M D NalapatFriday, August 07, 2015 - The digital world is presumed to be free, or at the least much more independent than either print or broadcast media. In India, however, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad seems intent on ensuring state control over the internet, despite protestations to the contrary.The latest move is to use his powers to set up a “Morality Police” on the lines of the Saudi Arabian Muttawa or what was in vogue in Afghanistan. During this entire period, the Taliban were welcome guests in Washington and in capitals such as London, where high officials would set apart large chunks of time for them, besides on occasion ensuring funding and logistics for their activities.
Now the world’s largest democracy is in the process of establishing its own “morality police”, with the call for an “anti-pornography Ombudsman” who would scan internet sites and those active on them to identify “wrong-doers”. Amazingly, the inspiration for such a move has - according to the government - come from H L Dattu, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, an institution which is supposed to protect freedoms rather than restrict them even further in a country weighed down by a colonial-era legal system. Thanks to such regressive laws, there is no lack of laws for punishing those found guilty by India’s version of the Muttawa. The Information Technology Act is grotesquely vast in its scope and in its penal provisions, despite the removal (through a Supreme Court order of Section 66A,which gave license for any policeman to arrest any individual found surfing the internet on mere suspicion).
On August 2,the Department of Telecom (which has been responsible for the slow strangulation of the information technology industry in India since its inception) blocked 857 sites on the grounds that they were “pornographic”. Several of the sites contained no porn at all, while most would be classified as “vanilla” in the context of global standards. The reason given for blocking the sites is that they offend “morality” and “decency”, terms so subjective and so diffuse as to lack any meaning except as a means towards censorship and harassment. This action, which has made the Department of Telecom even more of a laughing stock than it has been over the years, was apparently sparked off by a “fighter against pornography”.
Kamlesh Vaswani, who wanted each of the several million porn sites available worldwide to be banned in India. The only way to achieve such a goal would be to ban internet usage in India, a country with low coverage relative to population size and excruciatingly slow speeds, as it is a simple matter to gain access to blocked sites through proxy servers. Mr Vaswani is apparently a saint who wishes the 1.26 billion people of India to follow his ascetic example, and wishes such a transformation to take place through the bludgeon of law. Minister Prasad clearly is on his side rather than backing the internet freedom needed for the country to modernise itself.
In the 1990s,the growth of software companies such as TCS, Infosys and Wipro gave promise of India becoming the location of choice for future challengers of Microsoft or Google. Instead, the country has become a wasteland thanks to a torrent of legislation since 2000 designed to enhance the power of the authorities in order to favour specific entities. Indeed, the fall in prospects for India to evolve into the leader in internet-related businesses began when the Vajpayee government appointed a minister for the industry. This individual, Pramod Mahajan, was known as a political operator rather a visionary, and his focus was on seeing how the software industry could benefit the political class and its friends.
In 2005, the legal duo of Palaniappan Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal sharply increased the applicability of the 2000 Information Technology Act, and from then onwards, the journey has been downhill. To operate on the internet is a hazardous task in India, so easy is it to arrest individuals under the many draconian provisions of the Information Technology Act. Unfortunately, rather than remove such impediments to India becoming a Knowledge Economy, the BJP government has continued the Sibal-Chidambaram laws, as indeed it has with other colonial-era laws which ought to have been placed in the dustbin on August 15,1947 itself, when the Union Jack was replaced with the Tricolour over the Viceragal Palace. Of course, because he was begged by Jawaharlal Nehru to stay on in the country’s highest office together with his wife Edwina, Lord Louis Mountbatten continued as its occupant as a symbol of the lack of confidence of India’s leaders in themselves, a view vindicated by subsequent events. There is Divine Law and there is human law, and it is wrong to utilise the latter to enforce the former. Indeed, it is useless trying to do so. Enforcing Prohibition for example only gives rise to smuggled liquor, not to mention bootleg versions that kill. Certainly such deeds as child molestation are horribly evil and sites dealing with them should be discouraged. Those using proxy servers to access such sites should be identified and tracked, lest they harm children. However, it is foolish to try and block other sites, for where will such a crusade for Victorian morality (and hypocrisy) stop? Will the government now ban visitors from going to locations such as Khajuraho, where some of statues are explicit in what is being done?
PM Modi won international support as a 21st century leader. Some of his ministers are instead seeking to keep India in the 19th century, opposing even necessary moves such as removal of the criminalisation sections of the colonial-era defamation laws. It is time that the 21st century Narendra Modi stood up before his agenda for change gets subverted by some of his less than stellar choices for key positions. Only the Almighty can control human morality, not laws passed by mere mortals, and the use of human law to regulate conduct should apply only in exceptional situations such as murder or physical violence. Seeking to convert a country into a nation of saints is an act of folly that even donkeys would stay away from, but not it seems some of the ministers in the central govt, who are proving an embarassment to PM Modi and his mission of change.