Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s attempt to contain the fallout from his comments about crushing electronic media provides a handful of telling insights. Giving him the benefit of the doubt when he says that he was referring to social media, not journalists — and that is a stretch at best, given the context and tenor of his speech at a Youth Congress event — it still leaves him publicly expressing an opinion that it is permissible to target the former. Worse, his allusion to controlling the country’s intelligence agencies and using them to gather information about the vague “forces” behind the online activity he finds so threatening shows a home minister comfortable with the idea of using the State’s security apparatus against those who exercise their freedom of speech too vigorously for the government’s liking. Orwellian undertones don’t get any clearer.
Hoaxes, false videos and the like spread via social media networks — Shinde was ostensibly referring to these — have caused considerable harm in the past. Muzaffarnagar was one instance of this; the widespread false rumour that students from the North-East were being targeted in Bangalore was another. It is no one’s case that such instances come under the rubric of freedom of expression. But preserving the balance between safeguarding the public good and protecting the right to free speech is not an easy task. It requires widespread debate, both within the political class and in the public sphere. Shinde’s comments do not point to a desire for such debate or hint at a capability for the delicate, nuanced approach that is required in understanding and working with the dramatic political and socio-cultural shifts digital communication is already in the process of bringing about.
In this, he affords a glimpse into the general thinking of the country’s political elite on the issue. His claim of being misunderstood has been a staple of similar obfuscations by politicians of various stripes over the past few years when they have found themselves in the same kind of tangle. It has done duty alongside other excuses ranging from being misquoted to vague conspiracy theories. None of them stand the test of politicians’ actions. When Kapil Sibal, then telecom minister, attempted to censor online content in 2011, taking on Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, he wasn’t trying to prevent public harm; he was simply miffed about Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh being mocked. The two women arrested in Palghar for a Facebook comment about Bal Thackeray learnt just how constrained the limits of free speech are when it buts up against political privilege. So did the Jadavpur University professor in Kolkata when he was arrested for spreading “anti-Mamata cartoons”. And the advisory sent out by the information & broadcasting ministry after Independence Day last year — warning media outlets for the alleged attempts by certain channels to compare the prime minister’s speech with Narendra Modi’s and threatening the application of penal provisions — shows just what it looks like when the State uses its machinery to arbitrarily curb free speech as Shinde seems to want to do.
For all that political parties work within a democratic framework, there is still a feudal mindset at work within them. From this perspective, the democratisation of opinion that the spread of electronic media and the Internet has enabled is a distinctly uncomfortable — even offensive — phenomenon. But Shinde and his fellow travellers will have to come to terms with being discomfited. Undoing that phenomenon is not an option.