of FSF-India by paying annual or lifetime fees.

When asked if FSF-India is satisfied with its work thus far, Nagarjuna says:

[a lack of sufficient] people to do the volunteering is the main problem. We have a lot more sympathisers than people who can give in work. Everybody who is spreading free software doesn't always identify that the work is being done on behalf of FSF-India. Yet, a lot of working is getting done.

He stresses that the organisation recently was looking to hire two to three full-time employees.

Nagarjuna, who holds graduate degrees in Biology and Philosophy and a PhD in Philosophy of Science, sees the localisation of free software as a crucial task for India. He says, "We thought we should have members essentially for promoting the free software philosophy and also to join in various localisation groups all over the country."

To this end, one of the group's first projects was a team effort with the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP) and a local firm called Keltron. "We did localisation of GNU/Linux to the Malayalam language, spoken by about 30 million people", Nagarjuna explains. Other South Indian language localisations, such as Tamil, already had been completed. Nagarjuna says the Malayalam localisation wasn't easy because, unlike Tamil, it's not a linear language. Of the project, Nagarjuna reports:

Any standard font would solve the problem of Tamil localisation. Unlike the other [South Indian] scripts, Tamil was easier. Other people had to wait till Pango gave us Indian language support. Same was true for KDE and Qt. So the browsers started speaking Indian languages only much later.

When asked how free software compares with proprietary in terms of localisation and Indian-language solutions, Nagarjuna is honest. "If you're speaking about complete support, we're still behind. We don't have dictionaries in Indian languages. Propriet[ary] software has fonts as well as dictionaries."

Despite the lag time in some support areas, Nagarjuna is optimistic. Now that the free software world has solved the encoding problems, FSF-India hopes to tackle other issues. But these problems cannot be solved unless some academic help also comes forward. "We need more support. The operating system has enough technical support; what we need now are databases--glossary of terms in all the languages," he says.

FSF-India says it is trying to find out if the TDIL (Technology Development for Indian Languages) network of the Ministry of I&T, Government of India, can release some of its glossaries and make them freely available to those working in the free software world.

Fair Play Achievement

Looking back, Nagarjuna rates the PlayFair situation as one of the largest achievements of FSF-India and its campaigners. Back in early 2004, an Indian organisation called Sarovar put up a project called PlayFair. The PlayFair project enabled people to play their purchased iTunes tracks on "non-Apple authorised hardware, provided an authorised key is available". As was reported, FairPlay originally was hosted on SourceForge until Apple demanded it be removed due to DMCA violations. It then moved to Sarovar, and Apple again demanded that the project be taken down. Recalls Nagarjuna:

When the controversy [arose], Apple eliminated that software project from SourceForge on the grounds that they were violating DMCA, and is hosted in the US.

It was supported only on the Apple and Windows platforms. Hacking made that application available for non-Windows, non-Apple and non-iPods. Hacking involved extending it to Free BSD, all *nixes. Apple's business did not suffer. When [a hosting site for Indian programmers] in Thiruvananthapuram was asked to remove the project, we could have gone to court saying Apple had no locus standii in India, since India does not have a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) law. However, the company hosting Sarovar is a small company and decided not to fight on their own. They asked us, FSF India, to sort it out.

While FSF-India was considering a court battle against Apple, FSF campaigner Anand Babu came up with a solution and decided to fight for developers' freedoms. Babu identified himself publicly as the developer of the controversial programme. Nagarjuna reports:

Almost 18 months have since passed. Nothing happened after that. The message is that fighting for the developer's freedom is important.

Our Free Software movement has come this far not by following the rules of existing society, but by formulating rules of its own and doing things in its own way. Instead of going to the court and following the rules of the multinationals, we said, this is what we want to do, and now the ball is in your court.

The Future of FSF-India

In terms of the next generation of computer users, I asked Nagarjuna what is the motivation for youngsters to go in for free software, when proprietary tempts the best brains with mega-bucks? He replied:

If you choose to do it, it's for freedom, not because of economic reasons. The point I keep talking about is that we keep working and struggling to maintain freedom, even if it is expensive. Freedom is more valuable than just the "total cost of ownership" that open-source people talk about. Our arguments, unlike those of the open source people, are not based on economics alone.... [It's] not even just technology. It's ethics and politics of technology that we are concerned about. Ours is a cultural movement. The most important thing is that unlike all other social movements, this is a movement that is taking root in such a way that there's no going back.

As Nagarjuna explains it, other movements are based around an identifiable person, entity and/or organisation. That makes it easy to stop the movement by eliminating the central thing. With free software, however, opponents don't know who to fight against. It's not localised in one place. And even if one free software developer stops coding, the movement doesn't stop. It's spreading all over the country and all over the globe. FSF-India and its work also in not localised, Nagarjuna argues.

Looking forward from FSF-India's point of view, the challenges are big. In India, one of the main challenges is convincing people who already get software for "free"--that is, free of charge, as the bulk of software used here is "pirated" or illegally copied--to start using free software for the sake of principles. This requires moral commitment, not only pragmatism. As Nagarjuna sees it:

If you look at it like this, at the time of Independence, during the freedom movement, people talked highly about morality. Not just about throwing away the enemy. Take for example the Gandhian way of life--lead by the champion of India's fight for freedom, M K Gandhi--or the Khadi movement to promote home-spun cloth as a measure of protest and self-dependence. Khadi is a technology, right?

To harken back to those lofty traditions, FSF-India has chosen as its logo a charkha that morphs into a computer-age CD. "Weave your own code", urges FSF-India, continuing in a high-tech spirit the message of Mahatma Gandhi to "Weave your own cloth".

What asked what FSF-India sees as its biggest opportunity, Nagarjuna laughs and says, "We're still waiting." But the group's focus is on taking free software ideas to schools, colleges and teachers. "Ultimately, we know that free software is a culture, and therefore should obviously be closer to cultural institutions like schools and colleges. Without tapping that, we'll be missing the boat", he says.

Other cultural forms that FSF-India is keen to link up with are the media, artists and other kinds of "people who express themselves"--those creating the cinema, artists who paint, musicians, writers, journalists, poets. Nagarjuna says:

We're all generating code, we've all generating expression, we're all generating knowledge. That's where we want to focus on. Not just on the industrial use of software. We want to demonstrate the potential of software for the country as a whole. We would like to get linked up with anybody who wants to use free software for e-governance and e-education, and of course, our priority is schools and the media," adds Nagarjuna.

Anyone wanting to set up a new FSF-India chapter in his or her locality should get in touch with the group through the FSF-India-Friends and FSF-WG (Working Group) electronic mailing-lists. There, people can learn about some interesting activities that fit within the FSF framework and priorities.

Frederick "FN" Noronha is an independent journalist living in Saligao, Goa, India. He can be reached at [email protected].

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