Sunday, 25 November 2012

Gagging the Post-How freely should we express our points of view?

The recent incident of two Mumbai Girls shooting into the limelight and questions being raised about the provisions of Articles 66A of the IT Act, deserves a debate on what constitutes, “sending messages of a menacing character (or)  causing annoyance” within the framework of Democracy. In a democracy,  Freedom that infringes the rights of others becomes licence and can no longer be termed Freedom as such! We need to understand what constitutes infringing the rights of others; casting aspersions on character , mud-slinging, vilification, mockery, lampooning and even making caricatures  (in the form of cartoons) can all be said to be an infringement of the right to dignity and respect. Many democracies  throughout the world however have  different attitude towards  the right to Freedom of Expression. Some of the more mature and developed Western countries even accept Cartoons and a mild form of lampooning of some of their famous and great personalities.  It is ironical that while we talk about provisions of Freedom of Expression, we do not talk about Freedom of Privacy while tapping phone calls of those in opposition to us! While it is true that the Freedom of Expression doesn’t mean that we should vilify another person, it is however easily curbed through legislation, rules and acts whose context might be conveniently misunderstood.
It is highly surprising that even though we live in a Democracy, we behave in a most immature manner and go overboard in matters of arresting young people desirous of expressing their opinions on social networking sites which might be only expressions of the obvious! The gifts of Information technology, and networking sites which most politicians and famous personalities use to express their opinions are at odds with the provisions of Democracy if they are gagged by acts and rules which might not have been  properly interpreted! Having spent a greater part of my early teens in what was once a Socialist Republic of a North Eastern Country in Africa, I observed the atmosphere of paranoia that existed in the society stemming from the fear of being overheard criticizing the military  junta! A single word spoken in censure of the government policies would lead to the arrest of the speaker, and the labelling of him or her as a traitor, often leading to the status of a political prisoner. The brain washing and re-education programme would be then given in prison. In some cases, the perpetrator was never seen again. Such extreme lack or tolerance was understandable in a country which was being run by a dictatorial administration whose very foundation was based on a coup d'├ętat, and bloodshed in a military take over. I remember how all the Expats ensured that they didn’t speak anything that could be taken otherwise by the Government. As a teen, I had many friends from that country and I could sense the extreme state of fear that they lived in.
The relative freedom that I found when I came to India was rather intoxicating. In my Political Science classes we were taught about the various Freedoms that were the foundation of a Democracy, and of course we were taught about the Rights of citizens living in a Democracy, our Duties as responsible citizens, and the need to respect the Rights of others. The cartoons of Sudhir Talang and many others that appeared in the English dailies were a testament to the greater amount of freedom that existed in a Democracy. The famous serial, Ulta Pulta by the famous Comedian Jaspal Bhatti targeted corruption in such a way that even the very victims of corruption could sit back and have a good laugh!  The I.T.revolution truly opened up the boundaries for freedom of expression in a manner that had never been possible before! It is probable however that this heady mixture of  social networking sites and ease of access to a large number of people might have become a target for misuse. The appearance of morphed photographs, remarks made in bad taste, comments mocking the sentiments of different communities and individuals on social networking sites have been on the increase recently. However, in such cases it is the malicious intent that should be taken into account. There are frequent live telecasts of people who engage in public opinion polls, debates, and even public discussion forums, making vociferous comments, mud slinging and yet they are not prosecuted for indecency or even propriety. We tolerate indecency and even vulgarity in T.V. serials and reality shows, but are intolerant towards comments which reflect the obvious state of affairs!
Excess freedom can however be intoxicating in nature, and its effect can be seen in all aspects of life, whether it is the revolution that is taking place in the Education sector, or even the Entertainment Industry. Today we have more lampoons, satires, comedies and cartoons than ever before, most of which are really in bad taste and yet they are passed by censor boards. Students in schools are spoiled for choice today than we were in our days. If our youth today is more expressive and voluble in its criticism of what they don’t like, then it is because they have been born in the I.T. age and age where they have greater freedom than ever before! Earlier, children were not allowed to talk out of turn, they were not allowed to appear in the presence of adult guests, sometimes not even allowed to be present on such occasions! I guess times have changed and your child knows about his rights, and can question you as and when he wishes. It is therefore rather surprising that we  who have given so many freedoms to our younger generations should now be talking about taking action against those who are voluble in talking about the defects in our system! Today we stand at the crossroads of an era where Information technology is the road towards empowerment. We can either enjoy the fruits of the I.T.Revolution(albeit in a reasonable manner), or we can go back to the stone-age practice of gagging expression. The Jasmine Revolution, and the  uprising at Tahrir Square- Egypt stand testimony to the fact that today it has become very difficult to moderate opinions posted on the internet!

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