Six and a half decades since we got our independence. For all intents and purposes, we are citizens of an independent democratic country whose constitution guarantees freedom of speech. But when the first son-in-law of the country calls it a ‘Banana Republic’, he definitely is speaking with the authority of an insider. And the grand old party which constitutes his sasural is hell bent on proving him right. Consider the following:-
- As per Google’s transparency report, India tops Google censorship index amongst all the countries in the world. That means, taking an aggregate of requests received by Google, including court ordered censorships, government ordered censorships, requests for removal of content, and requests for user data – the maximum number are from India. We outrank China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran – how’s that for democratic freedom of speech and right to privacy?
- Recently, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested and charged with sedition for some cartoons that he had drawn. He had drawn hard hitting caricatures of politicians and supposedly ‘depicted the National Emblem and the Parliament in bad light’.
- A small scale industrialist in Puducherry was arrested last month for allegedly posting ‘offensive’ messages on Twitter targeting Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.
- Latest in this series of ignominies is the arrest of a 21 year old girl in Mumbai for posting a facebook update questioning the rationale of the total shutdown in Mumbai for Bal Thackrey’s funeral. It gets even more amazing – a friend of hers was also arrested – for ‘liking’ the above post.
Several messages emerge from these incidents. Primary amongst them is that in this country, if you are powerful enough (and power may stem from political position, connection with people in political position, or wealth) you can get away with murder. MPs and MLAs can desecrate the parliament and legislatures by their conduct within their hallowed precincts – throwing microphones, tearing up documents, watching porn or by using abusive language. People like Raj Thackrey can go on making inflammatory statements in public and in media. Sundry politicians can go on looting our coffers and blatantly indulging in crony capitalism. But the mango people of this country dare not express any opinion that is inimical to those very powerful people. Any such voices will be swiftly and ruthlessly stifled using the full majesty of law. It also shows the contempt with which those in power view the common people and their rights to express their views freely.
The truth is that today the establishment is scared that means are available to the common people to express their opinions and that social media can transmit these opinions across the country and the world to like minded people within seconds. The government in this country was long used to being able to control the media. It was easy enough when bulk of the media was state owned / controlled. The proliferation of private media channels was an initial threat, but that was soon dealt with to a large extent. The Neera Radia episode, and many other instances of the cozy relationship between media houses, business and political entities that have come to light, have shown that our media is also susceptible to influence, and is far from independent.
New media, however, is changing the rules of the game. Its power to give a voice to the common people, provide a means for them to connect and ability to galvanize them into action was witnessed in the ‘Arab Spring’, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Closer home, the Anna Hazare / Arvind Kejriwal movements also largely owe their popularity to social media. An arrogant government long used to ignoring the true sentiments of the very people on whose behalf they exercise their powers is now facing the dilemma of public opinion being expressed directly by the public itself, without the filters of a pliable media.
Faced by this the government is, in a ham handed manner, attempting to extend its control over the uncontrollable. And it is doing so using what it is most familiar with – bogey of communal discord or public disorder. Earlier this year, the government tried to pressurize Google, Facebook and other online companies to allow pre-screening and / or removal of objectionable content – content considered ‘provocative’. But the reality, as brought out by Esha Chhabra, is different. She says, “While Mr Sibal cloaks his censorship threat in terms of social harmony, political reputation may be more the point. In the first half of 2011, India made 358 requests to Google to remove content from the Internet, of which 255 dealt with criticism of the government. Significantly, India is now one of only four countries to ask to remove content critical of the government.”
It is an affirmation of the power of social media that each time the government has had to retract and end up embarrassing itself after vehement reactions by netizens. The sedition charge against the cartoonist was dropped, the Chidambaram case tried to be played down, and an investigation ordered into the arrest for the facebook post on Shiv Sena.
It is about time that the government in particular and politicians in general realize that allowing free expression of public opinion – favourable or unfavourable – is a healthier, more prudent option than trying to muzzle it on various pretexts. Because, irrespective of the opinion of the first damaad, the mango people of this country are not going to make do with a banana republic.