30 Dec. 2011by Dipankar Gupta
THE DECISION to police the Internet, particularly Google and Facebook, and serve them notice for purveying material that might cause riots is based on motivated naïveté. It appears commonsensical to argue that people turn incendiary when they read inflammatory stuff, but the facts state otherwise. Our political sensors have not yet registered an ethnic violence that was caused solely by hate literature of any kind.
Earlier this month, Kapil Sibal argued that when the Internet carries derogatory and defamatory comments on religious leaders then it is bound to generate social unrest, even bloodshed. Though this hums along with popular construction of social reality, there are two strikes against it.
First, all riots, whether in Gujarat, Delhi, Meerut, Bhiwandi, Mumbai, or wherever, take place only when political parties get involved in the action. In fact, for a full blooded ethnic incident to hit the streets it requires the ruling administration to either sponsor, or connive at, their eruption. In other words, riots between religious groups do not occur spontaneously, but are carefully planned and plotted in political hothouses.
Second, we need to appreciate the boring detail that people may be prejudiced; probably everybody is, in one form or another, to a greater or lesser extent. But that does not mean that they are forever on a short fuse and waiting to explode. It actually takes a lot of cajoling and tempting to make that happen. Hooligans are organised and protected by political parties to attack, maim, kill and loot. Bigots are everywhere; they might actually outnumber non- bigots if a census on this subject is ever taken. But that still does not make for a ripe, riot situation.
Above all else, riots need political patronage and do not happen simply because some dirty literature is easily available. More than what comes out in Google or Facebook, there is a fair amount of insulting material regarding other communities in many mainstream religious texts. Will the government have the nerve to ban them too? The unrest following the Danish cartoons on Prophet Mohammed or Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses are often used to justify Kapil Sibal’s position. However, even in these test cases it required political mobilisation for people to get frothy and fatwa prone. The cartoons had been around for a while and so had Satanic Verses . But political actors required time to rehearse their roles and get hot and ready to kill for a cause.
While on this subject, one also needs to distinguish between those who are happy to kill for a cause and those who are willing to die for a cause. Most ethnicists are more than willing to kill but not get killed. This is why rioters need the protection of the administration.
This is also why there is a festive, picnic like atmosphere when killers set out on their mission.
The violence in all such cases is, predictably, one- sided.
It is probably for this reason that the National Advisory Council ( NAC) recommended a high powered authority be set up to try derelict officers when riots happen on their watch. To some extent this provision compensates for the NAC virtually disregarding the fact that political parties, especially the ruling combines, are actually responsible for most riots.
Against this background, it is rather crafty to lash out at Internet providers in the name of preserving inter faith harmony. Was it the Internet that roused anger in Tomsk against the Gita ? Far from it. Once again there were political interests involved in that incident, even though that particular controversy embarrassed the broad mass of the Russian population.
When was the last time a race riot happened in America? Internet penetration in USA is five times that of India and yet nobody thinks of policing Google or Facebook out there. Hate stuff is dished out on a daily basis on Internet sites in USA yet there have been no riots in recent decades. Why should that be the case? After all, bigotry is alive and well in America ( think of the Tea Party activists when in doubt on this subject), yet no race riots! The conclusion is simple: riots happen not because bigoted people read bigoted texts, but because politicians are willing to play the ethnic card and set fire to peaceful homes. There was a time when such incidents happened in America, but that was then and this is now. So if the UPA led administration believes that Internet can spark a riot then they must either be innocent or cynical. Or do they think that everybody in India is a professional Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or Christian? In which case, they have a very poor opinion of their electorate.
It is hard to imagine that grown politicians do not really know how riots are manufactured. This leads us to believe that the Internet is being censored not for hate literature but for the ugly things that have been said about politicians on Google and Facebook.
Though many of us believe that members of the political class are thick skinned, they actually get very antsy and upset if they are upended in public view.
This was true in the case of the Wikileaks too. As long as Julian Assange was bringing out information that exposed America’s war manoeuvres in Iraq and Afghanistan, nothing really happened to him. He was ridiculed and sniggered at by Pentagon, but no real damage. All that changed once Assange began to disclose diplomatic cables. These dispatches did not disclose state secrets, but showed up Presidents and Secretaries of State to be petty people with small minds.
This is what set the political class everywhere against him. Within a week of releasing information of this kind, Assange’s bank accounts were frozen and his Domain Net Server disabled.
Much worse has happened to him since then.
Back to India. Internet penetration here is less than 9 per cent of the population whereas it is about 50 per cent in OECD countries.
Under these circumstances, does it make sense to get worked up about a minor ripple in the ocean? Once the Internet is brought to heel, what next? What would happen to Awadhi couplets? So many of them make fun of clerics and fundamentalists.
Indeed, what would happen to history for they often show religious leaders to be men with feet of clay? Would we now start banning them all because they might offend somebody’s culture and sentiment? Cynics will obviously conclude that there is more to Internet policing than meets the eye. The government is not actually interested in protecting the minorities as it is in covering up for political bosses. Realists will conclude that the UPA has missed the point for bigotry does not create riots; they happen only when political masters have a stake in setting them up.
But democrats will be the sorriest of all. They know that the hard fought fundamental right to freedom of expression is being bartered away for narrow partisan interests.
The writer is a former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University