Metro India, Retro India
The news of the government’s possible attempts to enact a law to monitor social media has understandably ignited a debate. There seem to be few takers for the government’s motives in the enactment of such a law. Governments across the world have rather low levels of credibility on such contentious issues as the expectation of the public usually is that their deeds are going to be different from their words. The general feeling is that the law might be a fig leaf for the government to muzzle anything on the Net and social media that they find inconvenient.
The media in India has evolved though not to the desired levels of freedom but relatively to improved levels of freedom. It might be negation of the concept of freedom of press if the government actually enacts and uses the law to censor the unpalatable. That having been said, the whole concept of the social media is different from the traditional media as symbolised by newspapers, television etc. These types of media have a physical presence and are accountable to the society and to the laws of the land. Social media, on the other hand, is partly real and partly a virtual world, dominated by fake accounts and absolutely no accountability.
The social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, were flooded with tweets and updates, critical of the law. The response as an instant reaction seems natural but it is very difficult to imagine an unregulated social media in a country like India. This country has a history of bloodbath due to communal riots and a host of other conflicts. The levels of literacy are still low, income levels are low and interpretations of information vary vastly across regions and ethnic groups. And, it is so easy to start a riot. To sum it up, the cultural, social and political context for a country like India is different from the West. The levels of tolerance are low and the empirical evidence on riots and fatalities in riots are simply incomparable to the West.
There seems to be a Metro India and Retro India. Metro India is the India which is the recipient of the benefits of the economic boom. This India symbolises the new breed of upper middle class professionals — shopping malls, foreign brands and social media users. This is a fringe minority but ever audible and visible by virtue of their new-found economic clout, and often tries to pass off as India — Retro India. Metro India seems keen to embrace and imitate whatever the West does, unmindful of the dangers lurking in the backyard, in Retro India. Emulation of the success of the West is certainly desirable but blind imitation is bound to prove a dangerous affair.
People who advocate completely unmonitored social media need to explain who would be responsible in the event of a stray tweet being interpreted as inappropriate or offensive by a particular religious or an ethnic group. In the 2010 summer unrest in Kashmir something went unnoticed. What was clubbed as a part of the larger unrest was one particular incident which was triggered by false reporting by a foreign channel which incited a particular Muslim sect. The news item was followed by rioting and rampage and the destruction left about a dozen people dead and collateral damage worth crores. Recently, there was a Facebook account depicting extremely objectionable, obnoxious stuff about Islam. There were rumours that Facebook might be banned. And had the group not been removed, the government might have had to actually ban it. We would want to use the Facebook rather than see it eventually banned or be responsible for fatalities. Facebook and Twitter are excellent mediums, but they are international concepts and are not tailored specifically for the South Asian region. In the South Asia, they certainly cannot be as open as they are in the West. The “one size fits all” obsession for Western imitation by Metro India is delusional as it is oblivious of the frailties that haunt India.
Liberties, justices, freedoms are the results of an evolutionary process and intricately interlinked to local contexts. The cultural context in India may not be ready to take in information from anonymous sources and interpret it in the right spirit. Religion still dictates dresses and social codes and even the eating habits of a huge majority of the population in India. And the inhabitants of Retro India, unlike the inhabitants of Metro India, are economically depressed and vulnerable to incitement and cannot possibly be burdened by unmonitored information from anonymous sources who owe no accountability or, most of the times, even identity to the law of the land.
Religion is invisibly and visibly weaved into most of the societal sectors. So the concepts of honour, dishonour, slander are serious, emotive issues. In a land where communal riots and honour killings are still prevalent, liberty to indulge in religious, personal or social slander on social media is fraught with risks.
Metro India will have to wait for Retro India to evolve and Metro India will have to evolve within as well. When the local police in Kashmir arrests young boys for Facebook updates, Metro India presses the mute button. And when they feel their concept of liberties might be trespassed, they release the mute button. The spirit of libertarianism cannot be selective. For free flow of liberties, justices and freedoms, the evolutionary process would have to pass the obstacle in affording these concepts to fellow beings.
The writer is the chairman of J&K Peoples Conference. He can be reached at email@example.com