Tag Archives: Censorship in India

A very thin line separates right from wrong

The debate on the Internet freedom, especially right to express dissent using technologies such as Twitter, has been beaten to pulp. Nonetheless, it is a lively issue with as many opinions as there are people using such media.

Everybody is aware of the recent spate of blocking many Twitter users such as @kanchangupta and @barbarindian (just to mention a few, you can get a more comprehensive list here) and some of the accounts still remain inaccessible (although you can access them via third-party Twitter clients).

There have been sharp differences between people who endorse a certain degree of restraint and censorship and people who demand complete freedom of expression, even if it means throwing vituperations and vilest of abuses upon individuals of contradictory ideologies and beliefs. The latest is this article written by Sagarika Ghosh. She says:

A deluge of profane language, abuse of religious icons and vicious attacks on minorities are the hallmarks of Twitter and Facebook in India. Twitter in India, almost completely dominated by right-wing religious nationalism, has been called a “hate factory”, a forum to vent foul-mouthed loathing not only of public figures but of minorities and those perceived as ‘pseudo-secular’ or ‘sickular’. The role of rumour in a riot has been established by many historians. The role of creating the religious ‘enemy’ is another potent force in creating religious polarisation. If social media becomes a tool in the hand of a communal rioter, then the government has every right to enforce the law, and absolute freedom must take second place to protection of life and liberty.

Although as usual, she has used her article to portray minority communities as targets of the majority community, all in all, there is some merit to what she is saying. Sometimes there is madness out there. The kind of language people use will simply appall you and you will wonder, “Do normal people really talk this way in real life?”

To put the point across, she cites some examples from the dose of insulting Tweets she often gets:

As a television journalist, I get a daily dose of abuse on Twitter, an exercise in character-building endurance. Some examples: “Bitch, you deserve to be stripped and raped publicly.” “Randi ki aulad maadar…. why u r not covering assam riots, mulloh ne ma ch..i hai kya behan….. Dalli saali Rahul ki.”

Although I’m not justifying use of such language, one needs to see the picture in its entirety. I know this is very bad language and I would not like somebody from my family even to read this, but why do particular journalists and public figures attract such attention? Is it just because what they think, or there is more to that?

On the Internet, some people are attacked just for having a difference of opinion. For instance there was a massive hate campaign against Anita Sarkeesian for inveighing against rampant sexism on the Internet in general and videogames in particular. Compared to the attack on Anita and many more individuals in the West, what happens in India is kids stuff.

But people like Sagarika Ghosh and Barkha Dutt are attacked less for the opinions and ideologies they hold and more for what they are seen as: agents and pimps (to use the language used by the dissenters) of Congress. There is plenty of evidence on the Internet as well as elsewhere that these journalists often manipulate reality to mould it in the favour of Congress.

The abuses are also a manifestation of the anger that hasn’t been allowed to vent out over the past six decades. Since independence Hindus have always had to justify their existence and their way of life. They always have to carry out their activities in the context of the minority population, especially Muslims. The journalists of such ilk and the politicians (especially Congress and its supporting parties) openly flaunt their communal inclinations to sustain a formidable vote bank. They know that the Hindu society is divided into various castes and classes and they are never going to (at least in the foreseeable future) consolidate into a strong vote bank.

Hence it is a well-entrenched conspiracy to keep the Hindu vote divided and the minorities vote in a constant state of peril. Since minorities, especially Muslims, are always kept on the edge, it is like a tinderbox. Even small scuffles between two individuals escalate into massive riots due to these machinations. Before the Internet, two things acted in the favour of Congress and its cohorts: total control over the means of communication and information dissemination and a total twisting of historical facts with correct facts known only to a few individuals who couldn’t access publishing and electronic media.

The Internet completely changed the game. Since it can be accessed by everybody, everybody can become a publisher as well as an information consumer. More importantly, dissemination of information lies in the hands of common folks and not conventional media, which could easily be manipulated or curtailed prior to the arrival of the Internet.

Now what happens is, as soon as somebody tries to spread misinformation or sow the seeds of bunkum, he or she is immediately taken to task by people who know the real thing. Also, previously people would say anything without caring whether they were right or wrong. This no longer remains possible when there are a couple of hundred people to point out your stupidity and lack of knowledge.

So even before Twitter, these people were, sort of villains. Previously they were ensconced within their respective ivory towers. When they started using Twitter, they thought people will always be in awe and hence grateful that these high-and-mighty interacting with hoi polloi. Totally opposite happened. We all know what I mean by that.

Yes, people get carried away and sometimes they say really obnoxious things. But the point is, it also happens in the real world. If somebody abuses you on the road you can either abuse back and even beat up that person (if you don’t have to fear retaliation) or you can lodge an FIR.

Sagarika Ghosh compares Twitter to a busy highway, although I often like to compare it to a meeting place where people come together, propagate ideas, express dissent and spread information. Till then, it is good. But what happens if people start using abusive language? Abuse happens. Religious and communal abuse also happens although it is not unique to a single community. I have also seen people having Muslim and Christian handles broadcasting all sorts of hateful messages. Can this lead to social unrest on the streets?

It hasn’t been proven directly. The recent controversy over blockage originated from the riots in Assam over illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Social media had nothing to do with that.

The unrest in Mumbai where a few thousand Muslims had gathered to protest against “atrocities” on Muslims in Assam and Burma was also not triggered by Twitter. Yes, there was some inflammatory material on websites and that material was used by local newspapers to instigate people. But there is no direct evidence that social media contributed to the state of unrest the country recently witnessed.

Even the mass exodus of the people from the north-east from various metropolitan cities was triggered by an SMS campaign and this again, had nothing to do with social media.

Nonetheless, abundant vile manifests on Twitter. How to deal with it? The first option is blocking those people. It is same as moving away from a place where people are hurling abuses at you. But sometimes you feel, this is not fair. I mean, if a person abuses me simply because I don’t agree with him, I would like to get back at him. I cannot abuse him back because that is not my style. Get him blocked? This is an option, but such blocking coming from the government can be a dangerous game. We saw what happened this time. In the name of curtailing hate speech and rumor mongering, even those Twitter accounts that were never known for broadcasting hate speech were blocked simply because they continuously questioned the government’s policies vis-a-vis economy and communal dynamics. These handles also thwarted misinformation campaigns launched by various journalists known to be close to the current government. The blocking campaign was so obvious that people were directly taking names.

So in such an environment, how can we believe laws that are intended to restrict hate speech and abuses? There are two problems here:

  1. How do you define “hate speech”?
  2. How do you define “abuses”?

Simply because I’m pointing out faults in a particular religion doesn’t mean that I am indulging in hate speech but fanatics from that religion may construe it that way. Even the government, inclined towards appeasing a particular minority group may block me simply for having an opinion about a particular religion. Journalists and intellectuals may report me to the concerned government agencies for doing some plain speak. So this can turn into a dangerous trend.

Having said that, social media being an integral part of the mainstream these days, we do need a mechanism to curtail vicious individuals hailing from various religions and communities. People from Facebook and Twitter – contemporary popular social networking platforms – will have to arrive at a consensus, just as everybody agrees that there should be a zero tolerance policy for child pornography. It may take some time but eventually we will need the mechanism to control hate speech – real hate speech – and abusive of people. You can’t call me a “whore” simply because I don’t think the way you do. I would like to report you, I would like to make sure that the medium that you are abusing is denied to you. Of course, censoring is not the solution.

Something self-regulatory like Wikipedia?

Why repressive, corrupt governments fear freedom of speech

People don’t realise what a great power freedom of speech is. There is a reason why during freedom struggle various newspapers and journals were banned, writers and poets were arrested and films were censored. As a professional content writer, I can easily say that what you say and what you write can change the destiny of your country. Remember how single-handedly Arun Shourie dismantled the Rajiv Gandhi government? He was not a politician. He didn’t belong to a powerful organisation. He simply wrote. He simply let people know, through his words, what a scam the government ran. The government was so alarmed once that they threatened Ramnath Goenka that the Indian Express building would be demolished if he didn’t expel Arun Shourie from the newspaper.

For those who vouch for the freedom in the west, you can read about how severely western countries are pursuing Julian Assange, to an extent of mounting an attack on the Nicaraguan embassy when the fugitive whistleblower took shelter there. Why? Because he is bringing the nasty secrets of these, the so-called “free” countries to the aam admi.

Freedom of speech, of course doesn’t mean broadcasting and communicating every sort of balderdash. You may have your own definition, but when I speak of freedom of speech, it means letting people know the truth. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you abuse people and threaten them, as people are wont to indulge in on the Internet.

The problem in our country is, people don’t read much. They are not well informed. They have biases but no opinions, and the government intends to maintain the status quo.

The overbearing backwardness, hunger and illiteracy in India can be attributed to the inertia of the people who can actually do something about these ills. There is a vast vote bank that, despite being illiterate and ill informed, can sway the politics of the country, but there is also another chunk that has the wherewithals to become politically aware and gain knowledge, and consequently, change the political equation. Sadly, this big chunk of population is either indifferent or too bogged down. Again, the government would like to maintain the status quo.

Up till now, the government had been successfully able to black out a certain section of opinion by planting its henchmen in accademia, news journalism and literature. This is another example of how an entire country can be relegated to a lasting torpor by a constant bombardment of one-sided opinion. When the British were here they had no choice but to curb freedom of speech, but when they left, our indigenous rulers orchestrated a gargantuan band of dubious scholars whose only job was to brainwash the public. It’s not that alternative opinion didn’t exist – again, people like Arun Shourie published their own work – but these voices were scattered and scarce. Even among common public there were many people who were forming their own opinions, but they had no medium to broadcast their views.

The Internet changed the equation. Publication and exchange of ideas became democratised. You could start a blog, get an audience and you could challenge the biggest journalists in the country. Imagine people openly proving motivated historians like Romila Thapar wrong in pre-Internet days.

With the Internet, and an affordable connectivity, you could refute the claims, you could publish facts that would utterly demolish the claims of the so-called learned ones, and if you thought they were trying to mislead the public, you could start your own campaign. In order to build an audience people would interact on other blogs, many international, and in this way some blogs began to get thousands of views every day.

The UPA government, primarily consisting of the Congress, was rattled by the popularity and impact of blogs. This is a party that feeds on ignorance and intellectual obfuscation. That is why, as soon as it came to power, it tried to block the prevalent blogging platforms. It assumed people would meekly protest and things would be back to normal. It failed to realize people had actually tasted freedom of speech and unless brute force is used, they are not going to give up easily. It retreated.

But still, blogging requires lots of effort. You need to maintain a blog, you need to get an audience, you need to engage that audience and the content has to be compelling on a consistent level. The commenting sections of various popular blogs did solve the purpose to an extent, they were not as engaging as Twitter and Facebook.

That’s why people immediately took to these new platforms, and just within a few years, millions of people all over the world started posting their views and responding to others’ views on a daily, rather, hourly basis. A great thing about social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook is that they are great information broadcasting tools. Got a link you’d like to share with your friends, family and peers? Post it on Twitter and Facebook. Want to add a bit of commentary? Post it on Tumblr. Have a video you think people should see? Upload it on YouTube.

Two things repressive and corrupt governments fear: easy access to “right” or contrarian information, and quick dissemination of that information. The Internet in general and Twitter in particular, achieve both.

Another salient feature is that people themselves can report from their phones. For instance a renowned journalist was spreading misinformation about the riot situation in a small city. Someone from that city immediately tweeted and said the situation on the ground was totally different. Obviously people believed that person. And a few more echoing the same chain of thoughts from the same city.

When communication becomes easier, when flow of information in unfettered, the corrupt government and its henchmen and women cannot mislead people. Brainwashing is no longer possible.

Hence, under one pretext or another, the government tries to create barriers. It takes down websites (in the garb of maintaining communal harmony) and it blocks social networking profiles of people who try to expose its various acts of omission and commission.

India becoming Blockistan

Censorship in IndiaIndia’s tryst with censorship isn’t old. Whether it was religious censorship by Muslim rulers, political censorship by the British, or later on all pervasive censorship by our own politicians, we have had a nice stint with ideas, books, newspapers, and these days Twitter accounts and websites being censored and blocked.

The current spate of censorship had been expected for a long time. People in the mainstream media have always been at loggerheads with the free spirit of social networking websites that empowers everybody to express opinions and spread ideas. Mainstream media is nothing but the government machinery to suppress information, twist facts, confabulate public opinion and keep people generally in intellectual doldrums. Discourse is highly biased and debate is one-sided.

Twitter and Facebook, and before these, blogs, on the other hand, are like a whiff of fresh air. Information no longer belongs to those who control the media. Everybody can become a publisher and everybody can broadcast provided he or she can log onto the Internet and express consistently.

As soon as the UPA government came to power (with the Congress at its helm, of course) it began to curtail the freedom of bloggers by blocking widely used blogging services such as blogger.com. Within a couple of days the government realised it’s not as easy as it had thought and subsequently, had to retreat. Ever since then, it has been working towards creating various embargoes on the Internet.

People in the mainstream media of course have been gleefully recommending the curtailment. Social networking and blogging continuously make their job hard. The moment they try to spread some misinformation, it is countered by Twitter or blogs with factually correct information, often posted by people close to the ground. This way, the so-called intellectuals who have been running their propaganda for more than 60 years, are unable to do so.

In fact, according to the grapevine, some of these journalists approached the Prime Minister Office and asked for help, and hence the current blocking of websites and Twitter handles.

The recent Assam riots between Bodos and migrant Muslims from Bangladesh and the consequent upheaval among the Muslim community members gave the government an excuse to tighten its leash on freedom of speech. Journalists like Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai started blaming the social networking websites for spreading hate messages. This was a totally falsified campaign as:

  • Twitter, Facebook and right-wing blogs had not instigated violence between the two communities in Assam
  • The doctored photographs of Rohingiya Muslims being killed in Burma first appeared in an Urdu newspaper, and again, Twitter and Facebook and nothing to do with it
  • The violence proceeding a Muslim gathering in Azaad Maidan, Mumbai wasn’t directly instigated by Twitter users as most of the rioters don’t use Twitter and Facebook
  • It has now been established that all the inflammatory material that appeared on various websites actually came from Pakistani mischief mongers and people currently being targeted in India had no hand in it

Nonetheless, Twitter accounts tilting towards the majority community began to get blocked. According to this report in Economic Times,

ET has exclusively accessed government directives blocking Twitter handles and web pages.

The directive to block 16 Twitter handles were part of the notification sent out by the communications ministry on August 20. Only one of the twitter handles—@PM0India (the digit zero instead of alphabet O)—bears resemblance to the prime minister’s official account ‘@PMOIndia’.

The Twitter accounts of two journalists—columnist Kanchan Gupta and television journalist Shiv Aroor—are among those that have been blocked.

The directives only say that it has been decided to block these accounts. It does not quote any sections of the IT Act or any other law under which the decision to block the websites has been taken.

The other twitter handles that have been blocked include

Dosabandit (@dosabandit), Eagle Eye (@eagleeye47), Twitanic (@anilkohli54), Sangh Parivar (@sanghpariwar), Amit Paranjape (@aparanjape), Sumeet (@sumeetcj), Pravin Togadia (DrPravinTogadia), Panchajanya (@i_panchajanya), Barbarian Indian (@barbarindian), Scamsutra (@scamsutra), Ekakizunj (@ekakizunj) and redditindia (@redditindia).

There are many people, predictably, trying to downplay the entire situation. Many condescendingly talk about “fake revolutionaries” who have got nothing better to do.

To an extent it is true. It is much easier to raise your voice and protest on Twitter. It is also true that most of the people would choose to remain quiet the moment they have to face physical repercussions of their opinions. But many won’t. There is a reason every journalist, every agency, every government and every business has an account on Twitter or Facebook, or at least they have a blog. Why? Because there is an audience. If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be blocked. They are blocked because they tilt opinion. Twitter handles of vocal journalists like Kanchan Gupta got blocked because they wield a certain degree of influence. They have a reach.

This holds true for many people using Twitter and Facebook and their own blogs. Right now most of the people cannot make sense of what’s going on. That’s why, despite having active accounts on Twitter and Facebook, they are constantly deriding their users.

It is not easy to block information these days. Blocked accounts and websites can be easily accessed if you want to access them. There are many ways you can connect to the Internet even if your ISP blocks you individually. International media is waiting for such news. In fact that’s why within a few hours the blocked accounts are being unblocked.

Are we going to follow the footsteps of Pakistan and China and turn into a Blockistan? No matter how much it makes some of the English-speaking mainstream journalists happy, blocking isn’t possible, at least sustained blocking. The Internet has empowered the silent majority and there is going to be a big backlash if the government, or another agency tries to take this power back. In what form this backlash is going to manifest? It remains to be seen.

Is the government trying to create an Orwellian world?

Internet censorship in India

Remember Nineteen Eighty-Four? Not the anti-Sikh riots but the book written by George Orwell?

In that book the government controls and monitors your every action, your every thought, and every aspect of your life. Everywhere there are human and technological spies monitoring whatever you do.

The same thing seems to be happening with the latest effort of the government to monitor content on the Internet on the basis of what is “objectionable”, “defamatory”, or whatever label the so-called government is uncomfortable with.

To be frank, the Internet scares the shit out of them, especially after WikiLeaks, the unshackled conversations over Twitter and Facebook and social networking-supported civic unrests. And it’s not just the government; all the agencies, may it be bureaucracy, the conventional mainstream media and the old school businesses that thrive on people’s inability to communicate with each other, would like to throttle the free flow of information on the Internet. Precisely this is the reason why there is no hue and cry on TV channels on the government’s new censorship drive.

Wondering what’s the big deal?

According to the new Information Technology Guidelines notified by the government

  • Your Internet service provider must store your every online activity-related data that the government agencies can access any time without notification or without you ever knowing it
  • All your private conversations via e-mail and Skype (and communications via other platforms) will be accessible to the government agencies
  • All your private photographs and messages will be available to the babus
  • If your content on your blog or Facebook or anywhere else is found “objectionable” it has to be taken down within 36 hours
  • Anyone can say that your content is “defamatory” and get it removed from the World Wide Web
  • Your every tweet, every Facebook post, every video, every search on Google (and other search engines), everything is going to be monitored

The government has invested Rs. 450 crores (yes, your money) to track the undersea cables for encrypted data and more than 53 modules have already been established. It means, while I’m typing this blog post, this might already be monitored and I may have to take it down in case some nut case finds it objectionable.

This is not just an India specific problem. In the name of SOPA there are efforts also in the USA to censor the Internet and many of the Arabian countries have already convinced the rest of the world why the Internet is to be censored.

The Internet censorship is more nefarious compared to  the usual censorship because no media has impacted the world as the Internet. It is now cliched, but had Facebook been a country, it would have been the third most populated country in the world, so you can very well imagine why even the biggest governments feel sort of powerless in front of its reach. Another problem (from the control freak government’s point of view) is that you no longer have to depend on computers and laptops in order to access the Internet and social networking applications. You can interact on Twitter and Facebook even from cheapest mobile phones these days. You can even post blog posts from your smart phones. It hardly takes a few seconds for the news to spread across the country, whether you are in a train, in a bus, having lunch, having a poop, or whatever you are doing. Hence, the zeal to control it, to censor it, to severe its most important vein — freedom of expression.

Can you stop it?

You can only stop it with collective effort. Make it more damaging for the government to censor the Internet. In India it might be difficult because there is just a small portion of the population that is active on the Internet and it might not be a vote bank but were it so insignificant, why would the government try to choke it? It certainly feels threatened. It certainly has an impact.

To begin with, you can sign this online petition against the government’s new diktat. You can also approach your local MPs and MLAs and your representatives and convey to them what you think of this censorship drive (realistically, I’m not too optimistic of this approach).

Write against it on your blog. In fact, I’m going to link from this blog post to all the blog posts and articles written on this subject.

Create online forums to discuss the matter.

I mean, do whatever you want to do, but do something. Once the damage is done, it will be nearly impossible to undo it.

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