By Nanditha Sankar:
In 2012, it was Shaheen Dadda and Renu Srinivasan.
In 2013, they are two students from VIT.
In 2014, it could be anyone of us.
This refers to some of the victims of harassment who were targeted, silenced and punished for exercising their freedom of expression on social media, and the growing possibility that it could be any one of us facing the same in the days to come.
It has become common practice to use social media not just as a platform to extend friendly ties across the global diaspora, but also as a conduit for voicing one’s thoughts and ideas. While almost everyone with an account can be seen giving their take on everything from the Miss USA debacle to the national tragedy of Sachin’s retirement, a dangerous issue has reared its ugly head among the users of social media. In 2012, two young girls, Shaheen Dadda and Renu Srinivasan, were taken into police custody; the properties of their relatives were vandalized and the girls were forced to deactivate their Facebook profiles. All of this for their views on Mumbai coming to a standstill following Shiv sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s death. The incident triggered an out pour of support for the young girls and outrage at the fickle-mindedness of the general public.
I thought that all was well with the country till I came across an eye-opening petition for change in a popular website that roots for humanitarian causes. A week ago, two girls from the prestigious institute VIT, Vellore were sent back home. The reason being that they had put up a conversation with a college official and sought an opinion poll on the kind of treatment meted out to the girls in the hostel. The common citizen who is entitled to the fundamental right of freedom of speech has been taken for a ride yet another time. When the constitution of India grants freedom of speech and expression, with reasonable restrictions that it does not amount to rabble-rousing or hate-speech, why should innocents be put through such an ordeal?
The answer to this question has two parts, the growing intolerance among Indians and the much-debated and discussed issue of gender discrimination. To being with the latter, it must be noted that the girls were reprimanded while seeking the opinion of their peers about different benchmarks set at the hostel for girls and boys. While it may be argued that every institution has its students’ interests at heart, it is unfair that while their male friends get to move around the campus without much restrictions, the girls have a stricter regime to follow. If we are to become an egalitarian society, mere loud talk of gender equality will not suffice. Institutes could have helpline numbers round the clock, compulsory gender sensitization modules and other measures for the students to feel safe, but denying the girls their basic freedom and opportunity to go and explore the city during weekends will only cause more harm than good.
As for tolerance, we are a society that preaches one thing and practices another. While we take pride in our textbooks from yore, the fact that they all preach tolerance is conveniently overlooked upon. The keystone behind Indian epics has been that of tolerance, and it is the very same element that is missing today. A simple rumour is enough to start a riot, a harmless update of one’s opinion is enough to earn a place behind the bars. How can we call ourselves ‘progressive’ and ‘forward-thinking’ if we stifle the voices of the people? In the words of former American President George Washington;
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
â€• George Washington.
Click here to sign the petition to the Chancellor of VIT university demanding toÂ let these young women continue their studies without fear of reprisal, and promote open discussion of university policies, to assure VIT women the same opportunities as their male peers.