Sibal’s “Censorship Agenda”

There is something amiss in the hype raised on Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal’s intention to censor social networking sites. He favours blocking of material he views as dangerous, which can incite communal violence across the country. Now, if Sibal’s comments, which are viewed as controversial and have incited a heated debate across the country, are considered seriously, several questions need to be answered. Would the kind of censorship he has in mind really contribute to checking the communal violence he fears? Secondly, would such an agenda prove to be effective, that is really censor “dangerous” material? Thirdly, would censoring social networking sites prevent other means of communication to provoke violence? Fourthly, has Sibal made these comments seriously with intention of blocking material that can provoke communal violence?

 It is fairly well-known that social networking is not the only means of communication available to be used by those interested in provoking communal violence in the country. Paradoxically, Sibal’s comments have also given these elements sufficient publicity and made practically the entire country as well as rest of the world aware of their intentions. Had Sibal not made the controversial comments, the reach of the “dangerous” material would probably have been confined to those already involved in these social networking sites. If Sibal is really serious about his intentions, it is surprising that no action has been taken against those responsible for the material which he views as dangerous. Many of these live in India and are known.

Understandably, Sibal has made the point of India being unable to take action against elements responsible for using websites to promote their dangerous and communal designs, as some of them may be placed overseas and thus be beyond the reach of Indian legal reach. Herein is the catch. While pronouncing his intentions, Sibal indirectly also explained India’s inability to check elements bent on provoking communal violence in the country, if they are based outside India.

This also implies that even if Sibal’s censorship moves are implemented and also prove effective in blocking dangerous material from certain networking sites, they cannot reach, even touch elements based overseas which aim to provoke communal violence in India. In other words, they would retain the option of using other means of communication to provoke communal violence in India. The telephone, mobile, fax, the e-mail and other networks as well as means of communication would remain there to be used by elements interested in inciting communal violence in India. It is practically impossible to presume that the censorship-agenda being considered by Sibal would check elements from pursuing their agenda of trying to provoke communal violence in the country.

 It is also worth considering that notwithstanding the fact, as noted by Sibal, that networking sites are being used to promote dangerous material that can provoke communal violence across the nation, have they really succeeded in their mission? Certainly, the recent years have been marked by a new importance gained by these websites. The same period, however, has not been witness to any one or more incidents of major communal violence being provoked and/or spreading across the country. In fact, even before these networking sites had gained importance in India, the major incidents of communal violence had been provoked by elements based in the country and their using other means of communication. This point is supported by Gujarat-carnage as well as the nation-wide riots provoked during 1990s over Ayodhya-issue and demolition of Babri Masjid.

 Also, whether elements are based in the country or outside, the government cannot escape its responsibility of checking communal violence, if it is incited, from assuming dangerous proportions and spreading across the nation. In fact, certain extremist elements remain communally prejudiced and eager to incite violence targeting the minorities in India. In recent years, however, the same elements appear to have lost the “command” they once had in exciting mob frenzy to the stage of indulging in communal violence. This also implies that howsoever serious these elements may be in provoking communal tension in the country, their success or failure depends on whether the Indian public may be actually provoked by their agenda.

The same point may be made about Sibal’s censorship-agenda from a different angle. His success at blocking dangerous material from networking sites does not guarantee the prevention or promotion of communal violence in the country.  

Besides, it would be more pertinent if the government gave serious importance to taking legal action against those promoting the dangerous material and also those being influenced by same. The government can quote from the websites and elaborate on why it views the material as dangerous as well as pursue legal measures against those promoting the same.

It may be noted the government has reportedly drawn a list of “dangerous material,” which it wants to be removed from websites. A substantial percentage of this material is criticism of the government. And this raises speculations about Sibal’s intentions: is his censorship-agenda directed towards preventing criticism of the government or is it really primarily motivated to check provocation of communal violence in the country?

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2011 on page no. 14

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