Kapil Sibal must take Hindi cinema quite literally. The member of Parliament from Chandni Chowk must have liked the film that made his constituency famous, Chandni Chowk to China, so much so that he wants India to be China overnight. Not the China of world class infrastructure, not the China with such abundant foreign reserves that Europe has gone there with a begging bowl, and nor the China that welcomes foreign superstores (rather than threatens to burn them), but the China that cracks down on the Internet.
The minister of communications and information technology has met senior officials of technology giants Microsoft, Google and Facebook and asked them, according to The New York Times, to prevent “offensive and insulting” material from appearing on the Internet. Sibal understands the benefits of outsourcing. Instead of getting his own babus to censor content, he wants companies to become thought police by screening material originating from India that is headed for the Internet. In an ideal world, neither those babus, nor company executives should be monitoring users’ content. But they do it differently in China, and Sibal wants to go from Chandni Chowk to China.
Assuming free speech is a crime— which it should never be—Sibal’s demand is like asking property owners to watch out for crime others commit on their streets, and if they fail to prevent crime, then they (the property owners) would face prosecution.
What Sibal should use his considerable legal talents towards is helping amend the Constitution and strengthen free speech, and remove the pernicious Victorian-era Sections 153A and 295A of the penal code, which give busybodies the right to complain that they are offended, and which let the police prosecute those who have expressed something that some people consider offensive. The police should defend the rights of those who speak, since those who don’t want to listen aren’t forced to do so. I realize this is an impossible demand, but at least it is on the right side of freedom, unlike Sibal’s impossible demand, which undermines freedom.
More instructive is the example Sibal has cited as offensive. It is a page on Facebook about his leader, Sonia Gandhi, which he finds “unacceptable”. Facebook is full of juvenile pages that insult political leaders, among others, including religious icons, celebrities, film stars, sports personalities, college kids, and even ex-sweethearts. Has India become Thailand, with a lese majeste law passed while you were asleep? To guard the reputation of its royal family, Thailand has prosecuted Internet service providers and websites that host offensive material, and people who may have sent offensive text messages, or academics citing a controversial book, and authors of such books. What’s next: Pakistan-like blasphemy laws? Turkey-style article 301 of the Constitution, which outlaws insulting Turkish identity? And who will scrutinize the content—the blogging platform, the email service, the search engine, and the tech support of that company?
Then think of the volume. Given that Facebook alone has nearly 25 million users in India, and countless Indians post videos on content-sharing sites such as YouTube, or post their thoughts—wise and inane, sublime and vitriolic, profound and ridiculous—on blogging platforms, what Sibal has asked the companies to do is impractical.
Maybe Sibal took Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism too seriously. The former Malaysian prime minister said that India has too much democracy. Actually, Malaysia—the looming Petronas Towers notwithstanding—has too little democracy. It has the form, structure, and edifice, but not the content, function or software of a democracy. In the Mahathir era, the internal security Act (ISA) was used to jail opponents, most notably in 1987 under Operation Lalang, and later in 1997, his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim was detained under the law. Thousands have been jailed under the ISA, inspired by colonial-era preventive detention laws.
India briefly flirted with such a system during the emergency (1975-1977). Mark Tully was the India correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corp. at that time. Dev Anand, who died on Sunday, was then in his early 50s, and Tully interviewed him because he was known to have strong political views. Tully asked Anand what he thought about the country’s political situation. Anand replied: “I deplore it in all its aspects.” Tully paused his recorder and asked Anand if he wished to continue—few people dared to speak out against Indira Gandhi in those days. Anand replied: “You asked me a question. I gave you an answer. What you do with it is up to you.”
In that dark period, people like Anand kept the flame of freedom alive, reminding us that India’s greatness lay in its democracy: there was never “too much” of it. China or Malaysia jails outspoken people like Anand. India treasures them, honours them, and like in Anand’s case, mourns them. The Facebook page critical of Sonia Gandhi may be stupid and revolting. But trying to get companies to remove it and to look out for other “offensive” or “insulting” materials is unacceptable.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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