By Swapan Dasgupta
The Government’s order to block access to 857 websites with pornographic content has attracted strong criticism and even provoked a measure of outrage. The attacks have centred on two points. First, it has been suggested that the ban is purposeless and can be easily circumvented by both the commercial peddlers of pornography and those determined to secure access to voyeuristic titillation. Secondly, the vocal section of libertarians have outraged over the cheek of the state to regulate the moral health of the nation. Morality, after all, is prone to very subjective definitions.
That it is difficult, if not impossible, to block all pornographic websites and online access to other prurient literature is undeniable. Technology and the innovative skills of geeks have often made a mockery of censorship. China, a country obsessively preoccupied with regulating information and all forms of political dissent, has failed, despite pumping in huge resources into intrusive monitoring of the Internet. In Europe, where there is a growing moral revulsion against child abuse and child pornography, Internet policing has merely succeeded in driving perversion deep underground. That India’s regulations barring online pornography will be subverted by those determined to watch ‘dirty’ pictures and films is probably understood by even those who passed last week’s ban orders at the nudging of the Supreme Court.
However, the critics of the blocking order seem insufficiently aware of the difference between erecting barriers and allowing untroubled access. Explicit pornography has existed in India for long—witness the lucrative trade in “Buttola” tracts in the pre-internet Bengal of the late-19th and 20thcenturies or the “Dr Mastram” novels did the rounds in an earlier age. But it is important to note that these lurid pieces of writing—often unintentionally funny—were quite self-consciously viewed as what they were: smut.
Pornography was always something that was surreptitiously circulated and sold and never for public flaunting. Maybe this was evidence of Victorian double standards or even hypocrisy, but it corresponded to existing cultural mores. The Internet disturbed this equilibrium by making pornography available on demand. The sense of social awkwardness that accompanied the ‘consumption’ of pornography in an earlier age was removed by technology. The ban doesn’t put an end to pornography; it restores its deviant status.
Far more disturbing are the objections of those who have linked the ban to a supposed state-sponsored erosion of liberal values. Rather than examine the specific facets of pornography, the government directive has been juxtaposed against a libertarian ideal where the state leaves individual tastes outside any regulatory framework.
At a simplistic level, the outrage against an intrusive state seems a consequence of the culture war involving cultural conservatives (perceived as supportive of the Narendra Modi government) and social liberals/libertarians (deemed as opponents). But this binary is contrived. In recent times, there have two main opponents of pornography: those concerned with the moral fabric of society and those who view the objectification of women and the sexual exploitation of children as distasteful. To lump both these categories as supporters of social conservatism—and thus, supporters of Modi’s apparently “evil design” is laughable. People cutting across the political divide see pornography as offensive, utterly distasteful and worthy of checks.
The larger issue concerns the relationship between individual proclivities and social mores. While modern statecraft and social planning accords a huge weightage to both individual non-conformism and disruptive ideas, the battle is all about achieving an enlightened compromise between the existing social consensus and individual license.
In the past 25 years or so, global influences, legislation and economic shifts have played a huge role in changing Indian society. The terms of the social consensus have altered significantly, although not without hiccups. However, there is a grave danger of transplanting the social culture of, say, San Francisco, into an India in transition. Some old values such as the attitudes to women in education and employment and cross-community marriages have changed dramatically but certain family values and notions of common decencies have proved far more enduring. Unsettling this delicate balance with an overdose of rootless libertarian implants necessarily invites social tensions and could even provoke a backlash.
Pornography is a cause not worthy of standing up for.
Sunday Times of India, August 9, 2015