I get Kapil Sibal.
I really do.
When he says that he is not against political dissent per se but merely acting, in the benefit of the nation, to wipe out online speech that promotes communal disharmony and religious unrest, I totally understand where he is coming from.
I know that Google says that of the 358 requests to remove content, 255 dealt with the criticism of the government.
But where Google and perhaps many of the wise commentators are missing the bus is that the government (which in Mr. Sibal’s mind and I guess ours too is the Congress party) is actually a religion. It is built on the dogma that some people with a certain juxtaposition of letters in their last name are divinely ordained to rule. It has its pantheon of above-laws-meant-for-mortals Gods whose achievements, while being sung about in hymns, are almost never perceived in the real world and who need to be continuously propitiated with sacrifice and utter “respect my authority” reverence. Once we accept this basic premise, what Mr. Sibal says makes perfect sense, that being that his religious sentiments and those of the believers of his religion (or more precisely, those who subscribe to his “community standards”) are being hurt by the not-so-complimentary depictions of their idols that have flooded the interweb.
Which is why they have to be removed, sometimes even before they have seen the light of the day since Gods are sent into wrath not just by impure actions by also by impure intentions.
Those trying to find an inconsistency between what he is claiming to do (remove comunal hate speech) and what he is doing (censoring political criticism) need to lay off.
Mr. Sibal, after all, is a fine lawyer. He knows what he is doing. If not from a technological perspective (since most of us know the semantic pre-screening he is asking for is technically infeasible) but definitely from the legal one.
Because in India, our rights to free speech are curtailed by what the Constitution calls “reasonable restrictions” on its practice. These include restrictions on speech that is defamatory in nature, or against decency and morality, or that which compromises friendly relations with foreign states or the sovereignty and integrity of India. Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code severely restricts any speech that could be construed to outrage religious beliefs. In this paragraph, two phrases should have come out and struck you like Pawarian slaps—-“against decency and morality” and “outrage religious beliefs”. Virtually anything and everything that vexes the authorities can be put into these two baskets—a non-flattering photoshop of a prominent political figure may definitely be claimed to be against decency or as an attack on figures held in Godly reverence.
But wait, wait. What’s wrong in these legal restrictions? What if people get offended by expressions of dissent or sarcasm or opposition and do something naughty? Like if I draw an offensive cartoon and some people get so angry that they catch hold of some other man on the street, put a tyre around him and set him on fire. Does the government not have a responsibility to pre-empt that violence?
The problem of course here is the basic assumption that adults can use a “He made me do it” argument to justify illegal acts. The girl showed cleavage and so I mauled her. His book offended me and so I trashed all stores selling it. The Devil spoke in my head and so I slaughtered the family in sleep.
In a mature democracy one would hope that people realize that 1) criminal acts are criminal acts and should be punished as such and that speech or artistic expressions should not be used as justifications for such acts, 2) criminals will do whatever they have done and can always find a rationale later on. Unless speech is that which concerns the operational plans for a criminal activity (e.g. planning a terrorist attack on the Net) or that which is plainly libelous (making a serious specific accusation against someone without evidence) it is not the expression that need to be the object of a severe yank, but those that supposedly are goaded to act unlawfully on its basis that need to be yanked up by their necks.
Something, (actually Google’s “255 number”) tells me that what has got Mr. Sibal’s blood pressure all high is none of the above.
Again the important thing here is not the famous lawyer, who to be honest, is one of the better politicians we have in this country. (Yes I know that’s not saying much).
What’s worthy of attention thing is the law that gives principals like Mr. Sibal the power to impose the insecurities of a privileged few on the nation.
Why does a law, so weak in protecting dissent, exist so many years after independence?
Here is where things get uncomfortable.
That is because we love what Sibal is doing. Yes. You heard me right.
Growing up in a culture where respect is everything, we want everyone to kneel down their heads. To our Gods.
The only thing we disagree, as a country on, is who our Gods are.
So those who are blowing salivary froth over the digital air-waves at Sibal’s attempts to stifle anti-Gandhi family vitriol, will be equally rabid, but on the opposite side, if the needle-head of irreverence are turned towards Modi-“ji”, Baba Ramdev or The Fast Gandhi-ian Who Loves Administering Lashings With Belts .
Those who say that Arundhati Roy should be legally prosecuted are as passionate in respecting Swamy’s right to say what he feels.
Genteel liberals who cry scented tears on the removal of books from syllabi have no compunction in ganging up to stifle the voice of someone who does not share their “Free Kashmir” political philosophy. And even those who claim to see “both sides” suddenly discover the joys of censorship when it comes to sex or violence in movies because “Hey my son’s morals need to be protected” and it is somehow the government’s duty to do so.
One may argue that this is basic human nature—we think that everyone is obliged to share our view of good and bad and if they don’t, a dry rag need be stuffed down their mouths. At the very least, if they dissent they should do it in ways we deem acceptable.
Which is why a mature democracy needs strong laws, like the US First Amendment, that covers not just the content but also the context in which speech is being made (which is why comic expressions are given an enormous leeway), so that the decision whether speech is licit or not is left, to the least amount possible, to human agency and to slippery subjective slopes like “hurtful to religious sentiment” and “immoral”.
And nothing expresses this better than the court ruling given in “Hustler vs Falwell” (link) which, I believe, explains perfectly why First Amendment-like laws are imperative in a democracy.
“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.” The First Amendment envisions that the sort of robust political debate that takes place in a democracy will occasionally yield speech critical of public figures who are “intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large”.
But we will not have such strong laws.
Because no one in politics, from the white caps to the saffron gowns to the red bandannas to the green scarves, want it.
And to be honest, deep down inside, neither do we.
[PS: A sincere word of thanks to all those who inquired about my health. I had an emergency appendicitis operation earlier in the week. I am feeling better now.]