The Google delusion

In a land where kolaveri is not just a song, but a way of life, it is good to talk about harmony. It is better to act, but where action is needed.

National harmony, national integration, national interest. Words like these typically pop out of school children’s civics textbooks or grand political speeches made on august occasions. No one doubts that these are necessary, but most people are content if they can figure out how to live in harmony with their spouse and neighbours.

These weighty words, however, are now weighing on one’s mind as one learns that in this vast, diverse, noisy, fractious democracy of ours, where rage is so common that there is even a musical tribute to it, social media is being seen as the prime social harmony-pooper.
Last week, the government sanctioned the prosecution of some 20-odd social networking sites operating in the country on the grounds that some of their content is potentially inflammatory. The case for legal action against Google, Facebook and other social networking sites rests on one key argument — that they have content that conflicts with “national harmony, integration and national interest.” A Delhi court has ruled that unless such “offensive and objectionable” material is taken off, drastic measures may be taken, such as blocking the sites, as is done in China.
It started last April with India creating new rules that require Internet companies to remove objectionable content when requested. Rights groups and the companies slammed the rules. The government said it was working on guidelines for action against companies which did not follow the regulations. Kapil Sibal, minister for human resources development as well as information technology, summoned the Internet firms and asked them to remove “offensive content” as soon as they got to know of it.
Now the issue is in the court following a private petition.
The discussion around it has been framed mostly in terms of freedom of expression versus public interest. The arguments, both for and against free expression, are well-known, and the debate is likely to get a fillip in the coming days.
But if national harmony is such a top priority, running after social media sites can be seen as picking the low-hanging fruit, or barking up the wrong tree. In a country where less than 10 per cent of the 1.2 billion population have Internet access, gagging netizens perceived to be obnoxious trouble makers can, at best, scratch the surface of the harmony project.
Who decides what is good for social harmony? And how does one go about creating an atmosphere where different communities live in peace? If you ask the man/woman on the street what it would take to make our society more congenial, many would point to livelihood. Without that, there is neither happiness nor harmony.
What stokes tension and anger in today’s India? The answer depends on who you are speaking with. Many readers of this newspaper would list corruption, lack of affordable healthcare, lack of safety, pollution, traffic jams, as the top harmony-poopers and fissure-creators in society. One could argue that in a country like India, giving a leg up to those at the bottom of the socio-economic rung, so that they too can be part of India’s growth story, should be central to the drive to build a harmonious society. There is a counter-argument — such an approach would bankrupt the exchequer. Every vision has the potential to create a frisson.
Offensive images or words on a social media site are a very small fraction of all that is truly offensive and objectionable in India. This came through to me very powerfully last weekend as I watched a 93-minute documentary by Nakul Singh Sawhney called The Immoral Daughters in the Land of Honour, a brave and unsentimental look at what is called “honour killings”.
There is a memorable line in the film: “Don’t give me the moon, let me reach for it.” It captures the yearning of many young people today. The documentary brings us vivid images from a terrain where young girls have been killed and harassed by those who see themselves as custodians of the public interest. This is Haryana, one of India’s most affluent states. The young women (and men) were killed because they dared to act on their dreams and choices in their personal and professional lives.
Khap (caste) leaders blamed such aspirations on education, television and western culture. All of these were injurious to social harmony, they contended. Young girls who fell in love with boys of the same gotra (clan) and vice versa were divisive forces. Snuffing them out helped preserve the community’s honour and cohesiveness, went the familiar argument.
There have been arrests and much media hoopla. But the political class still shies away from a strong law that can crack down on families who murder in the name of preserving “honour” and social harmony, and village elders who issue kangaroo court-style diktats.
Haryana, which has been an “honour crime” hot spot, is an agricultural society with feudal mores despite the patina of urban sophistication that we see in places like Gurgaon. Social relations in such a place are intertwined with land ownership. However, this is changing. Young people are moving out of the villages, are more educated, have more exposure and want more personal freedom, including the choice of partner. Many families which have suffered, and many women and men who continue to be ostracised, are beginning to fight back, the film shows. They offer hope.
In a land where kolaveri is not just a song, but increasingly a way of life, it is good to talk about harmony. It is better to act, but in areas where action is most needed. How about taking a baby step with rules for matrimonial websites which promote caste-based marriages? Do they not promote a sectarian consciousness? Are they not inimical to national integration? Are they not in conflict with the ideals of the harmony project?
On Monday, there were arguments in court over the petition urging legal action against Google, Facebook and others. The hearing was adjourned till January 19. The debate will gather momentum. There is no doubt that some people post content on the Internet that other people may well find objectionable, offensive or against national harmony. But is that the epicentre of social or national disharmony, especially considering the number of netizens in this country? Ask the man/woman on the street, and you’re likely to get a very different answer. Doesn’t it make more sense to counter an “offensive” argument, in the real or virtual world, with a more compelling one instead of blocking it?

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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