- In India, it is becoming increasingly clear that the political class is actively watching what is being written in the online space, writes Jayanth Sugavasi.
The online world is an extension of our real world. In the old days, if we had an opinion about something, we would probably discuss it with friends in a café or over the phone, but now such conversations are happening in public on social sites like Twitter and Facebook . We are talking to people who we haven’t met and our comments are getting retweeted and shared like never before.
The Internet has basically given us a sort of mini printing press where what we say is instantly published to our followers and subscribers. Conversations are no longer limited to that closed circle of friends, and what you say or share is preserved forever.
In India, it is becoming increasingly clear that the political class is actively watching what is being written in the online space, and some will try to suppress criticism.
Earlier this year, Aseem Trivedi was detained and his website was suspended because of his anticorruption cartoons. In West Bengal, a professor was arrested after he forwarded an email that contained a cartoon apparently mocking the state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The charge was “sending offensive messages through communication services.” If you had shared that cartoon on Facebook or retweeted it on Twitter, does that make you a culprit? Probably yes.
The country was in for a bigger surprise when it was reported that a Twitter user in Pondicherry was arrested for writing this tweet about finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son: “got reports that karthick chidambaram has amassed more wealth than vadra.”
The content of the tweet, which refers to Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, is open to interpretation but it was enough for law enforcement authorities to put the tweeter, Ravi Srinivasan, behind bars the next day.
The BBC reported that he was charged under Section 66A of India’s IT Act, the same that was used in the arrest of the Bengal professor. The section essentially says that a person who electronically sends a message deemed grossly offensive, menacing, false, or with the purpose of causing annoyance, can be punished with a prison term of up to three years and a fine.
Mr. Srinivasan was followed by just a dozen or so people on Twitter when he wrote that tweet. His arrest and subsequent media coverage kicked in the Streisand effect. He now has more than 2,500 followers.
The courts granted him bail, but unless the law is amended it could only be a matter of time before another Twitter or Facebook user is arrested for a comment that someone finds offensive. Politics and politicians have long been the favorite topics of conversations, both offline and online, but the recent events have me worried. Will this affect what I write or share online? To some degree, yes.
It isn’t just the common man that should be worried. Amul, a brand that regularly produces cartoons around current events, told The Wall Street Journal that it’s gettingharder to exercise free expression nowadays in a hyper-touchy political environment in India.
India and China are Asia’s biggest powers and many analysts love to draw comparisons between the two. Our neighbor has better infrastructure and growth prospects but the one area where we always had an upper hand is free speech. Unfortunately, that advantage seems to be waning.