Home >Opinion >Columns >Getting offended may have just got harder for Indians

A few years ago, a man wanted to make a film about a little girl lost in a forest and a tiger keen to eat her. He sent the script to the Animal Welfare Board, probably to get clearance to cast a tiger, even though he planned to shoot the animal in Thailand. He told me that a member of the board refused to clear the script because she was offended by the tiger’s portrayal “as a villain".

India is a haven for anyone offended by anything. I mention the tiger episode because every other thing that hurts “the sentiments of Indians" might be familiar to you. Your freedom of expression has always been subordinate to someone’s right to be offended. Maybe this is the case everywhere. How different is a cultural cop from, say, a humanities PhD who keeps saying, “It’s problematic"? But, in recent times, being offended has become a national sport of India. The courts will admit “the grievance", famous people will be summoned, politicians will comment on the matter, and the offended will hold public demonstrations and wave at cameras.

All Indian governments appear to believe that a story can be told without offending anyone.

So when the government utters the word “guidelines", storytellers feel a sense of suffocation. It’s almost Pavlovian. But, the Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code issued by the government on Thursday were surprisingly commonsensical, even somewhat wise. They are mostly good for streaming platforms like Netflix, filmmakers, storytellers, even comedians, and you too, if you like to watch “content", and also for journalistic websites that really go by facts. The guidelines make life difficult for Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and for the long tail of politics that masquerades as journalism.

The views of the government in the entertainment domain reveals a nation that has accepted the changing times. Instead of banning content through ambiguous claims of morality, it asks streaming platforms to enforce classification by age, a normal practice in nations that are freer than India. In fact, not only has the government refrained from infantilizing Indian adults, it also treats Indians aged between 16 and 18 with respect. They can watch nudity as long as the context is not sexual. For example, Mr Bean changing in the locker room, or an aesthetic dance performed by two anthropomorphic swans. Through age-gating, storytellers have been granted the freedom to tell any story on any subject they want and in any manner, so long as it is not pornographic, the definition of which is not subjective to any reasonable person.

But all this does not mean Indians now cannot claim to be offended. They can still enjoy their thin-skin and be offended by anything. But they may not so easily run to the police or courts to complain. The new guidelines call for the formal creation of a three-tier grievance system to absorb the anger of the offended. This looks like censorship at first glance, but it is not. Rather, it might just favour storytellers and streaming platforms by delaying or even circumventing the terror of criminal charges. The angry Indian can still go to court, but the creation of a grievance system puts moral pressure on him to first go through innocuous channels before enlisting the intimidation of the state.

In essence, the government of India accepts that Indian adults are mature enough to watch sex, violence and doping, and early Indian teens will not be corrupted by just the sight of the naked human body. This is significant. Sorry for sounding like Rihanna, but ‘why isn’t anyone talking about it’? In cultural significance, I would put it on par with the Vatican admitting in 1992 that Galileo was right—the world does go around the Sun.

Life changes more drastically for social media platforms and activists. The government asserts its right to know the origin of any bit of information posted on a platform, and the names, addresses and nationalities of those who transmit it.

The Bohemian freedom that social media has for long claimed for itself was always thin in substance. As this column has maintained, there is a distinction between liberty and freedom. Liberty is our most important oxymoron—it is permissible freedom, or a set of freedoms that people are given in exchange for protection by the state. It is a price we have paid to flee the forest. In the battle between freedom and liberty, liberty won a long time ago. And India is now saying to social media that the idea of a global village is all very sweet, but you are still subordinate to the writ of the Indian government.

This stand was inevitable after a sanctimonious mistake committed by Twitter. It started censoring and blocking a particular kind of elected politicians around the world; it started making moral judgements.

India too has made an error—by clubbing its wise guidelines for fiction and fun with its stricter rules for facts and social laments.

In its uncharacteristic broad-mindedness on entertainment, India has rightly viewed artistic freedom as fodder for a gigantic industry that can fetch it billions of rupees in taxes and other forms of revenue.

In the last two years, I have seen two of my own stories alone infuse over 60 crore into India’s economy, generating hundreds of jobs and surely significant sums of money in direct and indirect taxes. The biggest industry of the future is fated to be entertainment. No other drug that anyone has made will match it. And to harvest entertainment, a republic that has for long been against fun must know which way the wind blows.

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