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We Are Talking About This: Bade Bhai and the Corrosion of Expression

By Jaimine and R. Mir

Artwork by Natasha Gohil

In the past month alone, freedom of expression in India appeared to have found itself in a nose-dive spin so sharp that even Bajan pop-princesses couldn’t help but notice. Rihanna reshared an article about the internet shutdowns in India in place to block the world from seeing the human rights violations against the farmers protesting, asking “why aren’t we talking about this?” And whilst many replied to her telling her to stay out of India’s business, and post-secular evangelicals like Kangana Ranaut attempted to demean and slut-shame her, Rihanna’s question is a valid one: Why aren’t we talking about this? And is it really all that new?

But the truth is that this is simply the culmination of a long walk down a road called censorship. The attempted silencing of the farmers protest is just another example in a long line of suppression, and the gradual erosion of the right to freedom of expression. Making noise on social media comes with its upsides and downsides, but it’s worth examining whether our virtual interactions really still offer a safe space and democratic environment for those who dissent, disagree and disobey.

The recent fiasco of blocking access to over 200 Twitter accounts, including The Caravan Magazine, that had been tweeting about the farmers protests is a prime example of the increasingly narrowing channels available toward freedom of expression. This is setting a precedent with a chilling effect, and leaving the mass society at the mercy of political discretion of fascism.

Taking a cue from Orwell, the current establishment has been so bold as to charge people with ‘thought crimes’. Apparently subject to Indian Standard Time, even Orwell’s projections decided to show up about 37 years late. (And of course, because Orwell was English, they charged them with being anti-national as well.)

Taking a cue from Orwell, the current establishment has been so bold as to charge people with ‘thought crimes’.

Munawar Faruqui, a comedian, who received interim bail yesterday for mere ‘thought crime’ highlights the credibility of ‘democratic capital’. He was arrested for simply planning to tell a joke and that was a straight-away violation of section 41 of the criminal proceedings’ procedure too. Such systematic steps, in a span of last 6 years, has lowered the rank of India on ‘democracy index’, measured by The Economist Intelligence Unit, to 53rd out of 127 nations, compared to 27th in 2014. Naturally, we anticipate that the Ministry of Truth will redact that ranking in short, or remind us that the number 53 is actually the number 1, because of course: when in doubt, doublethink.

The point is: We have policed and regulated our thoughts to such an extent that ‘democracy’ of social interactions looks inherently farcial.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

With any social media networking app, the noise of politics, opinionated minds and the opportunity for abuse is extremely high, particularly for minority groups such as people of colour, women and the queer community who are always under the scanner of misologists for voicing their views against mainstream ideas. On worse days, it extends beyond this, to anyone who goes against the narrow and conventional way of looking at social interactions. In a span of the last few years, we have seen more bad days than good, and with it, a systemic transcendence and gradual degradation of ‘democracy’. India has reached a point where speaking up is put out very quickly, while interactions on social media networks that have become more overtly aggressive, racist, misogynistic and illiberal, continue to enjoy safe haven.

As well as Rihanna, climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted her support for the farmer’s protests and a link to register objections to the new laws, and in response police in Delhi said they were investigating whether there was an international campaign to damage India’s sparkling reputation (if this statement bothers you, you should take a moment to consider why.) As if a popstar and an 18 year old are co-conspiring to bring down India, yeah, sure. We can’t wait to see when the Ministry of Peace/CBFC decides to outlaw the inevitable Greta-Rihanna mixtape. Nonetheless, pictures of the two were seen being set alight and burnt by members of the United Hindu Front. Which we’re sure does wonders to rehabilitate India’s reputation internationally too.

As well as a drop in The Economist’s democracy index, India has also gone down in the Global Index of Free Speech, from 132/190 nations in 2014 to 142nd in 2020. As long as India is ahead of Pakistan (which it is by five places), there’s no outrage against such a degradation.This statistic of the current landscape hails any governmental move against individuality, personal choice, privacy and liberties, creating a dystopian illusion of modern India. So why are we witnessing such an unprecedented backlash on social media, and what does it mean for India’s future?

The Ministry of Love

Over the last four years, India saw more than 400 internet shutdowns, costing Rs 2 crore per hour. In 2018 and 2019 India saw the highest numbers of internet shutdowns in the world, with 134 and 106 respectively. A report on divulges that “India has been on the watch list of human rights and internet freedom organizations to monitor the growing clout of government control over digital rights of citizens. In 2018, India was responsible for over 60 percent of the world’s documented internet shutdowns, justified as preventive or reactive action for public safety. In August 2019, the Indian government imposed a complete internet ban in the country’s conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir region to avoid violence after the revocation of the region’s autonomous status. This internet blackout lasted until early 2020, making it the longest shutdown by a democracy. Going beyond the economic impact of internet suspension, its cost on every day human lives is undeniable. personal and professional lives are largely dependent on the availability of internet technologies. Losing the internet even for a day severely disrupts essential services like healthcare, banking and communications, while also affecting small and local businesses, and public offices amongst other things. Moreover, since India does not consider access to the internet a fundamental right, it becomes tricky to counter the legality of actions that restrict online activity.”

To no surprise, as is with a lot of outdated laws in India, there’s one imposed by the British which lurks in the shadows, waiting to be used often to suppress contemporary social changes. (Who saw that coming!?) The Indian government sometimes invokes the 135-year old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, created by the British to monitor communications across India and curb uprisings. Because, why beat ‘em when you can join ‘em right? Instead of abolishing this colonial law used to retain British domination, numerous amendments have been passed to keep it updated with technological changes, now giving the government exclusive jurisdiction and oversight over wired and wireless communications.

It also allows, under conditions defined in the Indian Constitution, for government law enforcement agencies to monitor or intercept communications and tap phone lines. It’s pretty self explanatory why this is dangerous, and the precedent it sets for restricting freedom of expression in an increasingly polarised India. Even streaming sites aren’t safe - in November the government ordered that all online news from Facebook and Twitter and content on Netflix and Amazon Prime is subject to the authority of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. So now even your Netflix and chill sessions are under some sort of regulation and censorship.

The Ministry of Truth

As Orwell memorably noted, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” So how do these realities and regulations around language and expression affect us, the everyday user?

A caveat here is to mention that regulation of social media isn’t a wholly negative thing, given the huge spread of misinformation around COVID-19, elections in India and of course in the US. The events in Capitol Hill demonstrated how truly dangerous the spread of false information can be (especially with the now former-leader of the highest office in the land promoting it), and who gets hurt because of it. But there is a fine line between regulation of online content and subversion of freedom of expression and it’s a slippery slope. Over the last two weeks, India seems to have tumbled down that slope into dangerous waters.

With this said, the Indian government has spent a lot on social media. As per estimates, the Union Government spent nearly Rs 6,500 crore on advertising and publicity from 2014 to 2019, roughly Rs 1,200-1,300 crore per annum, assumed to be double than UPA’s spending last decade. For an industry size of Rs 65,000-70,000 crore, the central government’s share is roughly 3-4%. Ads play a huge role in irrationally shaping our consciousness, preferences and choices, but the buck does not stop there. The case of Ankhi Das, former policy head of Facebook India, reckoning with the maintenance of hate/communal videos on Facebook tells a lot about the genre of interactions that the current government would want the citizens to assimilate with. Hatred and fake news are known to benefit the current landscape a lot, and many people don’t have sufficient time to question or challenge the details, especially when it feels like a landscape with no end on the horizon. And readily digesting the content that pushed upon us without question especially in the light of global scandals like Cambridge Analytica, has inevitable impacts in the way people vote and who they support.

A study (2019) conducted by a team from University of Essex, UK, led by Sayan Mukherjee and his associates, found that fake news does not change people’s preference for political views. It simply reinforces the existing beliefs and brings out the worst impulses in them.

A book that I’m currently reading ,‘Crime Pays’ by Milan Vaishnav, director at Carnegie Endowment, discusses how a lot of Indian voters vote their caste rather than cast their vote. Their voting preference is also shaped by their bounded consciousness towards the traditionally accepted archetype of a politician, with some preferring a criminal politician over a non-masculine ‘clean’ politician. It’s the muscles and money they vote for, and thus India is unfree from unclean politics. Talk or promote hate, you can become popular overnight.

The Ministry of Peace

The ongoing tailspin of expression has a huge role to play behind the pillars of fascism across India. For any democracy to strongly function, it needs free press and independent media, and is it so anti-national of me to wish for this dream? Without it, journalists in today’s epoch become the Public Relation Officers of the ruling landscape, except for the few who dare to dissent under the threat of sedition cases, assault and rape threats or even death. The culture of fear, suspicion and distrust have been generated to enable hatred and illiberalism, but our interactions are vital to the health of democracy. Our media and social networking thus have a huge role to play for undoing the hierarchical structures in our communities. The kind of interactions that take place even within the ambit of our families, tells a lot about their orientation towards homosexuality, Muslims and other minorities and women.

Ravish Kumar’s book “Free Voice” brings this out very lucidly. He examines why debate and dialogue have given way to hate and intolerance in India, and how elected representatives, the media and other institutions are failing us and looks at ways to repair the damage to our democracy. Wisely he highlights, which is quite contemporary: ‘The National Project for Instilling Fear in the people has reached completion. Before the promised highways and jobs, everybody has been unfailingly given one thing—fear. For every individual, fear is now the daily bread. We are all experiencing fear; it comes to us in many different forms—from the moment we step out of our homes, with so many warnings ringing in our ears... It is only the lapdog media which is safe in India today. Jump into and snuggle down in the lap of authority and nobody will dare say anything to you.”

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of TLP.


About the author:

Jaimine is the author of this article. He is a lecturer based in Mumbai, India, and a blogger. He fights trollers and toadies on twitter, while staying mindful. Follow @jaiminism on Twitter.


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