Scented Handwash: BJP supporters struggle for Freedom of Speech

Dictator Narendra Modi

I have lampooned our government often over censorship and it is a Congress Government [each word is one among dozens of links on this blog criticizing our government on regimenting free speech]. This is because it is the UPA government in power. The BJP aint smelling sweet on this though I made the mistake of ignoring them.

Today, the BJP supporters online are vocal in criticizing government censorship and being condescending with anyone not supporting the shining ideal – “absolute” freedom of speech, with Twitter flooded with criticism of the Congress for using censorship for political purposes. While this cannot be disputed – our government is indeed trying to regiment dissent into compliance in various ways – both online and offline, the high moral ground currently taken by the BJP, in my view is little more than a farce when the only time it is heard is when accounts affiliated with their interests are blocked. This, in my view is not a fight for right to freedom of speech and it is pressure to reverse blocks to protect their own interests.

The washing hands off any responsibility for the condition of our freedoms of speech in my view is rubbish. BJP has played a role in censoring Speech, which it conveniently ignores now, when it wishes free speech for its own.

The first major instance of internet censorship in India was when the website Dawn.com was blocked in 1999 during the Kargil War. Rediff had posted a workaround. The IT Act didn’t exist then, but here is how it was done anyway.

VSNL Acting Chairman and Managing Director Amitabh Kumar toldRediff “Yes. We have blocked the site. But it is under instruction from higher authorities.” When asked about the legality of the order, Kumar said “We have done it under the authority given to us by the Indian Telegraph Act.”

The next year itself, the IT Act passed. I was living in Manali when the IT Act of 2000 was passed and a mighty puzzled dehati when all of a sudden all the cyber cafes started warning of watching pornographic or “obscene” content on their premises. It was the starting point of the government moralizing use of the internet. The 67th point in the Information Technology Act described offenses:

67. Publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form.

Whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years and with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees and in the event of a second or subsequent conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years and also with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees.

Their hounding of Tehelka for their Operation Westend expose is probably on par with the Wikileaks hounding by US – for exposing grave wrongs in defense forces too. Accusations of “ISI hand”, “fabricated videos”, etc – that BJP supporters jeer at today coming from Congress politicians have been a part of that persecution. Today their supporters are furious about blocks on Twitter profiles that still leave them with the ability to get their word out and have no impact on their journalism.

There was a fair bit of extra-legal, unaccountable censorship legalized by this at the discretion of various officials and without court orders. A letter by Seema Kazi in the Hindu in 11 November 2000 titled “Covert Censorship”  describes censorship of her emails without any court order or specific reason provided beyond “Muslims have links with Pakistan and because of reasons of security”. She had stopped getting emails from MESN.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister and Pramod Mahajan was the Minister for Information Technology – BJP – in case you are interested.

Flash forward to recent years. The IT Act got Amended in 2006 and 2008. The IT Rules passed with as little concern for free speech as the original act and amendments – BJP was sitting in the opposition. During the time the IT Rules passed, the BJP was actually stalling everything under the sky, Internet users were fighting tooth and nail to prevent them. If the second independence of India has to be fundamental freedoms, organizations and campaigns like CIS-India, SFLC, Save your voice, Internet Democracy and independent journalists and activists and lawyers…. are your REAL freedom fighters none of whom find even passing mention as BJP supporters suddenly become torch bearers of your online voice.

BJP has been part of the problem. This current holier-than-thou is obscene and an insult to those fighting for freedoms for ALL. Look at the categories for Free Speech and Censorship on this blog itself and I was a very, very minor player writing about Free Speech among many other things. There are dozens who dedicated themselves to researching, speaking up, leading campaigns and continue now too. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and friends went on fast in protest of the IT Rules, which was actually jeered at as “drama” by many BJP supporters.

The IT rules passed without challenge – BJP major part of opposition and yes, Congress major part of government. There is no lily white on this.

MP Rajeeve has valiantly continued to speak for our rights. He tabled an anullment motion for IT Rules. When the motion was due for debate in the Rajya Sabha, I was a fresh recipient of a takedown notice for an article describing illegal activities in sailing for “defamation”. Taking a huge risk, I publicized the notice on top of the post and used the full 36 hours available to me to actually publicize the content at risk to draw attention to the problem with the IT Rules. Financially broke and up against powerful people, it was no minor thing to risk provoking further legal cases against me or possible attempts to censor my blog altogether. I lost count of people who told me to stop drawing attention and take down the post and not be stupid – even though I was wrongly targeted, but I did it anyway.

The post went viral. Lots of people including BJP supporters publicized it as an outrage. And it was. Few, other than MP Rajeeve were interested. Arun Jaitley pointed out problem with words used to define content that could be blocked. Made comparisons with the Emergency. Members of other parties like NK Singh ( JDU), Tirchy Siva, D Raja(CPI) and others  explained the problems with the rules and how its untenable to censor the internet. That is it. The motion was defeated.

However the serious points raised made Kapil Sibal agree to wider consultation. This consultation was held at fairly short notice on 2nd August 2012. It was supposed to include MPs and stakeholders. Civil society was not invited in spite of attempts to get an invitation. However Prashanth from SFLC still managed to attend. Out of 25 MPs invited, only 2 attended – neither of them from the BJP. They were independent MP Rajeeve Chandrashekhar from Bangalore and MP Derek O’Brien from Trinamool Congress. However, with stakeholders including representatives of Yahoo, ISPs and more, the objections raised were far more robust and a new and wider consultation was promised by Kapil Sibal.

This is where Free Speech in india currently stands. The government has given itself widespread rights to censor. BJP, whose supporters are absolving their own leaders and lampooning the Congress have been a part of getting us here. To claim big innocence and support for “absolute” free speech – apparently overruling laws of the land and what not when own affiliates come under the axe is the height of hypocrisy. That too for problem areas, when the blocks were applied with the interest of safety of citizens.

Interestingly BJP’s anti-censorship stand extends only to the government. Their official organized efforts to consolidate control of online media have also resulted in the largest online rash of pure thugs I have encountered; who engage in abuse of political figures from other parties, gang up with on critics of BJP, often with extremely coarse language and in general leverage nuisance value and mental harassment to the point of people having to resort to blocks and being careful of what they say. These accounts work in groups when they attack and are usually anonymous profiles while real profiles disseminate propaganda and cast moral slurs on dissent without getting into actual trolling. This is social censorship – persecution into silence. Attacks on dissenting opinions include absolutely anyone who criticizes the BJP in any way from regular citizens to jounalists. Many of those profiles are currently wearing black DPs in protest of censored Twitter accounts that were at best briefly not accessible directly as web pages while continuing to function otherwise.

Many of these same people arguing for “absolute” free speech point to the US Laws. Actually most overnight free speech activists know the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution better than the one in India. The right to offend is being defended by the usual defenders of the right to be offended and persecute for it. Examples were given of the Mohammed cartoons and the pastor who burned the Qran. Same people were part of the outrage against a young man who put up a photo of himself with a foot on a Shivling. “Absolute” is clearly open to interpretation. That man has dozens of cases filed against him all over the country for it.

Great analyst moralizers are talking of Narendra Modi’s moral superiority on Free Speech [black profile image on Twitter in protest too], of all things, where journalists were beaten up and put into hospital by police when they covered inconvenient things.

The answer to that is not actually zero as the question implies, but “unknown” could be zero, could be more. Good subject for RTI. Also, there is the small matter that Modi isn’t elected into a position to officially censor yet. With this logic Mamata Banerjee is also pro-freespeech. Besides, if people can be attacked by the state in real life and troll teams online who needs legal actions?

ANHAD is a socio cultural organization started in 2003 as a response to Gujarat Riots in 2002. It is registered as a trust campaigns for democratic rights. When they complained against the BJP IT Cell for persecution with filthy abuses (no surprise, since attacking any reference to the government role in Gujarat Riots is a prime troll target), this June, their office was raided by the Cyber Crime Cell and three activists were jailed overnight [MUST READ] with claims that cyber crimes had been committed from their IP address a full year before on the 18th June 2011. The Cyber Crime Cell refused to detail their crime to the activists, but spoke to media saying that it was related with the Sanjiv Bhatt case. ANHAD was threatened with confiscation of three computers, when last year they owned only one.

BJP clearly didn’t get the memo where free speech isn’t about allowing what you want to see alone, but also upholding the right to speech in the face of disagreement.

What happened in the past is past. If BJP supporters NOW realize the value of Freedom of Speech, it would be far better if they spoke to their leaders – who get votes from them and forced them to join the fight for freedom of speech, defeat the IT Rules, force amendments in the IT act, and the First Amendment of the Constitution itself. If a piddly little MNS can force actions on their government when the reasons are right, the BJP excuses of not having majority are rubbish and a brazen attempt to not only not do the right thing, but actually ask for votes if you want it done.

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About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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