First it was a ban on bulk texts. Which suited everyone who is allergic to being solicited to buy insurance, mobile internet, washing machines, degrees and credit, among other things, just fine. And then, we discovered that, according to the Indian government and our mobile service providers, sending more than five texts a day would count as “bulk”.
As our country went on to ban websites, ostensibly to prevent the “spread of panic”, blog posts began to turn up about how one could circumvent the ban. For a chilling moment, I was reminded of Pakistan’s ban on encrypted software used in VPN (Virtual Private Networks) in 2011. This basically meant the government could snoop into private emails and browsing data.
And as Twitter accounts get blocked, one wonders how far away we are from having access to Facebook “temporarily disbanded” – as was done in Pakistan, in 2010, when a row broke out over a contest calling for caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, on the grounds that it was “blasphemous”.
India has already clamped down on cartoons in forums ranging from textbooks to social networking sites, because in this country, we’re prone to blaspheming against those who’ve been anointed holier than the gods – our “political leaders”. And so we have “popularly elected” dictators of the ilk of Mamata Banerjee, who contrives to see red all over a city painted blue.
What can one say in defence of democracy in a country where committees are poring over CBSE political science textbooks, to weed out cartoons that are deemed offensive decades after they appeared in widely-circulated newspapers?
And what can one say in defence of freedom of expression, when personal Twitter accounts get blocked for voicing disapproval of the draconian measures they themselves are falling victim to?
Finally, India has something in common with the two countries it has warred with multiple times since Independence – intolerance of its own people and their opinions.
It appears that, like most things, our government has taken the Three Wise Monkeys maxim literally – if someone has an annoying voice, silence him; if something is going on that you don’t like – let’s say, farmer suicides, inflation, crime – close your eyes, and it will go away; if someone whom you haven’t yet blocked tells you you’re wrong, shut your ears till you do block him.
We have a long history of banning books and films that anyone – especially anyone who could potentially move a vote bank – has a problem with. And now, we’ve joined our neighbours across the borders on both sides, by gagging sections of the mass media.
Are we really expected to believe that all of this has to do with the mystifying exodus of people of North-Eastern origin, from metropolises across the country? Can we even be sure that this exodus has been triggered simply by hate websites and morphed images?
Surely, there must be a deeper insecurity, a sense of constant threat, maybe even prior experience of prejudice, in order to provoke people across socioeconomic classes to pack up their things and leave cities they have lived in for years, not sure whether they will ever return?
In that case, shouldn’t we be looking for the root cause of the problem, rather than shooting down communication systems one after the other?
When the ban on bulk texts came into force, I wasn’t particularly perturbed – sometimes, I thought, a drastic clampdown may be justified in order to push back the panic.
But as the ban creeps into more and more mechanisms, one wonders why we must pay with our right to speech for the incompetence of the people we have put in charge. Don’t they realise that, with every fresh knee-jerk reaction, they’re cutting off essential services that they themselves have earlier praised for helping organise relief at times of emergency and crisis?
If this is the direction our “democracy” is going to take, the government might as well make another Amendment to the Constitution, and alter Article 19(a) to include the statute that every citizen of India has a right to the freedom of speech when permitted by the government. What better way to honour that patriarch of the neo-Gandhi parivaar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai?
More by the same author:
Independence Day: Haunted by disillusionment
Are we raising brats?
Train fire: When populism gets dangerous
Dear Oprah: My suggestions for your next India trip
Dear Censors, can we please use grown-up words now?
Sarabjit case: When the media causes heartbreak
The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com