Facebook Post Hits Limits of India's Freedoms

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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The police in Mumbai, India's financial capital and until quite recently its most cosmopolitan and liberal city, acted swiftly a few weeks ago to detain two dangerous troublemakers. The miscreants were young -- Shaheen Dhada, 21, and Renu Srinivasan, 20 -- but to those threatened by their actions their audacity was immense and their deeds were sinister.

Dhada had published a post on her Facebook page two days after the Nov. 17 death in Mumbai of Bal Thackeray, the thuggish, tyrannical and yet revered leader of the Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu chauvinist party (so chauvinist that it actually proudly accepts that description). Dhada wrote what was on the lips of thousands of citizens of Mumbai when she asked if it was fair for the entire city to be shut down by the Shiv Sena on the day of Thackeray's funeral and concluded:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. ... Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

Srinivasan, a friend of Dhada's, saw the post and clicked on the "Like" button beneath it. For this crime, the two were arrested a few hours later under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act on the charge of "sending offensive messages through a communication service." The complainant was a member of the Shiv Sena in Palghar, a Mumbai suburb in which the two girls also reside, and he knew the Indian Penal Code well enough to also have the girls charged with "promoting enmity between classes."

The ludicrous nature and maliciousness of the charges, and the savagery of the police action, were immediately decried in the Indian press and on social media networks. As a result, the girls were soon released; the charges against them were dropped, and the policemen who arrested them were suspended. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress Party, was widely criticized for having allowed this travesty of justice to happen on his watch.

One would hope then that Dhada, who completed a bachelor's degree in media studies in 2011 and can write articulately and think clearly and independently, could have gone on to become a kind of free-speech hero, a voice of conscience and a defender of the rights of the individual. Instead, the traumatized young woman tendered a written apology, swore never to use Facebook again and last week fled Mumbai along with her family.

It wasn't difficult to understand why.

One, Dhada is Muslim. In choosing her as a target, the Shiv Sena was deploying its decades-old strategy of scapegoating Bombay's Muslims, a faith of many sects, languages and histories. Two, the Sena had, in time-tested fashion, backed up its frivolous legal complaint with an episode of focused violence, ransacking an orthopedic hospital owned by Dhada's uncle in Palghar. By making the transparently innocent Dhada a target and attacking her relative's hospital, the Sena succeeded in silencing thousands of other voices critical of their cynical policies and actions. As Ajit Ranade wrote in a piece in the Mumbai Mirror:

When the pressure mounted, and policemen were questioned by newshounds, they said that they were “scared” of Shiv Sena mob. If they had not taken quick action against the girls, they feared much worse. So perhaps the quick action of the police prevented a much more bloody riot.

In doing so they trampled on the right to free speech of the two girls. Now even the girls have apologised unreservedly, saying that they are “scared” for their own lives. Not surprisingly the fear is spreading from police to the girls, and rest of the Facebook community.

The Dhada case isn't an isolated example of the perversity shown by India's political class in dealing with dissent. In West Bengal in April, a university professor was detained by the police for forwarding a cartoon about the state's chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. Why would political parties want to embarrass themselves in this manner? What do these incidents tell us about the nexus between state power and the narrow prejudices of political parties in Indian democracy? How can any piece of legislation, let alone one so full of holes, and so clearly undebated at the moment of its being passed in Indian Parliament in 2008, as the Information Technology Act, serve any purpose when it is so open to misuse? And what but a brazen defiance of all democratic norms would lead the Shiv Sena to declare in an editorial in its mouthpiece, the Marathi newspaper Saamna, that, "If public sentiments are being hurt on Facebook and if public leaders and points of faith are ridiculed, then the Shiv Sena will not act like the chief minister and home minister like deaf-mutes," and, "The girl against whom action was taken is a Muslim and hence, the government and Congress are siding with her."

This editorial reeks of the arrogance of power and the proud avowal of prejudice. All that is left behind of Dhada's identity is that she is a Muslim, and the deliberation and dialogue required of democracy is pictured as the province of "deaf-mutes." The Sena doesn't acknowledge any norms other than its own; it presents vandalism and bigotry as a parallel system of justice. The confidence of these words is the confidence that this is a workable strategy, used often in the past and good for many more years to come. It is the confidence of a group that knows it can hurt but that it cannot be hurt; that even the government is too cynical and cowardly to crack down on it. The writer Lakshmi Chaudhry hit the nail on the head when she argued in a piece on the website Firstpost.com:

In India, the actual law is often irrelevant. Interpretation is all. ... So we have wonderfully progressive statutes on the book — as we do in the matter of women’s rights — that exist only in theory. More effective and employed are the draconian, colonial-era laws that are routinely used to punish the innocent. The IT act is just one of them.

Long successful in policing the street with a mixture of intimidation, patronage, and the willing consent of those Indians who find democracy effete and admire strongmen -- Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is one of the most popular books in Indian stores -- political parties of an authoritarian bent in India are finding themselves provoked and challenged by the free play of dissent, mockery and critique in the open and leveled world of the Internet.

Last year, Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal created a stir when he demanded that social media sites prescreen content that might offend the sensibilities of people. Sibal's views were questioned recently by the writer and venture capitalist Rajeev Mantri in a piece called "Why Internet freedom is vital to India's democracy." Mantri pointed out that, in a country where the leading English-language newspaper thinks of itself as being "in the advertising business" and the government can sometimes punish muckraking newspapers by withdrawing advertisements, the Internet was a space where the truth could be freely spoken:

Of late, India has seen many instances where citizens have been pulled up by the police for posting opinions on social networking websites. The basis for such draconian action lies in the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 (IT Act). The language of the law is vague, which results in its “misapplication”, as defenders of the IT Act put it. On several occasions, individuals have been targeted for posting views that criticize or raise questions for powerful public figures and political organizations.

The IT Act is even more pernicious, given the state of the traditional media. India seems to have an independent, thriving media, but on closer evaluation, it becomes clear that the media is compromised in its independence. ... In this morbid scenario, the Internet as a new media platform stands out as a beacon of independence and transparency. ...

The openness of the Internet doesn't allow a few to control and direct the public narrative, and that’s irksome to those few. India is a young nation. Internet freedom is vital not just for digital innovation, but to support the wholesome evolution of democracy itself.

That "wholesome evolution of democracy" is exactly what India's major political parties, many of them run in feudal fashion by a single figure of family, don't want. Indeed, as the Dhada case and the incident in Bengal show, the very politicians and parties that use democracy to come to power are often only too happy to clamp down on democratic expression as a way of further testing and asserting their hold on power.

In his book "Democracy: Crisis and Renewal," the political theorist Paul Ginsborg argues that just as virtue is proved not by theoretical knowledge of the good but by good actions, then democracy, which we understand to be “virtue in its political guise,” can be established only through regular practice at large and small levels. Many cynical and chauvinist strains in Indian politics would like nothing more than for democracy to find itself out of practice from atrophy or fear, and they succeeded when they intimidated a young woman into retracting what everyone knew to be true.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net