Nowadays a Tweet is dangerous. A Facebook status message is dangerous. A blog is dangerous. And even a cartoon is dangerous. We live in very dangerous times indeed. If ruling politicians read everything that the Indian middle class is spewing on the internet, then they would be convinced that a rebellion is raging in the land.
Or maybe they have done that already and that’s why they have pressed the panic buttons.
The latest episode in the cyber farce that the Congress is subjecting the nation to is the arrest of the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for none other than sedition!
While the government would like us to believe that it is just a routine police action based on a complaint filed by a lawyer, the way the government has been behaving would make us believe otherwise.
IT Minister Kapil Sibal has been working behind the scenes with websites to suppress criticism on the internet. The news was leaked last year and a press conference followed which talked of hate crimes and communal tension, a convenient shoulder to fire directly at all criticism against the government.
Then came Congress spokesperson Digvijay Singh’s FIR against Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Orkut, MSN.com, many other websites and many other people for causing “severe damage to his goodwill and reputation besides inflicting acute mental pain and agony on him”.
Finally came the absolutely farcical reaction to the Assam violence where on one hand lakhs of people were displaced and on the other hand the government of India cracked down on fake PMO Twitter accounts. Things got even more absurd when they took on the Washington Post over criticism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The PM also addressed police chiefs on the issue of social media on the eve of the arrest of Trivedi. Co-incidence?
Coming back to Trivedi’s offending cartoon, does it really amount to sedition? Has Trivedi burnt the national flag or broken the national symbol or indulged some such violent act? Is he leading a rebellion against the State?
He has just shown the national symbol in an alternative reality where lions are replaced by wolves and Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs) is replaced by Bhrashtamev Jayate (Corruption Alone Triumphs). It is nothing but a grim parody of our times and hardly amounts to sedition.
Incidentally, a spoof in a popular TV news channel titled “Har ek neta ka ghotala hota he” (Every politician has a scam) showed the top of the Parliament with the national symbol and put the caption Ghotala Jayate (Scam Alone Triumphs).
There were not even muted protests to that.
The reason for that is it also depends on who is saying what. While the ruling government has by and large OK relations with the mainstream media, the same is not the case with India Against Corruption of which Trivedi is a part. After all social activist Anna Hazare was among one of the first persons to be arrested.
Trivedi has also shown great courage in courting arrest, refusing bail and choosing not to have his case argued by a lawyer.
But this is one battle that the government is losing because it has underestimated the very nature of the internet. The reason may be something called the Streisand effect which may be defined thus: “An attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” (It is named after American singer actress Barbra Streisand, who tried to suppress certain photographs in 2003 and ended up giving them even more publicity).
When Sibal showed offending photographs in a press conference last year, hordes of netizens scoured cyberspace to look at every photo against the Congress. When news got out that Sibal was trying to suppress the internet, millions of Tweeple and Facebookers went ballistic and gave him such brickbats that he had received in a day that he had probably not received in his life.
For every fake PMO Twitter account that was banned, many more came up in its place. Every time the government comes down on the net, critical blogs, Tweets and status messages increase tenfold. Just take a look at Twitter trends and you will get an idea. Far from curbing people like journalist Kanchan Gupta and cartoonist Trivedi, the government has turned them into cyber superstars.
The same is the case with Trivedi’s Cartoons Against Corruption. First his website was shut down. That got a lot of publicity and his cartoons found their way into Blogspot and YouTube increasing their views manifold.
The same is the case with the Bhrashtamev Jayate cartoon. After Trivedi was arrested, everyone wanted to see it. It was shared, retweeted and many people even made it their display picture. If the above cartoon is sedition, then its distribution is also a crime. Is the government going to arrest the tens of thousands of people who have distributed it in cyberspace?
The truth is that with every attack, the government is giving huge publicity to an offending blog, website or cartoon and turning the author of that content into a celebrity.
It is paradoxically the government that is fanning the flames of India’s new cyber rebellion!
With two more years to go for general elections, expect things to get much much worse!
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