Faraz Ahmed Siddiqui is the kind of intrepid blogger and investigative writer who should be receiving awards from grateful governments, because he is doing their work. When some Muslim groups decided to attract the attention of Muslims worldwide by posting images of human tragedy—a pile of dead bodies near Buddhist monks, or a man, aflame, running on a road—and claimed that these were images of Burmese/Buddhist atrocities against Rohingyas, he investigated the source of the images. And he found that while the images were genuine, they weren’t about the Rohingya crisis. (The pile of bodies in one image were Tibetan, and monks were there to perform funeral rites; the man aflame was the Tibetan activist Jamphel Yeshi, who died in Delhi while protesting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, and so on).
And what about the Urdu publication Sahafat? As C.M. Naim, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago shows in Outlook magazine (Read article), one particular Shia scholar wrote an entirely false and error-ridden essay in riveting, haunting prose in the Sahafat, claiming that the media and human rights groups don’t care about atrocities Rohingyas in particular, and Muslims in general, face. (That’s patently untrue; the Rohingya crisis has received considerable media attention since late May when the latest crisis erupted: see, for example, my piece here in June:, and this comprehensive report by Human Rights Watch.
But sadly, if you read this column in India and try to read Ahmed’s post, since published in Pakistan’s The Express Tribune, you will find that India’s Net nannies have decided to ban it, according to a leaked list of banned sites. Yesterday, many in India could still see the site, which had less to do with any subversive thinking among Indian Internet service providers, and more to do with plain and simple incompetence and inefficiency. India isn’t China, although the United Progressive Alliance seems keen to take India from information and technology minister Kapil Sibal’s constituency, Chandni Chowk, to China.
The list of proscribed sites, if accurate, includes over 200 sites. That, and the directive to ban sending more than five text messages a day, are of course based on good intentions: rumour-mongering has led to thousands of Indians from the North-East panicking and returning home from cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Pune, and images misrepresented by some websites and publications like Sahafat have partly incited some Muslim groups to protest in Mumbai. Some of the demonstrators desecrated a historic monument, beat up policemen, molested policewomen, and destroyed property.
But the response to vandalism and violence cannot be blocking communications, curbing speech, and banning websites. Forget political speech, think of concern for safety: Imagine your loved ones in a crowded place like Palika Bazar in Delhi, or Churchgate station in Mumbai, and imagine there is a rumour that there are riots in the area. Your first thought will be to reach out to your loved ones, find out where they are, if they are safe, and tell them to come home, or find out where they are and pick them up, or get them to safety. This isn’t far-fetched: I was in Mumbai that Saturday, headed for Kemp’s Corner from Bandra, and a friend sent me a text, saying I should avoid the area around Azad Maidan, because she had heard riots had broken out. If it happened tomorrow, and if Sibal’s censors were half as efficient as they claim to be, I would not have got her message if she had already used up her quota of five texts. Now multiply this thousands of times. People don’t use text messages or instant messages to exchange jokes or flirt, or to sell housing loans, or to incite violence. Sometimes you want your family to make sure the geyser is turned off. People use communication tools to communicate, and tools can’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” messages).
Facetiousness apart, the restriction on messaging is a blunt response, monumentally silly, and the ban on certain sites addresses the wrong problem. (They can resurface with different names faster than Hydra can grow heads.) Sites such as Ahmed’s should get disseminated widely, so that the so-called “masses” can tell truth apart from rumours.
Instead, the government is blocking the messenger. When I lived in Southeast Asia, a human rights activist fighting censorship told me that people believe the spoken word when they can’t trust the written word. In India’s case, social media gets credibility because the state and the mainstream media appear to be losing theirs. Indeed, there are newspapers and there are publications that look like newspapers, and there are broadcast organizations and studios that produce entertainment disguised as news. But they become part of the same undifferentiated mass in the eyes of a generation, which seems to take too seriously Jack Weinberg’s famous remark during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 1960s: Don’t trust anyone over 30. And the Indian media can regain their credibility if they fight these restrictions, and not speak in the voice of the government, which wants to suppress inconvenient voices.
For the truth is that it is the state’s failure in managing the crisis in Assam, which has led us to this. If the state had been swift in handling the violence in Kokrajhar and reduced tensions promptly, there would not have been a visual extravaganza for the hatemongers to feast upon. But either out of design or incompetence, the Assam government failed to reassure communities, and provided fuel to the fire the malevolent groups wanted to start.
And so that it could appear to be doing something, the government blamed the tools of communication and websites. The implementation of the bans lacks any rationale, as Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore has shown in this excellent, crisp analysis . And the list of websites being blocked is a veritable data dump. The companies expected to implement it are in panic, and are blocking sites beyond what’s expected of them: A lawyer told me this morning that one ISP has blocked the entire Wordpress platform, blocking tens of thousands of blogs, in India—no doubt, at least some of which have pictures of babies or cats.
There is an urgent need of adult supervision. Censorship is always bad, but a case can be made for an extremely temporary ban in the face of imminent danger to impose some restrictions. For example, London’s phone lines were jammed for a few hours in 2005, when bombs were going off in the city, and the city administrators and police were trying to figure out the scale and extent of terrorist attacks. But these were restored promptly, and no websites were blocked. Even after the riots in English cities last summer, the government initially thought of clamping down on instant messaging, but then thought better. (Read a report by theguardian and LSE).
Of course, India is not Britain, but it is not China either (this time for good reason). There can be a case for a limited, time-bound suspension of services, after consultation with key officials and stakeholders (which doesn’t mean the thekedars of various religions, but lawyers and civil liberties experts), and strictly under judicial supervision. To combat hate on the website, use the Internet and counter the speech, which might seem hateful. That means publicising the good work of Ahmed, not banning his page. And with print magazines or newspapers which write irresponsibly, get the Press Council to discipline them: It means Justice Katju should stop worrying about the coverage given to Dev Anand’s death, and instead discipline Sahafat.
And India should remember Benjamin Franklin: A society that’s willing to trade precious liberty for temporary safety, deserves neither liberty, nor safety.