India's Free Speech Challengers: Online And Off

BlogHer Original Post

What happens with a newly-elected Indian minister in the central government starts tweeting? Many hilarious controversies, clashes and headlines.

The dapper first-time parliamentarian with his ever-ready quips is Shashi Tharoor , India's Minister of State for External Affairs with a kick-ass resume. He's a former high-level United Nations diplomat, glib speaker, award-winning author and Stephen Colbert's "friend of the show," not to mention a New Yorker for several years with relatively ready access to international media. (We got his taste of his controversial side on this BlogHer post before his tweeting days.) He has a huge Twitter following, especially among the social media-savvy Indian youth back home and overseas, and including me since I started working on this post.

As the LA Times report points out, a tech-tuned politician is a rarity in party-based democracies, especially in a government and bureaucracy that still pushes files and agendas, and finds it disconcerting when people demand that official documents be disclosed for public scrutiny.

Tharoor's tweeting agony is old news and I have been rather underwhelmed by the minister's online "heroism." Now, I have nothing against the minister tweeting. In fact, his open challenge to the closed-door, loyalty-based political culture is indeed a breath of fresh air. He challenges the basic old-guard tenet that policy issues should not be discussed in public. Excuse me? Who are these policies meant for?

Discussion and transparency is key to building a modern democracy and Indians have taken to social media in a big way to unburden themselves, network and push for social action (remember the Pink Panties campaign?).

Why I can't think of Tharoor as the game changer in present India (less than 5 percent of the country is online) has more to do with what common folks like us expect from our leadership in a country where policy decisions need to be debated on a platform that is accessible to the majority of voters. Tharoor often chooses to remain silent in public after his Twitter controversies, and goes beyond 140 characters.

That is material for another post.

Tharoor is probably a trailblazer for future India, but there is another India that is fighting harder to challenge a basic tenet of our Constitution that we take for granted until it is put to the test- freedom of speech and expression, especially with the rise of social media.

Also shaking the roots of the old ways is transparency in governance that has just begun its journey with the not-so-old Right to Information Act. People are paying with their lives to protect its tenets and use it.

Reactions to Tharoor's tweets may be symptomatic of both these problems, but the real battle is basic, offline, and being fought by far less privileged Indians, and unlike Tharoor, with no personal mandate to uphold or fight for better laws.

The Indian Constitution, freedom of speech and social networking:

Even as Google found new glory in its stand against China's reported heavy-handed control of the Internet, it is doing a delicate dance in India, when it comes to its popular networking site, Orkut. It is this Wall Street Journal report that set me thinking (rethinking actually) if we truly appreciate the spirit of freedom of speech and expression. This kind of censorship by law is far more serious than Tharoor's tweets.

Consider a few of Google's Orkut experience (source WSJ):

In September, lawyers at Google Inc.'s New Delhi office got a tip from an Internet user about alarming content on the company's social networking site, Orkut. People had posted offensive comments about the chief minister of India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh, who had died just a few days earlier in a helicopter crash.

Google's response: It removed not just the material but also the entire user group that contained it, a person familiar with the matter says. The Internet giant feared the comments could heighten tensions at a time when thousands of mourners of the popular politician were emptying into the street.

[...] Google has learned to be wary of material that could ignite unrest, from incendiary comments about politicians such as Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi to user groups bashing revered historical or religious figures.

"In those gray areas it is really hard," says Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, who oversees the legal aspects of new Google product launches. "On the one hand, we believe very strongly in political speech and, on the other hand, in India they do riot and they blow up buses."

[...] Google says it only blocks content brought to its attention by users or law enforcement authorities and only when it considers the request valid.

[...]The Web giant ran into particularly fierce opposition from supporters of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party [...]

In June 2007, Shiv Sena supporters stormed cyber cafes outside Mumbai, damaging computers and harassing owners, when they discovered postings on Orkut denigrating Balasaheb Thackeray, the group's founder, and Chatrapati Shivaji, a 17th century warrior king revered by Marathis for battling the Mughal Empire. Google removed certain Shiv Sena-related groups at the request of local authorities.

[...] "India does value free speech and political speech," she says. "But they are weighing the harm of free speech against violence in their streets."

In a follow-up WSJ article, India's minister justifies India's stand.

The Indian Constitution -- the world's longest national constitution with nearly a 100 amendments -- provides for freedom of speech and expression but with a caveat (*refers to the freedom of speech and expression):

Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1)* shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of 4 [the sovereignty and integrity of India,] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

It is this clause and other laws that bar certain kinds of criticism, especially those regarded religious in nature. The growing popularity of online public platforms is putting to test the fundamental right to free speech. The primary argument is that our religious sentiments are too fragile to hold up to criticism and any material that may be "incendiary" and may be perceived to cause violence needs to be taken down.

Who decides what's incendiary? If I am thicker skinned than you are, who's tolerance level should be accepted as the threshold? Why should violence be tolerated in the first place, whatever be the instigation? How do we establish that the criticism was the real motivation for chaos?

So, if I criticize a leader and his/her party workers are offended, is it okay for them to attack me? How is that legal?

Clearly, the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world wouldn't survive Indian laws.

I understand the need for civil discussion. Malicious and ignorant talk not based on facts leads to pointless disputes. Some censure of mindless untruths and baseless "opinions" can help clean out the clutter. But who should do the policing and how? Shouldn't the protesters or those "offended" be using the same tools/medium to shut up the troublemakers?

To be fair, there's plenty of critical discussion in the Indian public space and not everyone gets arrested or punished for a lot of stuff that could be easily considered libelous or defamatory. But it is the aggressive political, religious or other groups that can incite violence or wield power or afford litigation that are able to suppress free speech or take action.

A recent high court judgment makes it clear that religious criticism is still a sticky subject in India. [Source: The Times of India]

The Bombay high court on Wednesday held that in India, criticism of any religion -- be it

Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or any other -- is permissible under the fundamental right to freedom of speech and that a book cannot be banned on those grounds alone.

However, the criticism must be bona fide or academic, said the court, as it upheld a ban issued in 2007 by the Maharashtra government on a book titled `Islam - A Concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims.'

[...]

"in our country, everything is open to criticism and religion is no exception. Freedom of expression covers criticism of religion and no person can be sensitive about it." [...]

"Healthy criticism provokes thought, encourages debate and helps us evolve. But criticism cannot be malicious and must not lead to creating ill-will between different communities... (it) must lead to sensible dialogue." The courts must strike a balance between the guaranteed freedom and permissible restrictions, "a difficult task", as the 150-page HC verdict penned by Justice Desai observed.

[...]

In this case, the court held that the criticism of Islam and "insulting comments with particular reference to Indian Muslims" were "not academic". "It is an aggravated form of criticism made with a malicious and deliberate intention to outrage the religious feelings of Muslims.

The author of the book, who argues that free speech cannot be held hostage to interpretation, says he will challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court.

Banning books criticizing religion is not new. Remember the flak Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin drew in India, forcing her to leave the country of her choice temporarily?

Blogger and writer Amit Varma describes the high court judgment as a cop-out:

Why should only “bona fide or academic” criticism be allowed? Who decides if a particular critique is “bona fide or academic”? The judges there paid lip service to free speech—and in the very next sentence, added caveats that took the ‘free’ out of it.

It could be argued, of course, that the bench merely followed a precedent already set by the framers of our constitution. They too, in Article 19 (1) (a), paid lip service to free speech. And in article 19 (2), allowed restraints on it on grounds such as “public order” and “decency and morality” that are open to interpretation, and make it easy for those in power to stifle free expression. Such it goes.

It is not the criticism of free speech and how it is used that bothers me. It's the physical intimidation and threat of violence that is unacceptable. I understand the balance that we need to maintain between the risks of unfettered free speech and possible violence, but the latter cannot be used as an excuse to shut out the former. Waiting for the tide to turn when it turns is unlikely to yield results.

Forget the online world, India's real world quest for transparency in governance has been one long battle. In 2005, the country finally got its Right to Information Act, something that probably should have come along with our Constitution decades ago. Since then, citizens have used it vigorously to expose poor governance and demand action. One social activist, who is credited to have fought corruption for 15 years and had recently started using the RTI Act extensively to expose government irregularities and land scams in his state, was brutally murdered this month.

Only recently we blogged about how the government, with the blessings of the Supreme Court, refused to table a report about the Mumbai attacks and why they happened, arguing it would expose its weaknesses.

India's battle for right to free speech and right to question governance is so basic, that Twitter seems a world away. Not that a multi-pronged approach is such a bad idea. But we have such fundamental issues to deal with, that the fight needs more than a few tweets. We need some serious noise that will convert to action.

More online:

Gauravonomics on freedom of speech in India's blogosphere (He lists a number of great posts on the issue)

John Kennedy at GlobalVoices Advocacy

Prem Panicker on Shashi Tharoor and the politics of Twitter

Dance With the Shadows on Shashi Tharoor's Twitter sage

Is Shashi Tharoor's speech real and relevant? Nita wonders

The politics of Twittering in India, Andrew Bartlett at The Stump

Reena Daruwalla is all for more Tharoorisms at DelhiLive

RTI works, says Bird's Eye View

Priyanka on how to use Twitter effectively

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