In our childhood days, we used to hear a nice tale about a king. It goes something like this: There was a king who once asked why should we always make our feet dirty whenever we wanted to walk? His council of ministers felt puzzled and soon called sweepers who tried to set aside all dirt in the world so that the king's feet always remained clean. It did not happen that way. Then they tried to pour water on the dust, which made it all the more dirty. Some advised the king to remain inside a room while some said let the entire open air be covered. Amid all this, a wise man came and covered the king's feet with a pair of shoes so that it did not get dirty. Hence, we saw how shoes were discovered.
Are authorities today acting like the king?
I raised the issue for I find a parallel between what had happened then during the time of the king and what is happening in India today, particularly after the mass exodus by northeasterners from various parts of the country, fearing that the Muslims would retaliate against them.
A desperate New Delhi decided to ban social media network and block websites to stop mischief-makers from carrying out further acts of spreading panic. Fingers were immediately raised against Pakistan and several websites were blocked for they allegedly bore inflammatory messages. The Centre also threatened to take legal action against the Twitter for it 'refused to cooperate' with the government. But by allowing five SMSes per day for an average user, what sort of counter-strategy was the government thinking about? And how the government stop special applications outside the purview of the regular SMSes?
It is true that whether a democracy or not, freedoms can not be absolute and should be in tune with the national interest and integrity. The government has every right to restrict the freedom of speech if larger public interest required it. But the way the government acted in this regard after the mass exodus of the people from northeast, it is least convincing. Did the government choose the censorship way too readily?
There can be no denying the fact that social media today has intruded in the life of every country in an irreversible way. No government ever can impose a full-proof ban on this media for the number of holes are too many to be plugged. Besides, the fact that the traditional media were also backing the curb was more startling. But all these efforts showed that the state was lacking a comprehensive plan to deal with the crisis and channelised its energy wrongly.
In what way will banning sites help?
The plan to ban social networking sites to ensure national security is a non-starter in a democracy. Tyrannical and totalitarian regimes banning social media to cripple chances of dissent raising its head is understandable. But how does the rulers of a free nation like India expect to make anything out of this? How many sites will the government continue to block? Even Google and Facebook are helpless to stop such trend.
I have two points on this entire episode. First, our traditional media are by no means, 'carriers of brotherhood'. Politicians and communal leaders attacking rivals in inflammatory language is not something new in this country and many a time, the traditional media have played carriers to them.
The problem is that the English-speaking, corporate media world are not always eager to focus on localised people attacking other individuals or religions. We even see on TV how leaders launch shameless attack on rivals, without any concern for decorum, and yet such programmes are continued to be aired to draw attention of the commoners. We see how 'enthusiastically' the electronic media cover molestation on a road in Guwahati 'live' even while an English news channel anchor and journalist says that tyranny of distance prevents live coverage of problems in Assam, like floods and riots.
The second point is: Why did not the government utilise the social media to deal with the threat perception and instead decided to ban it? In the case of Assam crisis, the government could have utilised social media for the mainstream media are still to shed its 'mainstream' shed and focus extensively on a 'marginal' problem.
The government could have used the same bulk SMSes to assure people against any probable threat or use technology to filter language of hatred. The social media have emerged into a powerful challenger to the classical structure of information and news, even in a disorganised way. The government, too much of the satisfaction of the 'egoist' mainstream media, decided to restrict the new media, fearing that it could seriously storm the bastions of power.
New lessons for Indian democracy?
The Indian democracy still has to learn about freedom of social media. It is a fast emerging development in Indian life and will serve as a double-edged sword if we don't learn how to use it properly. The government must put into effect a mechanism to deal with the problem of hate-mongering but it can't stop it just by banning websites. It is a new reality that the Indian state has to deal with.
Yes, the anti-national elements have a great opportunity today to spread their hatred and they can do it just with the push of a button. But since we are the first generation of such a digital world, it will take more time for us to get things under our grip and find a more organised way of dealing with the chaos. We have seen the afraid northeasterners started returning to places from where they had fled after a while. This shows, that with a little more patience and organised approach, the propaganda could have been avoided without banning people's rights.
Moral decline makes it tougher
The problem is that our democracy is in a state of moral decline. Our politicians have been discredited to such an extent that they have lost all power to actually negate all probable and actual threats being issued with the help of technology. The crisis-management system is in a shambles and while the forces of integration have lost their sheen alarmingly.
The exodus issue and the banning of the SMSes showed that the governments (Centre or states where the problem was felt seriously) were not equipped either socio-politically or communication-wise to deal with the situation. It just continued to do things in a haste, just like that king who just required a shoe to protect his feet. Hopefully, the politicians of the day will understand the logic and have the wisdom after the latest incident.