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Coming Soon: The Death Of Free Speech In India

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By Anshul Tewari:

What is common between All India Bakchod, Perumal Murugan, MF Hussain, Salman Rushdie, Wendy Doniger and Shaheen Dhada? All of these were silenced, either by the moral police or the Government, and their right to freedom of speech and expression was snatched away from them. What all hailed as the ‘era of India‘ has been slyly turned into the ‘era of information-controlled-speech-deprived-development-hungry-India’ where our country’s economic and nationalistic aspirations clash directly with our fight for our basic rights. What’s more interesting is how this struggle also clashes with India’s growing intolerance towards people from oppressed communities.

That political and religious groups have clamped down on free speech is nothing new. While All India Bakchod is bearing the brunt of “hurting sentiments” by using “vulgar” language among consenting adults who paid to watch the free flow of politically incorrect comedy – in 2012, 21 year old Shaheen Dhada was arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act for posting a Facebook update, showing her discontent with the Mumbai shut-down after the death of former Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackrey. Shaheen and her friend Renu Srinivasan, who had “liked” the post, were arrested the same night and charged with “creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes”, and for insulting or outraging religious feelings(?) and violating Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for online speech deemed “grossly offensive or of menacing character”.

While Dhada and Srinivasan were ripped off of their right to express themselves, the case raised some very important questions about the draconian Section 66A, which was added to the Information Technology Act in 2008, and passed without a single debate in the Lower House of the Parliament. The section states that any message sent out electronically that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character” with the purpose of “causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages,” shall be punishable with a fine and a prison term, which may extend to three years. The section was intended to curb the misuse of communications services such as SMS, MMS and email through the sending of offensive messages or spam – but has since been misused at multiple occasions to curb free speech of many Indians.

To add to 66A, in April 2013, the Indian Government set up the Central Monitoring System (CMS), aimed at enabling the government to monitor all phone and Internet communications in the country. The formation of CMS raises some serious concerns about the abuse of such a system against people and institutions who dissent, offend or protest.

A Google+ Hangout organized by OurSay and Youth Ki Awaaz in 2013 with the then Minister of IT and Communications Milind Deora raised this pertinent question as well. Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama and a constant critic of 66A asked the minister about the kind of legal infrastructure that the CMS was building and how “it infringes upon the rights of free speech and privacy, and leaves the citizens with a potential disaster with the Governments to come”. That CMS could be misused was clear when the minister went on to accept that 66A was misused as well.

Human Rights Watch, a global human rights organization, in a post quotes Cynthia Wong, a senior Internet researcher – “The Indian government’s centralized monitoring is chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws. New surveillance capabilities have been used around the world to target critics, journalists, and human rights activists.”

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” – Author Salman Rushdie

One of the biggest arguments against free speech is that there is a fine line between free speech and hate speech, that free speech should not border on threatening national security and that it should not harm the religious or cultural ethos of India. This was also one of the reasons why the All India Bakchod’s Roast came under fire. However, is free speech for a select few only? Political leaders engaging in hate speech and making communal remarks openly have often caused riots as they hid under the garb of the very same fundamental right they are out to snatch from others. What showed the failure of our society is when All India Bakchod did harmless, paid-for mudslinging on consenting adults, watched by those who consented to watch it, and people chose to have a problem with it – and the most iconic comment came from Ashoke Pandit of the censor board.

ashok-pandit

What also needs to be noted here is that hate speech leading to disruption of peace is not an issue that needs to fall under the ambit of free speech. It points towards a more systemic problem in our society. It is not hate speech that breeds violence first – it is the culture of intolerance and oppression that breeds hate speech. To tackle hate speech, we cannot ban it and believe that we stopped it. Hate speech, or free speech that harms, will find a way to propagate itself and cause disruption. What we really need to talk about and tackle is the culture of violence and intolerance.

For the longest, consciously or sub-consciously, we as a society have bred violence against various forms of free expression. From dictating what women should wear, to deciding what is ‘allowed’ and what isn’t. Heck, we even teach our children how to behave with people ‘different’ from us by virtue of the religion they chose to practise, or the caste or class they belong to. We ensure that they don’t discuss or debate the status quo, and that they forever toe the established line. In this, we directly or indirectly build a culture of intolerance towards anyone who disagrees with us, or criticizes our notions and beliefs, be it political, religious or otherwise.

Freedom of speech is absolute, and it is where your fight starts

With the new Government taking shape since 2014, and the Hindu right emerging fast, we are already experiencing interesting times vis-a-vis free speech. However, the threat is not just the Hindu right, or any other religious or political extremist ideology or group. The real threat is our lack of participation and willingness to put up a fight against free speech violation on our home turf. When a group of European artists gets murdered by terrorist organizations, it is easier for us to post “Je Suis Charlie” and go about our way. But when repeated free speech violations happen around us, we turn a blind eye towards them.

Freedom of speech is the key to address some of the most pressing problems of our times. Snatching away of tribal lands and then not letting them speak about it openly, rampant demolition of urban slums for political motives and then silencing the rights of the slum dwellers to highlight those issues, slapping sedition charges against those who question the basis of our culture and nationalistic beliefs, banning books, art, literature and even spoken word, are gross violations of what forms the very basis of a democracy.

As Bill Durodie rightly said in a recent piece, “Freedom of expression is absolute or it is nothing at all. It cannot be parcelled out so that we are only free at particular times or in specific circumstances. That’s how it becomes a privilege rather than a right. That’s how the self-appointed guardians get to decide what is and isn’t acceptable.”

Your fight for your rights begins with your fight for free speech – and now is when we need to start.

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  1. Saurabh

    the show which AIB conducted is fine but as a viewer I think it was sexist and derogatory. It is fine that it was between consenting adults, but when you post on youtube, it is available for everyone (Kids including). Though putting ban and filing case is ridiculos, AIB should rethink that fun is better when it doesn’t reach vulgarity.
    Even for a guy, it was bit much.
    ** My View **

    1. Trina Talukdar

      Saurabh, even if I agree with your opinion of the comic value of the show, the point here is not that at all. The question is not was the AIB show vulgar? The question is do they have the right to say what they did? And the answer to that is an absolute yes.

    2. Tanisha

      What does ‘even for a guy’ even mean? Women and people of other genders do not have a sense of humor? Also, we should think a bit more about the term ‘vulgarity’. What is vulgar for one may not be vulgar for another. And also, it is important to take note of what are the various contexts in which we allow ‘vulgarity’ and where we do not. We do not allow it in spaces where it makes us uncomfortable. Sexuality is one such space. Now is that a reason to ban? I think not.
      And as far as children are concerned, this video came with a disclaimer. I agree that there can be misuse of disclaimers. However, is this really the most ‘inappropriate’ content available online, or even on YouTube? Nope.

  2. Vira

    Cant believe that this time its not a trainee editor but the CEO himself exploiting such sensationalising words.
    You call it ‘Death’ ? At max, even if you are so keen to popularise vulgarism and sexism, you could have called the removal of video as a setback or step in wrong direction .
    But you and your entire team is addicted to idiotic and cheap publicity.

    You are advocating for absolute freedom of expression. Right ?

    So Mr. Founder and Editor in Chief, I give you an OPEN DARE. Either accept it or find some peace and stop lecturing about this absolute freedom thing.

    The challenge is can you and your editorial team publish the cartoons published by Charlie Hebedo (the ill fated Paris fame magazine) which had infuriated the Muslim community atlarge and the terrorists in specific ?
    If you have guts and strength in your spine, if you have any moral convictions to stand by, and if you still preach ZERO censorship, then use this platform to publish them, or Else make an apology public acceptance that absolute freedom is a myth.

    Atleast even if i am a conservative, i can vouch I don’t live in double standards, that my respect for religions is universal and for all. My respect is not partial or selective. If I call for restrictions on Charlie Hebedo cartoons on Prophet Muhammed, I would also condemn Hussains painting depecting Hindu deities in nude.

    But you guys are just a bunch of hypocrites. You condemn and advocate depending on a predesigned agenda. I have not even an inch of faith left in this portal. You have just made this a toll to attack the right wing parties in India. Stop calling it a mouthpiece of youth.

    In Januray, your internship hungry columnists were busy condeming the peaceful protests against ‘PK’ movie but you and your team had happily and completely forgotten that terrorists were spreeing bullets on a magazine in the neighbouring continent . Just one of a lady writer was an exception to write something in support of Hebedo though in vague..

    I reiterate either accept the challenge or stop preaching this nonsense once for all.

    1. Andrew Auernheimer

      In 2008, Charlie Hebdo fired one of its employees for “anti-Semitism” for the mildest suggestion that there might be a correlation between Judaism and economic success. Hebdo’s presentation as a champion of the Western tradition of free speech is downright ridiculous. Hebdo once tried to have the speech of an entire political party banned because they thought that Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front, might secretly hate Jews even though she has never expressed animosity towards them.

      When one Semitic religion I find objectionable is barred from criticism through the persistent violence of the state but another is only protected as such through the sporadic violence of otherwise powerless individuals, it does not make me think that Islam is the source of tyranny in this context. The adage goes, “to find out who rules you, find the people you may not criticize.” Suffice to say we can safely criticize Islam in France, and we definitely cannot criticize Judaism there. My feelings on Islam are not positive. I do not like what it has to say and I think it is an overwhelmingly negative influence on the world. However, I would gladly fight to see Muslims treated fairly.

      Comedy is not safe from Jewish authority in France. Right now the most beloved comic of France, Dieudonné M’bala, is barred from performing because of “anti-Semitism”. They just arrested him for posting on Facebook after the ban. French author Marc-Édouard Nabe has been censored for two decades and subject to repeated acts of violence for his so-called “anti-Semitism”. The world seems to care only about the violent acts of one Semitic religion and not another.

      When you do not have the right to speak and subject state authorities to the rigors of the marketplace of ideas, violence becomes the only possibility for justice. Muslims are the poorest and most vulnerable segment of society in France. They are subject to violence at alarming rates in Palestine, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Syria. They’ve had their countries bombed repeatedly. The CIA and the Mossad repeatedly collaborate to create monsters like Daesh to murder their children. They’ve lost their families, their fortunes, and their lives. After forcing them to become refugees, their oppressors are allowed to say all manner of foul things to insult them and if they dare say anything back they are charged with terrorism or inciting racial hatred. At some point, they are going to snap and finally pick up a gun. They have shown remarkable patience. I would have long ago in their shoes.

      France and Hebdo never valued free speech, only speech against Muslims and Christians. I don’t know of any French critic of Islam that has silenced themselves in fear of Islamic violence. However, I know of tens of parties (such as Varg Vikernes, Nabe, and Dieudonné) that have been forced to become silent about subjects related to Judaism because of the state-mandated violence of French courts on the subject.

    2. Fem

      @Vira

      The point of the article is not the ‘absolute’ freedom of expression. We all know there is nothing absolute in this world or outer space; freedom is pretty low on that list. The point is ‘freedom of expression’, especially given this context where ‘consent’ is the key operating word. Everyone involved in this show – the entertainers and the audience were consenting adults.

      So the author is not talking about zero censorship.

      In case of Charlie Hebedo one does not need to like what they did in order to support their freedom of expression (same as in the case of AIB Roast). So it doesn’t need guts to republish it. What it need are these – (1) Intent, (2) Republishing rights, and (3) A change of the vision of this page because YKA is for publishing original articles and opinions and not republishing cartoons. As far as opinion goes I guess they stood by them in supporting their freedom of expression in making the cartoons they wanted to make. So a dare is not really required here.

      To sum it up – I support freedom of expression of both Charlie Hebedo and AIB Roast. In first case I found the cartoon to be amusing. In 2nd case I found the comedy to be crass for my taste and frankly juvenile. So it actually is not so much about the content or my like or dislike. Its about a basic fundamental right others and a desire to have a relaxed world which is free of insecurities and is only concerned with the things which actually matter. (Hint: Poverty, Oppression, Corruption, Greed )

    3. Akshita Prasad

      Why should absolute freedom of speech be a myth?
      Why can’t we talk sex? And why is talking sex in public considered to be such a taboo.
      And as said above, the aim of the article isn’t to discuss whether the video was vulgar or not, but in fact to support each persons right to free speech. AIB said what they thought to be right, and forcing them to remove the video is basically denying them there fundamental right of Right to Freedom.

    4. Dark Knight

      Talking about sex and indulging in profanity and vulgarity are two different things. Also, absolute freedom of speech would mean that people would be free to indulge in racism, religious bigotry, and derogatory language. I hope that answers your questions.

    5. TheSeeker

      Dark Knight, they are free to voice their opinion. But there will always be people who don’t agree with them and speak against them, which they have the right to do. In the end, the majority opinion wins and dominates. Through freedom of speech and criticism is how societies are built and how they change. Without absolute freedom of speech India will become a dictatorship under the reigns of the government.

  3. Akhil Kumar

    Just so we are clear, the ‪#‎AIB‬ roast was in bad taste and indeed takes the easiest escape of cheap humour – by being sexist, racist, homophobic, misogynist et al, but that wouldn’t stop me from signing a petition demanding to take back the charges against the collective. The culture of censorship, banning, and slapping criminal charges on people we do not agree with is a dangerous one and serves to strengthen the power of the state and offers validation to their high-handedness, especially when the same will also be used to silence the voices of the oppressed. It is a tool in the hands of the privileged, and your silence would only give them their much needed public legitimacy. The threat is the normalisation of such a culture, which will unfailingly be used against us.

    You do not need to endorse their brand of humour to oppose the selective bias of the state in defining what’s vulgar, obscene or criminal. You do not need to line up with the ideological charge to defend the repulsive show to criticise the state that gives a free pass to communal hate speech, while swiftly acting on the directions of the moral police who decide what is ‘vulgar’ and ‘obscene’.

    If you disagree with them (which many of us do), criticise them in the strongest possible words. Make another satire video on the show itself if you like. No one’s asking you to ‘give them a free pass’ and be uncritical of the show just to defend their freedom of expression. That freedom comes with a responsibility which we must advocate, but I believe that dismissing this just as the privileged elite pulling stunts at their racist, homophobic and misogynistic worst, who would eventually get out of all the trouble they have been facing due to their connections and influence isn’t the best way forward. It’s more of a comment on us, and what we choose to stand for.

  4. Mike hurt

    Just curious about the tweet by Ashok Pandit. Will/Can any legal action be taken against him, because the tweet is clearly an offence to Karan Johar (Section 66A)?

  5. Manjit

    culture of intolerance and oppression that breeds hate speech?
    HAH HAHA where is our culture? Indian are the 1 who always imitate western culture! and who try to bring western culture!! And now the world whore sunny leone has become superstar by indian culture made her famous! And many many things! Bullshit! Dont speak about culture here!

  6. Heavenly Troopers

    Amen! Let’s join and fight for absolute free speech, until the very end.

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