Burning the Gag or Gagging the Burners
[A guest post by Manav Bhushan]
In the past 2-3 weeks, a socio-political storm of a new kind has been raging in India. Although the world’s largest democracy has been through a lot worse in it’s relatively short lifespan of 65 years, the present storm has shaken up the political establishment as well as academicians and commentators because it has seemingly come out of nowhere and has threatened to strike where it would hurt most- the strained secular and multicultural fabric of the country. Without going into too much history, citizens of the Northeastern states of India (the ‘seven sisters’) have always been regarded by some Indians in other parts of the country as social outcasts owing to their distinct facial features and cultural practices. The fact that the Northeastern states are geographically, and hence economically isolated from the rest of the country hasn’t helped matters, and has also led to armed insurgencies in some parts of the region.
However, in spite of all this, the kind of fear and panic that we have witnessed amongst the northeastern citizens spread across the India has almost never been witnessed before in any one community in the country. Most people would have thought that this kind of ripple effect- started by incidents of ethnic violence between Muslims and members of the Bodo tribe in the northeastern state of Assam- would never reach far flung corners of India where there has been almost no incident to disturb the peace between different communities in recent times. However, one very important factor has changed since the time of earlier ethnic clashes, and that is the reach and power of internet-based social media and cell-phones. They say that there is no smoke without a fire, and to be fair, in this case, the fire did burn in many parts of Assam and claimed the lives of over 70 people, while leaving over 170,000 homeless. However, in this case, mass-SMSs and websites set up by unknown people hell-bent on disrupting the communal harmony of the country have acted almost like poisonous smoke machines and created a situation far more precarious and widespread than the fire would ever have allowed. This article succinctly explains how the atmosphere was worsened by erroneous or simply non-existent reporting on the actual facts by news organizations as well as inflammatory statements by political groups trying to score points.
In order to control the situation, the Indian government has resorted to blocking over 300 sites, which include micro-bloggers, Facebook pages, and also Twitter handles for various individuals, including 2 prominent journalists. The full list of sites which the government has ordered to be blocked can be accessed here. It is evident from going through the list that there are some web pages (~5%) whose place on the list is inexplicable, and can easily be challenged in a court of law. However, a vast majority of these web pages represent patently communal and inflammatory content such as the content on this page. It so happens that many of these sites, including the example quoted here, are managed by organizations such as VHP, Sangh Parivar, etc which have a close association with the main opposition party, the BJP. Thus, to call the banning of these web pages an attack on the political opposition and on free speech rather than a curb on communalism, hate-speech and incitement to violence, is highly questionable. Further, the hypocrisy exhibited by the US foreign office in their public admonition of the Indian government is not just questionable but laughable, since the US government had blocked access to Wikileaks on their own government computers, and has also been targeting Wikileaks in all kinds of other ways. The argument that the US State Department spokesperson gave during her interaction with the Indian media applies equally well to the Indian government. Just like the content put up on Wikileaks was in violation of US federal laws, the content put up on (most) of the banned web-pages is in violation of the Indian laws pertaining to hate-speech and incitement to violence.
But the Indian government cannot be exonerated just because it has tried to ape the USA or any other country, and the central question remains whether or not these sites should have been banned at all or not. No sane person can argue that ALL of these sites should be banned, and clearly there are innocent players who have inadvertently or maliciously been targeted and who deserve judicial redress. However, if I had the choice of having all these sites banned (for the time being) and the freedom of speech being curtailed for some, or our nation facing a serious risk of communal riots being sparked off as a result of this freedom being abused by others, I think I would definitely opt for the former in these extraordinary times, and hope that the government does its best.
And of course, it would come as no surprise that the government is doing FAR from its best. The present-day Congress government is not only targeting some dissenting though harmless voices under the garb of stopping hate speech, but is also allowing far more dangerous elements like Raj Thackeray to openly spew venom. It is no secret that the Congress has done its utmost to assist the rise of the MNS and their communal brand of politics in Maharashtra in order to try and split the Shiv Sena vote. However, it is still astounding to watch them allowing MNS to hold a huge rally at a very communally sensitive time, while claiming to curb hate-speech and communalism on the internet at the same time. The icing on the cake is their acceptance of Raj Thackeray’s demand to transfer the Police Commissioner in spite (in fact because) of the fact that he controlled a potentially flammable situation with much less damage than was possible. With all of this, the Congress has demonstrated how it’s grandstanding on controlling hate-speech and communalism is nothing but a facade behind which it can hide its hypocritical, opportunistic core.
At this point, I’m sure that many enthusiastic defenders of the absolute right to free speech would want to jump down my throat and tell me that since everybody has their hands dirty, ‘it is the principle that matters’, and that if the ‘good’ guys silence the ‘bad’ guys today, the bad guys will silence the good guys tomorrow. Well firstly, since we aren’t really spoilt for choice between the communal on the one hand and corrupt on the other (or indeed communal and corrupt on both hands), the question of good and bad does not arise. But more importantly, I think that if the bad guys wanted to, and were able to silence the good guys tomorrow, they would do it anyway. So we might as well do the best that we can today. It is important to remember that the lawmakers leave things deliberately vague in some cases because sometimes things just cannot be defined in black-and-white, and no one principle can work for all instances. Freedom of speech is one area where things will just have to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis and judgement will have to be pronounced by weighing the rights of all concerned parties and putting collective good above all else. And yes, you guessed correctly- some person(s) with a disproportionate amount of power will enjoy the benefit of sitting on judgement over their weaker counterparts. Some gags will have to be burnt and some burners will have to be gagged, and we will just have to try and compel the government of the day to make the right choice in each individual case.