Atanu Dey On India's Development

It’s About Freedom, Not Just About Speech

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Here we go again. The UPA government of India wants to dictate once more what people should know and what information is OK for people to handle. It routinely blocks websites, prohibits or limits the use of mobile text messages, and is now threatening to block twitter altogether. The government’s repression of the people is an old habit and it should not evoke any surprise or comment. Yet the fight for freedom of speech and expression is too important to life and liberty that one should not give up merely because one has been on a losing streak for centuries. We, the people, have to win that battle if we have to win the war for freedom.

The cornerstone of a democracy is an informed citizenry, if the notion of a democracy has to have any meaning that is internally consistent. If those who ultimately are in charge of determining how society is going to be ordered are not informed, then the result would be disastrous. Let’s be very clear that in a democracy, ultimate power rests with the people and not the government which is granted its legitimacy by the people. Unlike an authoritarian system where the people are ruled by a small gang of powerful overlords, a democracy is by definition rule by the people. A democracy cannot function if the people are prevented from knowing what’s relevant for proper decision making.

If in a democracy the government makes the claim that information should be carefully controlled, curated and censored for public consumption, it leads to an inconsistency. It means that the people are incompetent and incapable of handling information but yet somehow, even though not fully informed, are able to decide and choose who is to be entrusted with the important task of making public policy. Without the people having the freedom of speech and expression, without the freedom to be exposed to the widest range of ideas and opinions, democracy is a meaningless word parroted by ignorant demagogues for purely self-serving ends.

India is supposedly a democracy. But that is a contestable claim given the reality that Indians are ruled rather than being the rulers. Citizens have to get permission from a paternalistic government for what they can read or write, see or hear. The British colonial government of India quite understandably ensured that it controlled all avenues of information and that the people were not too well-informed. Colonial rule is like that. The situation does not appear to have changed after 1947. For sure, India got free of British colonial rule in 1947 but it is equally clear that those who rule India today are not free of the colonial mindset. It appears that Indians transitioned from one form of repressive government to another.

Let me put it this way. India is not free today any more than it was under the British. India is under what I call British Raj 2.0. India’s lack of freedom of expression is one very important component of the new Raj.

It is almost axiomatic that comprehensive freedom of the people and the general prosperity of the nation are necessary correlates. It is not an accident that all countries that are free are also the most prosperous. India and the US are frequently mentioned in the same breath as great democracies. Yet, the contrast is striking and heart-rending. India is a desperately poor country while the US is the richest and the most powerful nation in the world. Americans enjoy freedoms that are entirely missing to Indians. That suggests at least, if not prove, that Indians are not really free in any meaningful sense of the word.

It is no accident that the entire modern revolution in information and communications technologies was born in the USA. Not just the underlying hardware — the internet or the computers — but all the applications that enable its use — such as the world wide web, the email system, blogging, social networks such as twitter, the whole set of tools that make people to people communications possible — all originated in the US. Social networking and communications lie at the roots of social capital, and social capital is what creates the wealth of nations. India’s material poverty is certainly an outcome of the lack of social capital, and that is not being allowed to be created by India’s repressive governments.

Once again, I cannot but contrast India and the US in this context. The Constitution of the US guarantees freedom of expression. The so-called Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, was adopted in 1791. The First Amendment states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The United States Congress, the supreme legislative body of the federal government of the United States, is expressly prohibited by the First Amendment from putting limits on the freedom of speech or press. I have read and heard it repeated so frequently that I know it by heart. I cannot say the same thing about the first amendment to the Indian Constitution. In fact, I have not met anyone who has even read the Indian Constitution. Be that as it may, the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution empowers the government to limit freedom of speech and expression. How is that for a contrast? And just by the way, you cannot memorize it either since it is long and written in such terms that no person without years of study can even understand it. I am certainly not going to quote it here but I challenge you to understand it and memorize it. I couldn’t.

But let’s get back to what the repressive UPA government is attempting to do by throttling whatever little freedom of speech Indians have. The repressive (and I choose this word advisedly and repeat it lest we forget) UPA government does not want people to know how disastrous their misgovernance has been for India. If Indians truly get to know about it, the Sonia Gandhi Congress-led UPA will not stand a chance of winning elections ever. In their desperation, they are now intensifying their war against the people.

It must be stated, in all fairness, that the previous Indian governments have not been champions of freedom — including the freedom of speech and expression — either. What the present UPA government is doing is in line with that but they have two reasons for their urgency in repressing information. First, they have misgoverned the most and therefore they have the most to lose if the public becomes fully aware. Therefore they have a desperate need to keep real information under control. If they had done a good job, they would not be running this scared.

Second, these days it is remarkably easy to store, disseminate and access information. Mobile phones and the internet have made it possible for people to circumvent the government controlled traditional media channels and get past the government propaganda. People are not stupid, although the UPA government appears to think so.

The UPA government’s haste in repressing social media more than anything else reveals its desperation. This is actually a good sign and tells us that there is still hope for India. When the government is afraid of people, the people are most likely winning the war. Indians still have a chance at real freedom, something that has eluded them for so long. But first, we must understand what real freedom is. And that is what the government is afraid of people finding out. Social media might create social capital India needs for freedom.

Let me end with a quote from that indefatigable champion of human freedom, Prof Milton Friedman. He wrote, “Freedom is not the natural state of mankind. It is a rare and wonderful achievement. It will take an understanding of what freedom is, of where the dangers to freedom come from. It will take the courage to act on that understanding if we are not only to preserve the freedoms that we have, but to realize the full potential of a truly free society.”

  • http://www.rollon.in Rishi S.

    I agree with your views; however, am curious to know your point of view on 2 issues:

    Inflammatory Content on the net: Suppose there is a proven link between supposedly inflammatory content on the net and the current communal chaos (which currently there isn’t), would you then take a more lenient view on net censorship? Or do you think it would still be too high a price to pay, and we should still leave it to everyone to be more mature about such content?
    Internet piracy: Would the government be right to block torrent sites, for example, in the name of stopping copyright infringements? Would that be a valid form of censorship?

  • mallikarjuna

    Hi Rishi,

    How many folks who rioted in our Azad Maidan read the inflammatory content on internet?

    The sense of victim hood ingrained in the rioters, made them mad & it is not the content on internet.

    The very act of banning/blocking/withholding information (straight/twisted) means some one else decides what I should be knowing.

    Should I be entrusting them?

    Now, come to think of this?

    A team insensitive to
    1) people dying of hunger,
    2) people craving for food-water-education-shelter…

    is sensitive to a rumor & banishes it within days.

    Worse, it complains/alleges the neighboring country plays havoc in it’s internal affairs, but takes zero steps to control/stop it.

    It is so much easy & better to issue an official clarification pointing out the rumour was fake, content was fake.
    Nope, but they would not “CLEAR THE AIR”, but rather suck the air….

    Hope you get it.

  • DJ

    Rishi,

    I don’t use torrents. But, why should the govt be bothered with tracking down individual copyright violations? That is not its job. Copyright violations should be handled by the party affected going to the courts for resolution. Govt’s job is only to create law, execution of the law is to be left to the legal authorities. Govt should not be into legal enforcement.

  • DJ

    Mallikarjuna,

    Similarly, a team insensitive to people dying of hunger, people dying of longstanding issues in Assam/Kashmir, asks the US to crack down on the cause of a few deaths and makes a grand show of helping evacuate people from Libya and elsewhere by diverting Air India flights, etc. Why is this evacuation, urgency not shown for events/deaths within India? Why should the world take India seriously when they do not show concern for events within India but perversely display concern for events outside India?

  • Vicrkam Krishna

    No human society can survive without some restrictions on freedom of speech.

    For example, let us say, I want to argue that all women of a particular group or religion ought to be raped by everyone.

    Now I know of no government in the world that would allow me to argue my case publicly. All societies need to put reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech. What should be counted as “reasonable” restriction has to be decided by that society itself. It is only some arm chair liberals and internet warriors who have not really thought out the full implications of their stand, who become champions of unconditional freedom of speech.

  • Piyush

    @Vickram Krishna: Unconditional (and irresponsible) freedom of speech including the example you’ve given is possible under the garb of ‘religion’ and ‘religious sentiment’ – become religious and you can escape with saying anything, inciting people to do virtually anything and literally get away with murder and rape.

    Strangely, an open discussion on exactly this kind of ‘freedom’ and its repercussions is castigated as abusing the Freedom of Speech!!

    In a nutshell, is it possible in India today, to have a responsible discussion on the hatred and divisiveness that emanates out of organized blind belief systems? It’s possible in Europe and even in the US

  • Vicrkam Krishna

    @Piyush: The example of religious fanaticism that you gave is very apt. However the point made by free speech liberals is not that some groups get away with such irresponsible speech. Rather their stand is that everyone should have such freedom of speech protected as fundamental right. In the opinion of free speech liberals, State should not have any curbs on freedom of speech.

    Unconditional freedom of speech as advocated by free speech liberals is neither practicable nor found any where in the world. Each society has to understand its own sensitivities and decide for appropriate curbs on freedom of speech. The US example that you gave simply shows that this topic is not considered sensitive enough by american society. Their sensitivity is in racial topics. In the US if you want to publicly argue that Blacks are actually inferior people, you may find your freedom curbed in no time.

  • Piyush

    @Vicram: While at no point do I hold American society as a beacon of openness, I’m attempting to understand how sensitivity in a society can determine whether an issue can be spoken about openly.

    While fully accepting your point that the liberals’ declarations of ‘unconditional freedom’ can never be unconditional in that it cannot be irresponsible, defining the cause of the irresponsible action needs to be openly discussed. Genetic underpinnings of racial differences (whether inferior or not is the moot point) can surely be discussed and in all probability will point to the non-issue it is. The danger of taking a view that let’s be responsible because the masses are sensitive is that it gives their manipulative leaders an emotive point to keep them ignorant and to pursue their not-so-noble agendas.

    As far as I know, religion is an extremely sensitive and divisive (and politically decisive) matter in the US. No serious presidential candidate can hope today to mount a serious challenge if he comes ‘out’ as an atheist (even though ironically many of the founding fathers of the US were atheists)

    Liberalism today has been usurped by postmodernism and the confusion that it causes is evident in the demand for unconditional freedom on one side and a morality based on people’s sensitivity irrespective of what’s true (like what’s healthy)

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    @Vickram Krishna – No, you’re wrong. The Ku Klux Klan is still very much present in the American south. There are scores of websites about ‘white power’, neo Nazism and anti Semitism to name only a few.

    You don’t see the country breaking into riots because of that. These are all discredited ideologies, no one advocates them any more.

    In the Indian context, I’d be far more concerned about the comment about the ‘third wave of Islamic radicalization by a serving MP, Assassuddin Owaisi.

    People who go on the rampage and set fire to buses aren’t incited to do so by social media, in fact it’s a fair bet that none of them use it.

    On the other hand the so called ‘internet Hindus’ are all educated folk, who espouse libertarian values and don’t feel apologetic about their heritage. None of these people are promoting violence for their cause.

    Finally – how do you exactly trust that a government known for its lies and utter corruption will deal fairly where censorship is concerned? Or, put simply, who will watch the watchers?

    That alone is the biggest reason to oppose censorship.

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    Furthermore, you’re confusing two things – freedom of speech and acting on them. You’re free to say that black people are inferior – however if you’re an employer and you’re found discriminating on the basis of race(or gender/religion/sexual orientation for that matter), you’ll be sued immediately.
    Racism still exists in the US today, just that it’s a lot more subtle and covert since you can’t openly anything out loud (not because it’s illegal, but because it’s socially unacceptable to be open about it).

  • Vicrkam Krishna

    @Rex says:

    “No, you’re wrong. The Ku Klux Klan is still very much present in the American south. There are scores of websites about ‘white power’, neo Nazism and anti Semitism to name only a few.”

    Oh come on. KKK is a spent force. It is tolerated only as an exotic but practically innocuous force.

    “Finally – how do you exactly trust that a government known for its lies and utter corruption will deal fairly where censorship is concerned? Or, put simply, who will watch the watchers?”

    Agreed. There is no perfect way. In the absence of any better solution a democratically elected government is supposed to represent people’s will.

  • DJ

    Vicrkam,

    “In the US if you want to publicly argue that Blacks are actually inferior people, you may find your freedom curbed in no time.”

    I’m not sure that is the case. I don’t think that would lead to any legal action against the person. It would lead to widespread condemnation but that is all. If you take any action based on your arguments, then those actions will cause requisite action, but until then one is free to say whatever they want. There are enough crackpots in the World to go about censoring every idiot.

    That said, I do think there have been book bans in the US and some cases of censorship. Additionally, the West is actually guilty of too much political correctness than I would like to see. But, those are arguments opposite to yours.

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    @Vickram Krishna – “Oh come on. KKK is a spent force. It is tolerated only as an exotic but practically innocuous force.”

    The point I’m making is that regardless of its current strength, it was never banned during its entire existence. It is a spent force today primarily because American society has had a chance to examine these ideas in the open and then decide against using them (thank MLK and the civil rights movements of the 60s) rather than just banning it and driving it underground.

    @DJ – Yes, there were self imposed censorship efforts by the big film studios in the 30s, and by groups opposed to violence in comics(!) in the 50s. In all these cases, the First Amendment was successfully evoked in court and eventually censorship was discarded in favor of a rating system, and making it illegal to sell violent/sexual content to minors.

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