By Swapan Dasgupta
There are many in the Government who are absolutely chuffed at the ease with which Operation Stop Rushdie was played out. First, the Rajasthan Police (or was it the Central authorities?) informed the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival that sundry assassins financed by the Mumbai underworld were on the prowl. That ensured Salman Rushdie didn't check-in for his flight to India. Secondly, once it was known that the organizers would use technology to circumvent the unofficial Congress ban on Rushdie, the local hotelier and the organizers were deftly arm-twisted into cancelling the video linkup for fear of violence and police indifference.
Yes, there were voices of liberal outrage at the subversion of democratic freedom. However, since the indignation was confined to a class that rarely bothers to vote, has no worthwhile electoral influence and, if the chairman of the Press Council is to believed, still harbours a colonial mindset, it could be safely ignored in favour of the satisfaction among those who, apart from being more authentic, also control powerful Muslim vote-banks.
What was witnessed last week was cynicism perfected into a fine art by a government that has excelled in the art of subterfuge. Where the regime wants to offset protests against free speech, it does so unapologetically. In Punjab, crowds at a public meeting to be addressed by Rahul Gandhi were compelled to leave their shoes and any black apparel outside the venue for fear that these could become either missiles or black flags. In Jaipur, however, the authorities chose to be cowed down by the threat of small groups of demonstrators. The champions of intolerance won in Jaipur because their victory was facilitated by the might of the state.
Yet, many apologists argue that the events of last week don't necessarily imply any waning commitment to democratic freedoms. Rushdie, it is said, was the exception because his mere mention sends many Muslims into an apoplectic tizzy. And, say the apologists, the timing of the celebrated author's visit was all wrong. If there had been no elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress regimes at the Centre and in Rajasthan may well have been more inclined to showcase India as a place where the bar of intolerance is generously high.
Recent trends suggest otherwise. It is becoming increasingly clear that the kerfuffle over Rushdie was no unfortunate aberration but part of a bid to replace an argumentative society with a regulated democracy where freedom is circumscribed by constant reminders of the limits to freedom.
The attempts to muzzle free speech in the social media and the cyber world can no longer be wished away as obsessive concerns of individual ministers with particularly thin skins. Since September 5 last year, the department of information technology has held five meetings with organizations such as Facebook, Google, Blogspot and Yahoo to force a code of conduct governing their content. It is not that the government is concerned with lewd pictures and pornography. It has demanded that the social media sites "scan and screen/filter the content hosted on their websites for objectionable content about Constitutional authorities, council of ministers in Centre/states, political leadership, public authorities and disable them on their own or as and when brought to their knowledge in writing by an authorized representative of such authorities." A public interest litigation protesting the "damage (to) the secular fabric of India" is also before the Delhi High Court.
In plain language, the government is demanding the right of pre-censorship of all potentially "objectionable content" relating to public life and politics--a demand that has striking resemblance to the censorship practiced by the authorities in China.
It is, of course, possible to dismiss these moves as trivial concerns that will affect a minority of internet loonies who are unaware of the niceties of parliamentary decorum. The only problem is that when the right to determine what is objectionable is given to people who are unaffected by the charms of pluralism, the consequences can be very dangerous. The Rushdie affair last week has vividly demonstrated that for a section of the political class, the right to offend does not count as a permissible freedom. India is being forced into a mental straitjacket.