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Agency: DNA | Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bigmother has not been around for 28 years now. But she sure is watching over us. She died before the internet happened, yet her devotees celebrate her by blocking websites.

That is some legacy. Seminars about the contemporary relevance of ’s holiest cows are rampant. Banalities are timeless, and hence ever relevant. When a pre-internet disease infects the web, it is a sure sign of a living ideology. In a throwback to times when Bigmother would lock some of us up and tell the world that this is for our own good, her devotees in charge of the Government of India have tried the same. But they lack Bigmother’s courage — she used to be rather public about her harsh dealing and silencing of her wayward children. They have secretly blocked certain webpages. The irony is that the ‘blocked’ website list stands ‘leaked’. Does right to information extend to right to information that the state wants to hide but has been leaked? Let’s not go there.

Transparency and freedom are fundamental to the health of this democratic organism. Without them, it is like a life-size sex doll, which can be inflated, paraded and used at will, only to be deflated till next time. This is why we need to look very seriously at the quivering wizards of Oz at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology who blocked internet content without explanation.

Altogether, 309 items are known to have been targeted. Many of these websites ostensibly could have fanned the flames of communal hatred. That the flame-carriers of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or hyenas of Gujarat 2002 have not been banned from the grand old party and the saffron sangh is another matter. Websites are apparently more damaging than kerosene.

No reason has been given why a certain website or webpage or /Facebook account has been blocked. That explanation is important because that potentially opens up such unilateral silencing to legal challenge. How so? Incitement to violence, communal or otherwise, is an offence under the Indian Penal code. If the government thought that it had a legally tenable basis of pre-emptively blocking a website for that reason, it could have said so. Its secrecy and subsequent silence is akin to the hubris of the policeman who is seen taking a bribe but looks on nonchalantly as he knows that the onlooker is powerless. It also signifies a distinct brand of shamelessness that only the powerful have. If the Government of Indian Union thinks that these contents in the web would indeed incite violence, has it proceeded to press charges against the banned websites in Indian and foreign courts? Does it fear that whim of the powerful is at times not a good legal defence?

A summary look at the blocked list is important. Twocircles.net, an Indian Muslim news portal, has been targeted. Its reports of a fatal communal flare-up in Mathura have been blocked. Incidentally, this website, which has received several accolades, did sterling service in trying to check rumours by publishing in toto, the Myanmar government’s response to doctored images claiming to show massacred Muslims in the Arakan province. Did the government media, the Doordarshan do its part is checking rumours that this news portal did? Pages from prestigious news sources like Al Jazeera, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dainik Bhaskar and others have been blocked. Prestige is immaterial here, but I still list these to make a point. It is sad that one has to use this ploy and possibly tells us about the thick skin we have developed to censorship. But what really is at stake is the voice of the frail dissenter, the small fish, us. If a website is lying or is inciting violence, they can be taken to court. But to cede the state the right to indiscriminate, unilateral pre-emption without explanation is to give up our liberties. Does the internet even matter in the ? It increasingly does, the state knows it and you should too. For, if we think that there are ‘legitimate’ reasons for shutting out certain unsavoury words, then we all risk being shut off, piecemeal, at a time that suits the incumbent power of the day. The BJP has cried censorship and they are right. But I also have three words for them – Maqbul Fida Hussain.

The government, with the heritage of Emergency, has learned from the past. Now it wants to build an atmosphere where Emergency need not even be declared. It is important that it is resisted. For an unaccountable state approximates Coco Chanel who said “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.” And that stinks.

Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 

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