Censorship is a continuous thing. It isn’t something you can (or would want to) eradicate completely. A mind that stops at nothing only rambles meaninglessly with every stray thought. At the same time, censorship becoming rampant puts people into increasingly narrow tunnels of what is allowed. Where the awareness of the world itself shrinks and our understanding, experience and tolerance with it.
Censorship is a subtle thing in the sense that it operates out of sight, out of awareness, and taking things out of our world makes it really easy for any brief spurts of attention to die natural deaths. Yet there is a paradox in our perceptions. We imagine censorship as something that would jar us, stop words abruptly. While possible, it is usually not like this. Ideas going missing in the world paradoxically encloses us in these tiny cocoons of fantasies. That we can say what we like. Or that we are hearing a balanced view of anything. We are not aware of what is missing.
However, there are many pressures working behind scenes to censor thoughts available publicly. And make no mistake, it is thoughts that are being lobotomized here – applied to film, book or blog - a blatant subversion of the Indian Constitution. There are things that can be said, and there are things that cannot be said. In the middle, is this vast grey area that is a no-man’s land. No one really polices what happens here. No one particularly cares. That area is a kind of buffer zone that Kapil Sibal is working on, which can be used to create that chill at will.
In many ways, this is scarier than less tolerant boundaries, because of its arbitrariness. When the boundary of what is allowed is visibly narrow, it is easy to see it for what it is, and gets very easily understood as a bad thing, and ends up on people’s agenda’s to work around or challenge. However, when you have ambiguous laws that can create trouble for you based on something as silly as “hateful”, but these laws are usually not applied, they in effect create a massive hunting ground for dissent.
No one is going to bother about what you said, but if they want you silent, you have broken laws by default. They can get you. Any. Time. That puts you on the back foot. You cannot risk antagonizing people, because you don’t really know where you stand, and what missile and from where can hit you in retaliation.
As Madhavan (Narayanan) said yesterday, “One man’s editor is another’s censor”. While we are victims of censorship, we censor as well. A fascinating moment for me today was when we were reading out various anonymous comments about what we couldn’t tell our families. Or didn’t tell our families. The main words that stood out – in order of frequency – were sex, abuse, religion, money, travel (as in transparency over what you are up to).
Are these also not things we struggle with as a nation? Another thought had come up in the group (among many, many, many others) that connects with this is that censorship is a parental attitude. One that says “I know what is good for you to know”. And other things link to this. For example, that much popular “Unfreedoming Speech” letter to Kapil Sibal that I began with “Let me begin with saying that not even my mother had ever made such a comprehensive effort to remove from my sight everything that would offend me.” That letter was thoroughly appreciated in the way excellent satire is (though this wasn’t satire) – when it strikes some deep truth and voices it and relief bubbles out as euphoria. So somewhere, these perceptions are there.
However, the other thing about parental “gatekeeping” is that it first assumes and then imposes immaturity. And we see it playing out in the country too. From the infancy of the country when censorship based on religious feelings was probably a necessity for communal safety, where hate speech got blocked decisively, the country moved into the part of the bored parent, where you tell the child to shut up for being inconvenient (which, you will find explored further in the articles on children). So we had this era of all the “Tere masoom sawal” raising embarassment being blocked. General offense to public figures, political interests, historical figures grew so much that narratives started being fixed in concrete simply because disagreeing with them was rendered invisible.
Now, we are slowly entering the abusive parent stage, where you find the government has no problems with arbitrary silencing of citizens. Take for example the Intermediaries guidelinesby the Ministry of Information Technology (read it. It is shorter than this article), which has a problem if you (among other things) “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any in formation” that is “in any way” “is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous de famatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, harm minors in any way; infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights; threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.
They have excluded climate change and the population of tigers. You can be arrested for everything else. I challenge you to show me one person who has written on any subject of National Interest and can be guaranteed to not have gone foul of this. How do you even begin protecting from being considered “hateful or offensive”? It is entirely a matter of perception and a random application of “we know better”.
This immaturity is causing us increasing harm as it not only stupidifies us, but the constant impositions of value judgments from outside has led to a chaotic space where no one at all knows where the lines are. This has led to a very dangerous situation where anyone with the power can simply draw the line wherever they choose, and dare others to cross it at their own peril. The effect is a chilling silencing of those without the power to challenge those lines.
I think we need to grow out of this immaturity much like a child grows out of the shadow of an over protective (and thus destructive) parent. By pushing boundaries in responsible ways till they can be claimed as freedoms through the demonstration of more functional interactions. By finding those lines, crossing them deliberately, carefully and seeing if those lines need to be there at all. Much of our readiness for the responsibility will manifest in the way we do it – our purpose, our methods and our willingness to see the larger picture. The functionality of negotiated boundaries that enact our best values must be experienced to become tempting for adoption.
But, if we see the restlessness in the country at large, every instinct I have about people tells me that we are ready to attempt a change on this front. Whether the change will be for the better is going to be a matter of influences. A steady rain of values that nurture excellence and life-affirming empowerment.
We see the world around us. We know what’s going wrong. We know what needs to be done. It is now a matter of doing it.