Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gag Reflex

Thanks to Anne Taintor...once again!
(An older post - an editorial I wrote on our website following Mr. Kapil Sibal's remarks on 'regulation' of social media...a lazy way of getting back to this blog!)

Why does it feel like I woke up in China?

Oh yes, it’s because the Indian government’s latest ‘appeal’ to social networking sites for a little ‘regulation’ of ‘sensitive’ content has a kind of sneaky Sino vibe to it. Most of all, it comes as serious blow to seasonally cynical Indians like this author.

The poor Indian janta has endured lazy parliamentarians, crater-like potholes, long traffic jams, mini urban floods, months-long wait for public services, Pakistani diplomatic snubs, match-fixing scandals and some serious affronts to our sense of national security. And as we use all that waiting tme to tweet about our miseries, we never fail to assure ourselves by repeating a simple mantra, “It’s okay, let’s be thankful that, unlike those poor people in all those other scary countries, we can at least shout hoarse about it if we want!”

Also, whenever anyone compares India and China in a drawing room discussion, we Indians quickly – and rather proudly – pipe up in defence of India’s democratic freedoms. We never tire of emphasising our open relationship with the Internet and, to some extent, the love-hate one we have with our politicians and cricketers. After all, we’re free to Google almost anything and everything, and freely use it to plump up our blog, Facebook or Twitter tirades against the State and everyone else. 

Quite predictably, then, the recent remarks made by the Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal have come in for sharp criticism from India’s chattering classes. In fact, a recent coffee-break discussion entered the realm of some fanciful scare-mongering, to the extent that I had visions of KGB spies following me on my morning walk or of hi-tech gadgets being embedded in my SMS-friendly thumbs.  

Let’s just say, as self-respecting citizens of the world’s largest democracy who have had to endure some second-rate governance over the years, we just don’t trust the euphemisms. Words like 'screening' and 'monitoring' scare us. It kind of turns back the clock and makes us feel like the government is looking to extend the 'Official Secrets Act' approach to uncomfortable issues right into our comfort zone. Secrecy, in the name of “national interest” has long been the firewall against greater transparency. The 'hurting the sentiments of others' argument just seems to add yet another layer - of a different kind - to government control over information.

In fact, being a student of history, I can’t help but think back to our middle-school introductory chapter on the Indian National Congress. It talked about the subtle colonial nod for the formation of the Grand Old Party as a kind of ‘safety-valve’ for the brewing national discontent against the British. Now we’re being told that our very own safety valves might be up for scrutiny. And that Big Brother might not like it every time we broadcast our personal views, either about a political leader we’d rather not have, or about a blasphemous painting we might secretly covet for its golden ‘investment’ potential – whatever the case may be.

Every appreciative glance, we need to remember, has an equal and opposite disapproving glare somewhere. Ask Facebook - the demand for a 'dislike' button that has been doing the rounds for ages now has more than its fair share of 'likes'.

I’d like to add two problematic thoughts here:

1. How are online outpourings of "hate" worse than certain political leaders who verbally intimidate entire regional communities; or go around threatening arson against a foreign retailer? Where is our gag reflex then?
2. Most importantly, who decides what is ‘objectionable’, content’? Forget an entire nation – or a generation – sometimes it’s very difficult to even align your moral compass to your family’s or friends’. Whose teetering values will we have to prop up next by our ‘responsible’ or ‘sensitive’ behaviour? Also, why should anything be judged by the intransigence of the least tolerant in a society?

To sum up, I can’t help but refer to an old Supreme Court judgement that captures this dilemma beautifully. While upholding pre-censorship of films in the landmark KA Abbas case of 1970, the SC held that our standards must not be reduced to a level where the protection of the most depraved determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.

And that’s the problem right there.  

(First published at