On the micro-blogging site Twitter and on the social network Facebook, it has become trendy to compare the government’s spectacularly misdirected crackdown on the Internet last week with what happened in 1975. Many users have replaced their own photographs with a dark badge saying “Emergency 2012" on those sites, and others say that their inability to access a particular website is similar to what India experienced for 19 months. However tempting it might be to compare, this is not that time.

To recall: On the night the Emergency was declared, most major opposition leaders were arrested. Newspapers had to submit the copy they were to publish to censors. Newspapers that published blank editorials to protest censorship—The Indian Express and The Statesman—were told they couldn’t do so. In the months that followed, tens of thousands were arrested across India, among them journalists Kuldip Nayar and Gour Kishore Ghosh. Many of the prisoners were tortured. Some died in custody, like the engineering student P. Rajan of Kerala. The actress Snehalata Reddy was weakened by her treatment in jail, and died after her release. Fundamental rights were suspended. Most newspapers complied, but smaller publications such as Opinion, Freedom First, Mainstream, and Bhumiputra waged lonely battles. In the Supreme Court, in the Habeas Corpus case, when Justice H.R. Khanna questioned the attorney-general, Niren De about the status of fundamental rights during an Emergency, De responded that the state could suspend the right to life. (Khanna was the sole judge to rule against the government; he paid the price when he was superseded when it was his turn to be the chief justice of India). While some measures of the 42nd amendment which reduced judicial oversight of Parliament were diluted in subsequent amendments, some clauses remained.

The Emergency, then, was different. But even so, what happened last week was still ugly, and in some ways, worse. Note that Indira Gandhi ensured that the Emergency was largely legal because the Constitution’s articles allowed temporary suspension of civil liberties in the event of internal disturbances, and she used those provisions to her advantage. Later, she got laws rewritten, and a pliant Parliament (with many opposition MPs in jail) and a servile judiciary went along, revealing an institutional failure. V.S. Naipaul succinctly observed in India: A Wounded Civilisation: “The turbulence in India this time has not come from foreign invasion or conquest; it has been generated from within. Her borrowed institutions have worked like borrowed institutions; but archaic India can provide no substitutes for press, parliament, and courts. The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilization that has at last become aware of its inadequacies, and is without the intellectual means to move ahead."

And yet, last week was worse in some ways. Parliament has been busy finding excuses not to work, and no political party is unabashedly for freedom of expression in all instances. Without specifying any criteria, the government blocked specific sites. It decided that rumour-mongering on the Internet was the reason for the shameful exodus of Indians from the northeast, and without showing the link between specific pages and specific violent incidents, it asked service providers to block sites and Twitter accounts.

Even if the government acted as per rules, its action would have been suspect. But in their absence it was arbitrary. Take the outrageously tragicomic case of blocking the excellent work of Faraz Ahmed Siddiqui, a Pakistani blogger who had exposed websites which published misleading material. The mischievous sites showed photographs of dead bodies from a natural disaster and claimed that those people had died in sectarian violence in Myanmar. And yet, that blog was blocked. Nor does the state seem to have followed any procedure in blocking Twitter handles of people who have often ridiculed the government, either in their own name or through parody accounts.

You would think that journalists would see this attack on the few as an attack on them, too. But not everyone saw it that way. Some broadcast journalists on Twitter supported the crackdown in the name of maintaining peace, implicitly accepting the assertion that the unrest had begun because of unverified rumours spread through the Internet. (An Urdu newspaper, Sahafat, was also responsible for publishing misleading information, but except for one article in Outlook, there was no criticism from fellow-journalists). And surprisingly, Vinod Mehta, former editor of Outlook (under whom I worked for about two months at The Indian Post in 1987) wrote that he would “support any measure, including censorship, to stop platforms like Facebook and Twitter from being used to spread terror...If those who own platforms capable of misuse plead helplessness, they must be kicked out. Sacrificing them is a small price to pay for the greater common good."

Ah, the greater common good. This isn’t how free speech champions speak; this is how sarkari babus sound.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

Close