No criticism please, we are Indians
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)
When I signed up for a Facebook account four years ago, a friend warned me it was “dangerous for your sanity” — of course, she meant it in terms of the time I would spend peeking into other people’s lives (She was right). But on Monday, for 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada, that phrase took on a whole new meaning.
When Dhada updated her Facebook status, complaining about Mumbai’s shutdown following the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, little did she know she would find herself in court pleading for bail after being arrested for “hurting religious sentiments”.
Dhada’s arrest shows that India’s Internet laws and the people who execute them are behind the times. In a democracy of 1.2 billion people and multiple religions, you will find a bewildering spectrum of opinions. Add to that the easy distribution of Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets, those opinions can bounce around the world.
When that happens, there is bound to be someone who finds other people’s sentiments offensive. The trouble in India is that doling out offence, regardless of whether you intended to, can land you in a situation like Dhada’s.
In December last year, India asked social media networks including Facebook, Google and Yahoo to screen user content from India, and to prevent the publication of “disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory” content.
Telecom minister Kapil Sibal denied that he was promoting censorship, but said some images and statements posted in social media forums risked raising tensions in India, which has a long history of deadly religious violence.
Here is an excerpt:
I am forwarding an email I have received stating that a woman in Maharashtra has been arrested for protesting on Facebook against the shut down in Mumbai on the occasion of the death of Bal Thackeray. It is alleged that she has been arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.
To my mind it is absurd to say that protesting against a bandh hurts religious sentiments. Under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since under sections 341 and 342 it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime.
India and its law enforcement agencies have shown themselves to be increasingly intolerant of any criticism of public figures — be it a cartoon or a Facebook post. (That there is a critical shortage of a sense of humour is another problem.)
This intolerance does not necessarily arise because police or other law enforcement agencies have taken offence. Often, citizens or interest groups cry foul, then cite statutes in the books that they say requires the law to address their grievance — usually a perception that they, or more often, their faith has been offended. At this point, freedom of speech crashes headlong into the mandate for religious tolerance. What to do?
Social media only complicates matters. Look at the case of the Chennai businessman who was arrested last month for tweeting about the son of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.
Where does it end? Dhada, who is now out on bail, is one of the more than 50 million Indians on Facebook, and she is not the only one who complained about Mumbai’s shops, taxis and other businesses closing, often under pressure from Shiv Sena members.
India’s middle class is increasingly turning to Facebook to express its disillusionment with politicians and other problems. Every cause has its page, and every page espousing one cause seems to have another attacking it. Will India’s local law enforcement agencies be compelled to review every one of its citizens’ Facebook accounts? Their Twitter feeds? Will they make everyone pay bail? Will they put them all in custody? Are there enough jail cells to house all these offending Indians?
If only they knew Facebook and Twitter users have a shorter attention span than a toddler. Tomorrow there will be another problem, another rant and another round of comments. Will there also be a policeman at the door?
It will be difficult to reconcile free speech and religious tolerance, and perhaps some grey area between the two, some flexibility, is welcome. India must examine its laws regarding the Internet, however, and in the balance, the country would be better off if enforcing free speech online prevailed.