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Social Sites, Salman Rushdie, and Individual Freedom

by Pushkar Raj, 21 January 2012

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The month of January [2012] has been a nose dive for the civil liberties in the country. First, some social sites have got court notice for hosting content that the government and some petty groups deem objectionable. The fault of these websites is that they have provided platform to some people’s ideas which a few others have not liked. The government neither can identify nor catch those who have posted such contents. So it has chosen an easy way out of making these ’intermediaries’ (websites) liable for prosecution under a new law that it had passed some times back. Secondly Author of book Satanic Verse, Salman Rushdie was told informally by the government that as some people are objecting to his visit to his home country, therefore he should cancel his visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival. The government has not cared to bother that under the constitution it is duty bound to extend protection and facilitate his arrival. In the first case free flow of ideas is limited while in the second right of movement was curtailed. In both the cases the soul of the Indian constitution has suffered erosion. Like always it will have stifling implications on our society in the long run.

Internet is a reality of the contemporary world. It is a virtual but a parallel world, unseen though somewhat real. It is different than the earlier when transmission of ideas from one person to another required a medium controlled by some one else, be it in the form of books, newspapers, radio or television. Internet has eliminated this ’control’ element; now a person’s ideas - good bad ugly- (if he chooses to make them public) are before millions of people with absolutely no control of anyone and virtually no cost. You may publish your own newspaper, articles, transmit your voice or film. Another important difference is that earlier, one could pin point the origin of the idea, meaning the person who said or wrote something could easily be identified. But this might be difficult now.

The governments all over the world have not liked this new development. They cannot curb the flow of thought without getting hold of the person who is source of it and that person might be beyond their state boundaries or might exist in only ’virtual world’. Therefore now they try to devise ways to reassert the control over transmission of ideas through various means. Totalitarian or semi totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, china, North Korea, Burma and Iran would resort to blatant ways to exercise the said control. The states like India would do the same in a more subtle manner by enacting laws like Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008.

Apparently these moves are initiated in the name of cultural sensitivities but if one digs a little deeper one finds that these are inspired by political objectives. Political criticism, dissent and opposition are under hammer. Given the role that the virtual media played in recent anti-corruption movement, government has decided to exercise control over it even though that might run counter to the conception of liberty (of thought and expression) of majority of the Indian population in twenty first century.

On face of it Salman Rushdie case is more bizarre. It seems that the political leadership has not learnt anything from Shah Bano case of mid-eighties. To Capitulate to fringe elements at the cost of common sense and rule of law never does good to any society. It is very well known that for narrow political gains the then political leadership caused an irrevocable damage to our social and political life. It may safely be argued that If the then government respecting the Supreme Court judgment had stood its ground firm, Salman Rushdie as the writer of Satanic Verses would not suffer a ban, Hindu communalism would not gain notorious heights, Babri mosque might still be standing where it was, Bombay riots might not be a reality, M F Hussain would not die in exile, young people would celebrate Valentine day without fear and the terrorism would not become a competitive phenomenon between India’s two major communities.

Democracy is about personal and civil liberties. Any government or the group that limits them scars and shrinks the landscape of the democratic space of that society. The Indian civil society is well aware of it. However it must put together its collective energy to resist government moves curtailing our personal and civil liberties. Not doing so would force us to relive the unpleasant history.