On Corruption and Technology- A Debate Speech

26 10 2015

The transcript of the opening speech that I made, in a debate competition  held at IIT Madras CLT, on 26th October 2015, on the eve of Vigilance awareness week.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I oppose the motion : “recent improvements in technology engender new ways to protect tight networks of wealth and power and are therefore more likely to enhance corruption than prevent it”

At the outset, let me mention that my argument is a qualified position. The foundations of my reasoning does not emerge from any Huxelian vision, although it certainly is reinforced with a sense of history. I wish to state my case in the reverse order of terms framed in the motion statement.

Let us perform a thought experiment. Imagine that government of India chooses to place five rupee coins in a huge open jar on this podium with a banner “this belongs to the sovereign and shall be distributed to needy children for buying toffees”. There are no measures to protect the money, or ways to determine the neediness or what is the age limit for definining children. But at least we do know that the intended beneficiaries are not students of IIT Madras. Given the population mix of this institution- its age, economic background and level of education, we can expect that a large majority of people present here might honour the intend of Indian government. Well of course, a rare few mischievous ones might steal, given that no protection is available, for the fun of it or just because easy money is available. It might be a totally different situation if we were to place this jar near a statue at Anna Salai.

Now, let us play the game of raising stakes. Imagine the case where we have 100 rupee notes in a box. Government of India wishes this to be spent on providing two square meals a day for the poor; again unprotected and improperly defined. This time, the situation will definitely change a bit. None of the people present here are underfed, or so I hope. Still, a couple of free 100 bucks for the mobile data recharge is not a bad deal after all! It is easy money, although Government does mention about poor people, I’m sure that at least a few will reason that this money will any way be pocketed by the agents who are responsible for implementing the scheme. We know these rascals, don’t we? Some might think it was stupid of the government in the first place, although it does not prevent them pocketing a few notes. Again raise the stakes by putting 1000 rupee notes and gold coins, with a wish to create a new school for under privileged children. The number of angels will go down as the stakes are made higher while protection measures and implementation procedures remaining the same. To be noted is the fact that here will always be people who abstain from this form of corruption. But why did the number of Devils increase? Is it because money is the root of all evil?

Corruption, or at least its massive proliferation, is a systemic issue. It is not a moral issue. If it were, the moral science classes from the convent schools or Bharateeya Vidyabhavans, or classes on ethics conducted at Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute for that matter, should have made all of our IAS officers upright people. It is not a question of ruling political ideology either; at least not in its widely understood sense. If it were so, a large many party bosses from CPSU should have been the favourites even after the fall of the Berlin wall. Let it be the case of Laissez-faire free market utopia (an absolute Libertarian dream though not fully acknowledged) in today’s Somalia or the mercantile capitalism period of the 18th century. They should have solved the problem of production, distribution and justice once and for all, or at least by and large!

Corruption, in my opinion, is largely the result of misalignment in power, responsibility and accountability. My argument is not that corruption is simply a delivery problem, the popular version of which is known by the mantra good governance, but that even a structural question has a system dimension when it comes to implementation. Given any structure, combating corruption is an institutional challenge which can only be achieved by placing the right set of checks and balances, and incentivising good behaviour. This is something places like Singapore and Hong Kong understood, and came to tackle, mostly with success. I am not trying to bring down the comparison to relatively smaller and arguably less complex societies. This is an attempt to point out that there is a huge systemic aspect.

Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, is a perennial theme. In fact, it is as old as the history of human civilisation which has found resonance with people at different space and time. We find this discussion in Plato’s Republic, Chanakya’s ‘Arthashastra’ and Machivelli’s Prince, from various perspectives of course. And yet there is no definitive solution acceptable to all, or a majority, so to say, to this problem. We have seen that historically, this concentration has resulted in certain forms of usurping. It also need to be acknowledged that this process has propelled greed, created scarcity and resulted in denial of justice, at least in a long run, in almost all of the places. 

My second argument comes from a historical premise. The networks of wealth and power are self preserving entities. Even in a stagnant society, as it were during say the Dark ages, they did survive. The ones who were able to adapt and evolve with time  definitely stayed longer. But irrespective of the presence of the variable new technology, they made every attempt to stay buoyant, mediating through structures and choosing courses of actions that they had thought  as beneficial for survival. My proposition is that the relationship is inverse; it is not the technology that create structures with concentrated wealth and power- the military industrial complex, if you will, but the existing ones adapt the technology faster often strengthening their position.

The licence raj in India was no paradise for a common (wo)man at the expense of the Tatas and Birlas. An inefficient and expensive telephone system, in which a lightening call – as it was called for a privileged instant long distance call – to a distant town was charged at 12 times the normal rate but had as much probability of dialling the right destination as the toss of a coin, or a single channel television in which news meant reporting things that minister in charge approved of, if anything had presented with an increased possibility of bribery or denial of justice at large. While it is true that today a multinational conglomerate could buy the mainstream media for a cover-up, the proliferation of internet and more independent cyber media, has opened up a fighting chance, however small it is. And finally my favourite anecdote to explain this point: abolishment of slavery was not an really an act of Christian charity, not by the Southern gentlemen who prided themselves for faith at any extend, but largely due to the industrial revolution, however imperfect it were, that had engulfed the North.

My position is that development in technology, by and large, has played a significant role in democratising the world and hence reducing corruption of all forms. Slowly and steadily, science and technology is taking material wealth, information and ideas to the masses to whom it were denied through out the history. This is not necessarily a linear process and shall have ups and downs. Yet, to me the trend is definitely towards better.

My third proposition is that whatever should you mean by the word recent developments, whether we like it or not, all technological feats will proliferate into the masses at a rate faster than before. One only need to look at the time it took for radio to become a part of every Indian household, and compare it with television, then telephone, the mobile phone and today’s smart phone! This process is irreversible, at least for a foreseeable time into the future, even with the most regressive patent laws, attempts to bring Orwellian cyber-laws or surveillance mechanisms. For a project like PRISM by NSA of US, or its Indian counterpart if any, there shall also be Edward Snowdens to expose. The app world citizens could be easily tracked, and perhaps framed for wrong reasons. Agreed. But they also are able to report crime and corruption faster than ever. They can keep a check on how complaints are dealt better than before. What ails us in reaping the benefit are our sluggish institutions. Spectrum auctions might present opportunities for the rich and powerful to make money, but e-governance and checks for maintaining transparency shall be the very seeds that could expose them.

Let us be clear that all power structures- ruling benches, social structures or bureaucracies – seek survival, pretty much like human beings. While technology need not provide the ultimate solution to all structural issues, it is indispensable on the implementation side, and in particular for increasing the efficiency.

I would like to conclude by saying that despite every questionable practice done with the help of technology, solutions to our structural as well as systemic issues can only be materialised with better aligning the existing, or perhaps better, technology with ethical considerations. Like it or not, designing institutions towards this goal present the key. Bashing technology or wrongly accusing it as if it were a conscious individual or a scheming enterprise, will not solve the problem of corruption, or concentration of wealth.

Thank you.

PS: I had to cut down on some parts, because of time limitations (5 minute opening) that I came to know only before entering the stage. All the same, got second prize. 🙂

A Case for Memory Against Forgetance

13 02 2014

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

Milan Kundera

There is an interesting petition circulated in social media addressing the director of IIT Madras to stop inviting people like Teesta Setalvad. (I have already posted my version of the chain of events that happened there)  I liked the like, and could not help but laugh for a few seconds. It accuses among other things, ideological bias and that the person in question has dubious credentials. Now, I do not intend to write any rebuttal to this petition and would like to support the free expression of opinions, even the silly ones. Also it is a known fact that people with a definite Hindutva ideology have had given several lectures in my own institution, and continue to do so. In fact, I am not worried about any kind of ideology question as long as a person talks sense, and is ready to engage in a proper discussion. I suspect this petition comes from the frustration of a few people, because they were unable to cause damage despite, the unruly behaviour demonstrated during question and answer (Q & A) session that followed Teesta’s lecture. But this is not my concern as there is a much bigger problem that lurks above us like the sword of Damocles. It is the tone, tenure, presumptions and sheer dehumanised rot, that oozed out from some of the questions that were raised during the Q & A. I write this post to address only one question- why we should never stop to forget such genocidal acts like Delhi 1984, Kashmir 1989, Bombay 1993 and Gujarat 2002, among many others which have plagued our existence as a nation.

All reputed human right activists, especially those who work for inter communal harmony and for delivering justice to the under dog, have invariably been demonised by a section of jingoists from the majority group. Take the case of Asma Jahangir from Pakistan. She has remained a crusader for delivering basic human rights to Hindu minority in her country. The ones who dislike and spread hatred against her are so predictable. Does that ring a bell? Or do remember what Franklin D. Roosvelt said “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made“.

It is often said that the most touching and tragic picture from Mahabharata is Gandhari’s trip to Kurukshetra after the war. A mother who has remained  blind voluntarily ever since her marriage, identifies the bodies of her sons and grand sons from their dismembered parts. Many poets, fiction writers and painters have chronicled this, ever since. Every war, whatever be the ideals for which it will be fought, however principled the protagonists happened to be, will invariably end up in a heap of dismembered human bodies, churning out  a feast for the hawks, while an ocean of sorrow for the beloved ones. There are no just wars. Let us pause for a while and ask this question- what did Mahabharata teach us? The glory of doing a so-called duty even if it involves murder, or that there can be no glory in such horrendous acts of violence? Now, take out the ethical dilemma pertaining to dharma and see a communal riot with a naked eye. How many Gandhari’s, sung and unsung, roamed in those killing fields? How many children? How many women raped and tortured? How many lives, families and dreams shattered?  If these gory images makes you feel uncomfortable, let me remind you there is a reason why Gandhari vilap is the  most unforgettable part from our epic. And it is not the brutality of that image, but because it serves as the best reminder to the horrors of such acts of violence;  why they should never happen.

If according to Bible, men cannot live with bread alone, so it applies to wealth or the new found slogan- development. I am not being cynical here for there is no denying that development is important. But this is to suggest that no amount of economic prosperity is a substitute to justice. In a constitutional democracy it needs to come from the very institutions that promises to deliver it. Most victims of communal riots that happened in India ever since Independence are denied of exactly that- justice. Why is that so? Now, here is where we need to understand the situation which is pretty much the same in most developing countries.

Institutional bias is an alien term for most people belonging to a majority or the dominant community, in any nation. In India, this translates to the upper caste, upper class, heterosexual  Hindu men. This becomes Sunni Muslim men in Pakistan or Bangladesh. For people who do not belong to that category, it is a fact of life that they face almost everywhere, every time. During such acts of madness as a communal riot, the vulnerable is always at the receiving end. In addition to this, the cases are not often reported or when they insist, their narratives are labelled as fictional or biased. This has happened invariably during every instance of communal violence, some at a larger scale than others. The point our Hindutva brethren never understand or pretend to ignore, even while using the Hindus of Pakistan or Bangladesh card is that their henchmen is doing exactly the same as their Muslim counterparts in these countries do.

One important aspect of such crimes is that lack of justice as a precedent emboldens future crimes. Had the victims of Delhi 1984 riots -the Sikhs- received justice, the Kashmiri pandits been able to return to their home in peace, had victims of Bombay 1993 – the Muslims- received justice, at least the Sri Krishna Commission which gave a thorough report about the abuse of state power been acted up on, there would have been no Gujarat 2002. At least, nothing of that scale. This fact has been reiterated by many human rights organisations throughout India. The involvement of the state apparatus, policemen helping the rioters etc. are not isolated incidents.These have been reported in many other riots that happened in our subcontinent. That includes the anti-Ahammadiya riots, or the recent anti-Shia violence in Pakistan, the genocide in the then East Pakistan before the 1971 war, or the recent incidents of fundamentalists targeting minorities in the present day Bangladesh.

Last but not the least, if there are people who believe that such acts should be left alone, a word to them. If they believe in let the wounds heal, I would advice them to think why we know so much about Holocaust. After all, it happened in 1940’s. Why are films or novels with its backdrop still reappearing? Is it some sadistic pleasure? Some do argue that it is because of lobbies, but the accurate answer in my opinion still remains no. It lies in a simple idea- lest we forget. Those crimes were not committed by aliens from space, but by people, often then respected ones. It is a reminder about our immense ability to get into a narrow identity trap and create horrific destruction. It is a reminder that it was we who failed. And this is not just about a Holocaust.There were crimes of the same or larger magnitude which have not been acknowledged so far and they should be.

I would like to end with these beautiful lines by the Pakistani Urdu poet, revolutionary and an uncompromising humanitarian- Habib Jalib. It is from the poem Dastoor, and speaks about the khule jhoot or naked lie that the sectarian violence abetted by the state was all over, and the wounds were healing.

“Phool shaakhon pe khilne lagey” tum kaho,
“Jaam rindon ko milne lagey” tum kaho,
“Chaak seenon kay silne lagey” tum kaho,
Iss khule jhooth ko,
Zehn ki loot ko,
Main nahein maanta,
Main nahein jaanta.

India’s own Wehrmacht and their massihah

27 07 2013

Mark Twain, in his familiar sardonic tone, had noted long ago to never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers. Well of course, one could go on arguing whether such a condescending language was really warranted or that he was less than charitable in mocking the political or social processes that goes on in a country. If anything, the incidents that have been rolling on news media during the past few months, does suggest a discrete possibility that Mark Twain’s words might turn prophetic. Yes, I’m describing the Modi mania going on at the national stage.

First of all, let me make one thing clear. I have nothing against people discussing the credentials, achievements or shortcomings of this person, or any politician for that matter, passionately arguing for or against. That is part and participle of a political process. But the circus, allegedly put up by his able marketing team, has went ahead challenging every notion of common sense and rationality expected in an informed election campaign. Baba Saheb Ambedkar while handing over our constitution, had long warned that in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship. When criticisms or contrarian views are met with shocking euphemisms, to the extend of applying the binary logic that you are either with Modi or have to be an anti-national, we have to realize that there is something seriously wrong here. After the eye wash with (wrong)statistics, the Ramboesque feats claimed during the Uttrakhand flood and then denied, the  newly mopped up visa controversy, an unwarranted diatribe against Amartya Sen over his opinion by a loyal member of this league of extra-ordinary gentlemen and then regretted, we get a rough picture of what is in the store. To put it blunt, what goes on is not just a political campaign based on a personality cult, and make no mistake about it- it is a fan club in a political backdrop.   And for that very reason, we shouldn’t expect reasoned arguments or freedom of conscience to differ. It is simple not in the offing for the internet wehrmacht is ever ready for the offensive if fuhrer is portrayed in anything less than glorious terms.

It has long been argued, and quite convincingly, that the rise of Hindutva brigade has a got direct psychological link to the crisis of Indian masculinity. Even more so is the new phenomena of NaMo fan club. It is an old story, often repeated as tragedy and farce, the one involving a so-called  “un-corruptable”  man of action, a nationalist with little regard for the democratic etiquettes, and with a proclaimed agenda of development, all the while carrying a baggage of contempt to hostility towards minority groups. These alpha males have come in various garbs in several nations, some more destructive than others. They are loved by a majority of the dominant pure nationals, which in the Indian context translates to predominantly upper caste, middle/upper class, urban/semi urban, Hindu men. They often share a common sentiment, the mild version of which is the need for a disciplinarian, nationalist and fast track administrator, while the strong version might extend to an outright xenophobe whose wet dreams are soaked in militarist adventurism. And of course, how can you not mention it- the corporates love him for he is their own massihah who has promised to bring order in the labour force, economic stability and let markets have their say. The way it is going, the parallels to the time before the creation of the third Reich are unmistakeable, if not as intense.

On a realistic note, NaMo might just be a façade that will last up to an year into his rule. He might not get the arithmetic right this time and will have to wait for the fall of a coalition. And given the diversity of India’s political terrain, he might have to cut down his own self-obsession and go for compromises to stay in power and/or limelight. I certainly hope so. But given the NDA regime’s track record in re-writing history textbooks, introducing unscientific disciplines like astrology into universities and the celebration of militarism, this one might even go the extra yard. It is hard to imagine him successfully implementing any final solution as far as Muslims or dissenters are concerned, thanks to India’s constitution. Yet, my dear fellow citizens, especially the members of the fan club, the wehrmacht, be very worried. As it is often said, be careful what you wish for you just might get it. In the meantime, as the show goes on, just take a note of this classic confession from the film Judgement at Nuremberg

While in the life and times of internet democracy

30 04 2013

The culture shock

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire,stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

  • T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

April is the cruelest month even in the romanticised narratives surrounding a university campus in India. The scorching sun, the sweat and the pangs of the imminent separation, gels well even in a dry technical institution like mine. As some nostalgia mongers would cry, gone is the age when writing autographs with the ink of blood and tears, or long silent walks, and confessions used to be fashionable. There is more expression of passion than before. The scenes of couples kissing and spending long hours in the open benches during the late hours of the night has predictably not gone well with the conservative majority who calls the shot, and various theories of western cultural invasion are in the air. After all, isn’t public display of affection, a vulgar thing? Isn’t young people making choices about their lives the most horrendous crime? The great Indian values!!…. The list of complaints are endless, predictable and utterly boring! More often, I get into the dilemma as to whether pacify the outpourings with the Zen guru’s story or engage in a frontal attack, both of which on reflection are ineffective in making people view issue from a historical perspective.

While it has to be acknowledged that the liberal values that dominate the western social life has profoundly influenced our youth who had been brought up in an insular world, it is no more than the cultural renaissance of the 50’s and 60’s that challenged the then caste and ritualism dominated social life to a certain extend. What is happening has to be seen as Indian middle class’  new tryst with the modernity, in the backdrop of an information age. Most people won’t appreciate me in saying this. But I’m calling a spade what it is- it is democracy, the same word that we love to pay eulogy to, hardly realising its implication or appreciating the progress it brings.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

  • Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The oddest thing about human existence is that even while living inside a glass house of ideas, each bit transparent down to the core and with clear contours revealing the aesthetics, we love to live oblivious of the obviousness of those cores and contours. Democracy has become the most well established idea of governance by the end of the last century and it has progressed beyond being just the name of a system. Its structure, form and dynamics evolved to a great deal of sophistication, as to reject every notion of pure majoritarianism. The ideas pertaining to maximisation of liberty within a broad democratic frame work underwent several evolutionary twists and turns, much to the same extend the idea of liberty changed through John Locke to John Stuart Mill. Yet, the modern idea of democracy is also strange in the sense that it has also become a whipping boy. It is that monster our rulers, the old guards- the nexus of religion, cultural conservatives and power brokers, the privileged and many economists remind day in and out, to be a very dangerous one (to be taken with great caution and dilution), all the while when it has become an individual’s best safeguard against oppression in a world where nation states, religion and capital have imposed their hegemony.

The fourth wave

The 21st century began with the outbreak of a phenomena that triggered the largest and the fastest process of democratisation in the history of the world. The internet. Unlike the previous waves which more often were local, this phenomena presented a unique opportunity- to get exposed to vast quantities of information, ideas, perspectives, narratives and a possibility of engaging in dialogue; things which were hitherto unknown to people in the scale it presented. And on the proverbial flip side, it has the ability to arouse the passions over controversial issues, pump in large quantities of misinformation and even wrongfully target individuals or groups with propaganda machines. We stand at an important juncture in history, where the turn we take on dealing with this phenomena will decide our future course in a very substantial way. Yet, the whole current debate is unfortunately centred around a peripheral, though admittedly important, question of the control of internet and information. Once again the paradigm shift in the dynamics of power has worried the ones who ought to be worried, and therefore the expected “dangerous internet” memes have spread out fast and wide.

Internet has brought changes in the cultural sensibilities of people at large, and has even created a certain level playing ground in the world of ideas. But instead of creatively engaging with it, the old guard has chosen to repress and censor it under various guises. Let me just mention a few recent instances.

A recent news piece reported by Media one, aroused my curiosity. The title says ‘Will the social media be captured by terrorists/fundamentalists?’. The article brings into light the ridiculous bans that a group called Free Thinkers(സ്വതന്ത്ര ചിന്തകര്‍)(40000+ member group, from Kerala) faced due to the planned effort by a chunk of people, presumably fundamentalists. Then it asks whether we will have to ban twitter and facebook, like porn sites. I appreciate Media one for bringing this news, albeit not mentioning that most (though not all) of the heated debates inside the group were surrounding Quran with superiority claims brought forward mostly by Islamic evangelists as the starting point, and staunchly argued against by the non-religious and secular people within the group. Let us leave that part for now and concentrate on the interesting perspective it presents. It has all the hallmarks of the old guard paternalism. Then we have the worried Indian citizens complaining to the court to disallow children under 18 (!) to access face book and twitter. Some moralists are so bothered about pornography that they want to make watching it illegal and a non bailable offence (pray tell me how are you going to establish something is porn without watching and therefore committing the same crime). It is shocking that ban is showcased as a reasonable consensus, whether the question is that of pornography or people having fake ids (as if all people are stupid enough to take every social media message at face value). It also makes one wonder whether all that has happened in this era is proliferation of pornography and frauds!

Both the old guards and Govt. want the same thing- regulate and control internet. What they do not want to admit is that, they are more bothered about ideas it generate, and the democratisation it is unleashing. We hardly see mainstream media or Government giving credit to internet for the faster spread and penetration of news. Rarely do we see appreciation, or at least acknowledgement, in so far as bringing more discussions on subaltern perspectives or the gender issues, which were confined to a hallowed circle of periodicals controlled by intellectuals with definite ideologies. The unprecedented growth and diversity in film appreciation, short film production, photography and various creative arenas of self expression, are invisible or irrelevant to them. The mainstream media domination in providing news and perspectives are no longer stable. The fact that slowly, but steadily, a significant percentage of youth, mostly from the middle class, is also criticising the old cultural ethos, is unsettling them. The power hierarchies are challenged at some level.

The need for a paradigm shift

I’m going to tell you a number of things about being a reporter, but of all the things I’m going to tell you, remember two words. Governments lie. It’s a good starting point.

  • I. F. Stone, narrated by Howard Zinn.

The Governments and, in most cases their dependable compatriots, the old guards, want “irresponsible” speech and expression, regulated. And we all know what responsible means, don’t we? Of course, responsibility has to be what they define it as!

They have draconian provisions like 66(A) of the Indian IT act, up on which no proper discussion is conducted in the mostly sold out mainstream media. But why are they so much worried? In fact, the reason is that they know that Anna Hazzares are entertainment variety with no real fangs, but with the penetration of social media and more people becoming computer literate, information cannot be controlled. This fact is not too much to the advantage of terrorists as it is to the disadvantage of Governments and the old guards. But more often we are warned about “terrorist” threat to justify the need for Government censorship of information, and the sleazy we are all for “freedom of expression, but” talk by the people who are too scared about it. Any person with half a brain can make out the double talk here. We have an unbelievable number of RTI activists murdered over the years and the Government as usual payslip service with “we strongly condemn this, but sorry we do not have adequate police force”. Let us not be delusional in thinking that Governments want transparency– actually it is what most of them do not want. But citizens want that, and the best way is to have no blocks on information or expression.

Sir Humphrey Appleby : It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them

  • Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister.

What kind of a world we want to live in depends up on what discussions holds sway now. If we let go the baggage of the nauseating paternalistic culture, and allow democritisation a chance, we might still have many problems to be dealt in future, but we can be sure that people will have some ideas to solve them. The other option of maintaining the status quo with the culture, the religions and the interests of powers that be, and they having control over individual life, is at best an Ostrich solution. The choice is ours.

The elephant in the room: A case for free expression

25 04 2013

Articulation and argumentation are not everyone’s forte, but at some level, expression is. If there is any area where the idea of equality can be pursued both in words and spirit with no ifs and buts (I do not mean to say that equality is meaningless in other areas), it is in expression- of ideas, emotions and information. But more often we hear self-proclaimed pundits to ordinary people paying eulogies to “freedom of expression” with the cliché ‘I’m all for free expression, but not hurting other people‘. If you ask me, those are in deed nice sounding words, but may I also add, thoroughly inconsistent and utterly stupid!

In fact, most self-identified supporters of free expression sitting on a but, are not even arguing for it. They are arguing for a case of “freedom of inoffensive expression”- the freedom to express things that we generally agree up on. Some people might defend that position by a play of semantics. They define legitimate free expression as every form that we can, at the very least, agree to disagree up on. But is that, really a freedom? These grand narratives surrounding the topic has obfuscated the issue so much that the debates are condemned to be beating around the bushes. In this context, I would like to imagine myself as taking the stand of that little kid on the street shouting, emperor has no clothes, dangerous though it is.

The case for inoffensive expression

The often argued case for limited expression, or freedom for inoffensive expression, is based on consequential logic. Expressions, be it speech, art, writing, video or Internet based, can and every often do, lead to conflicts. Fake informations, biased perspectives, religious blasphemy, artistic critiques or eroticism, are hot beds for provoking violent action. Some variety can cause real and tangible harm for individuals. Slander is a versatile tool for tarnishing the reputation of an individual. Therefore, it is better to censor expression which can fall into these category, is the logic employed here. In most democratic countries there is a well defined judicial procedure for appealing against such censorships and more often they involve more than one person and level. Hence, the right for “legitimate” expression can be safeguarded. This narrative also appeals to the fact that not all people are rational, and therefore the society at large should not have to bear the brunt, because people may not be able to rationally engage with each other on controversial issues or points where they disagree.

The case seems to be a solid one. At least, I too shared the same opinion for a long time. But then what is the problem?

Even at a cursory analysis, we find historical contradictions to the argument that ‘legitimate’ expression can and will be preserved. How often have we found legitimate expressions being trampled and even penalised by death, in questions of slavery, caste based oppression, religious critique, women’s rights, to the extend of telling that earth is not the centre of the universe. Democratic or not, societies by and large are conservative when it comes to accepting new ideas. The legitimacy of expressions are most often judged from the prevailing conservative stand point of a society. An idea that should be clear even for a  no-brainer , that  marital rape should be penalised, is a matter of joke for most of the honourable parliamentarians. Consider a more controversial critique, this time of the Government.  Perhaps about the Indian state itself. How logical is it to expect the very agents of state to make a fair judgement about its legitimacy? That would be,  if I borrow the usage of Sir Humphrey Applebee from the Yes Minister, like giving a bottle of whisky to an alcoholic.

In cases where courts have held up freedom of speech, expression and conscience, and the higher courts in India most often have, they based it on a constitutional principle and not by assessing the quality of the expression. This precedent should be firmly established by taking away the judgemental aspect altogether. This principle need to applied in amending the draconian provisions in the article 66(A) of the Indian IT act.

Limited freedom of expression, goes against the progress of societies. When certain ideas are taboo, whether or not people are rational, it does no good to anybody. What societies should strive is to encourage that maturity to deal with various expressions. Blanket bans and censorships are never the way forward. For instance, a homophobic man (which unfortunately includes the majority of Indians) might find the expression of gay sexuality vulgar and unacceptable. The orthodox bullies within every religion would like to ban it. Is that a sufficient reason to limit the freedom of expression of the gay community?

Every novel idea, every artistic expression that tries to engage with its audience and every bit of concealed truth are blasphemous entities for some people or other. Hence questions are raised about teaching evolution, M. F. Hussain’s painting and Aseem Trivedi’s cartoon, Arundhati Roy’s opinion on Kashmir and Wikileaks, and they should be. But whatever one’s opinion regarding these are, the alternative possibility of censoring these will only drag us back to the Dark ages.

What about the real or potential harm caused by spreading lies?

The pre-eminent British Parliamentarian and the first editor of Manchester guardian (the present ‘Guardian’ newspaper) C. P. Scott had these famous words to offer on the question of media ethics:

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

This statement applies to more than mass media. In fact, any public expression can be challenged based on the veracity of the facts it presents. Spreading wrong information deliberately can be effectively challenged and penalised, by individuals or groups including Government, with the current laws itself. If a newspaper can be charged for publishing wrong information, so can an individual be. The case of “misuse of free expression” is over stated, and even if they happen pre-emptive bans cannot be justified. In fact, we have seen instances when the unfortunate provision of pre-emptive bans was effectively used by people who think beyond to silence criticism.

I hate, ‘hate speech’. It could get people killed!

So do I, and some of them have the potential to kill. Unfortunately that is not a sufficient ground to ban it. i.e. we can only punish real crimes, not potential crimes .

How do we decide whether something is hateful or an opinion, not necessarily right, based on certain facts or experiences? What makes a person shouting “I hate America” in India passable, while somebody with a placard “I hate Hindus” unacceptable? What makes Bal Thackarey’s editorial in Samna about “Hindus not being vigorous enough” during the 1992 riots inoffensive for a majority, while Abdul Nassar Madani’s alleged “call for arms” unacceptable? We, like all establishments, have double standards in deciding what is hateful and what is not. It does not surprise me, although it does sadden me, that such biases exist for neutrality over emotionally charged issues are rare, if not non-existent. What can certainly be done is maintaining a principled position that every person will have to bear the consequence of his or her public expression. If a call for arms can be linked to a riot, and police need to be prepared for it, the person has to be charged for abetting violence and murder. Call for violence, whether the reason be xenophobia, casteism, ethnic divide, religious bigotry, ideological schism or personal vendetta, has to be charged at the point of action like any other crimes or else we end up in the same situation described in the famous Spielberg film Minority report.

I’m hurt!

I’m sure you did. But, you know what, deal with it! There is no right to remain unoffended. There are millions of issues up on which every single individual is going to hurt others by expressing one’s opinion. A cartoon might hurt Mamta Bannerjee, challenging his Gujarat story might hurt Modi, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, M. F. Hussain, Nikos Kazantzakis or Sanal Edamaraku might ‘hurt’ many faithful and so on and so forth. I could even argue that “religion” hurts me. Does that give me a right to call for ban on news about poojas in temple, the azaan call or the notice of Sunday mass in a church?

The case for free expression is the proverbial elephant in the room. Everybody can see that, but certain cultural, religious or ideological upbringings make most people argue against it. It has to be noted that in countries like USA, the first amendment act is considered as one of the most important constitutional safeguards. Despite strong provisions to protect free speech, most European countries and America do not have riots over free expressions, to the extend we have in India. In a Christian majority country, the piss Christ is tolerated (as in not legally persecuted) and that is a sign of maturity and not cultural inferiority as some of our-great-culture ideologues project it as. I would like to end with the concluding remarks from Salman Rushdie’s speech at India Conclave 2012.

“The human being, let’s remember, is essentially a language animal. We are a creature which has always used language to express our most profound feelings and we are nothing without our language. The attempt to silence our tongue is not only censorship. It’s also an existential crime about the kind of species that we are.

We are a species which requires to speak, and we must not be silenced. Language itself is a liberty and please, do not let the battle for this liberty be lost.”

Entry for The Colloquium Blogjam

Free speech: we need it goddamn free!

4 04 2013


Several oxymorons have captured popular imagination. Oxymorons are wonderful things. Some of them are interesting social memes with a concealed surreal parody, while appearing as a outpouring emotional drama. In recent times, my favourite one happened to be the word ultra secularist, referring to Awami League in Bangladesh. Actually that is more of a pathetic joke, invented by people with hardly any sense of humour. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, never mind. If you are persistent, please go and have a sneak peak at what has been going on in Bangladesh) .Then there are my perennial favourites – militant atheist and fundamentalist atheist- both of which I cherish and hope to remain worthy of, till I die. Having said that, I like the idea of people using oxymorons, since more than anything they exemplify the idea of free speech and expression. Freedom is worthless until it also involves the freedom to be wrong; even hopelessly wrong.

The odes in favour for an intrinsically lazy and incorrigibly dreamy man like me turning into an armchair activist for free speech should have been quite low. But then as the wise saying goes, your opponent choses the weapon for you. When morons of the lowest order with a penchant for imposing their medieval mindsets are demanding respect and shouting we are hurt at the drop of a hat, I fear a retrograde evolution from man to old world apes is in the pipeline and so the unpleasant truth be told. So, sorry to break this to you guys, there is no such thing as a right to remain unoffended. Be my guest and be offended by reading this, but there will be no donuts for you.

After the social media proliferation what followed was a wave of chaotic incidents- nonsensical cyber laws, then bans, curbs, censorships and even arrests for voicing one’s opinion. Attempt to control information and opinions is not a new phenomena, but with the greatest democratization of information unleashing itself, if anything can regress or even repeal the human progress, it will be the ones who want to stop discussions, debates, criticisms and even mocking of ideas. We always had those real and wannabe big brothers, but this time they might just be too powerful.

It all spiraled down after a Julian Assange– the dirty cables and nation states playing the tug off war to get the better of him. And then the Arab spring, sprung up. It started with hope and ended mostly in despair with the fringe elements who want the democratic rights of women curtailed, running the show. We saw the mobocracy in action and an almighty emperor play right here in India when young girls were arrested for making harmless comments on the eve of India’s ever green fascist Bal Thackarey’s death, and tweets about a union minister’s son lead to an arrest. The Shahbagh square protest happened and in the after math, like the second repetition of history as a farce, Atheist bloggers who had been tortured by the Islamic fundamentalists, have been arrested by the Bangladeshi police and their conviction might lead to a 10 year jail sentence. In short we might well be living in an Orwellian nightmare any time soon, if we already are not in one.

free speech

New events are unfolding every day. When people need to face arrests for face book likes, satires, magazine articles or even statutory body notifications can be blocked by bullies who can think beyond everything (especially logic), and mocking or criticizing the almighty gods (well, it seems they do not have so much power in the cyber world and hence believers need to act on their behalf) or even politicians whose parliamentary language are matters of legends, can lead to serious charges, we better not be kidding ourselves. But the worse part is that whenever the discussion about freedom of expression comes up, people spread it out and try to make it unnecessarily complicated. While I do acknowledge that words or expressions might harm people any attempt on pre-emptive bans or censorships are never the way forward. They are both illogical and regressive. If a harm is tangible, it should be dealt as a civil case. If it is psychological, it should be dealt as a harassment case. We have no dearth of provisions to do this, but governments and pressure groups want to create a monstrous law which is comparable to the emergency period.


Presently we face an unfortunate situation where narrow interest groups, often supported by Govt’s are taking it to the heights of absurdity by curbing expression or worse, giving impunity to ideas . We have witnessed this pandering of the ‘we are hurt’ syndrome during the Vishwaroopam controvertsy and even the latest case of arresting bloggers in Bangladesh. The case of arresting Atheists is particularly of concern since, it is a direct display of fanatic zeal. No religion or ideology is beyond criticism. If an imaginary religious or ideological group called Leprechronians have a problem with the flying sphaghetti monsterists (Pastafarians) criticising or mocking their Leprechronian theology, they better be prepared to deal with it in kind. That applies equally to any historical or mythological character.

I started with oxymorons, so let me conclude with it. Free speech need to be goddamn free. There is no freedom or free will, if a personal God exist. Even if he hates it, he knew you would have spoken that being omniscient. But that metaphor is important, since it emphasizes the real freedom– freedom to go wrong. And that is a lot more worthy than the hurts caused by sharp or at times maliganant criticism. We desperately need it to explore, create and even expunge ideas.


A hecter-pecter note on internet censorship in India

28 05 2012

Let me start with a narrative. As a child born in the 80’s, the biggest impression for a message from television was a two liner that used to appear in Doordarshan- “the greatness of this man was his simplicity… let us discover the Gandhi in ourselves”…

It was like the picture of an elephant behind a not-so-tall wall- just a curved line. Two strokes, one for a skull and one for the side view of a spectacle. So simple was Gandhi; in his dress and in many of the ‘ideas’ he delivered.

Long years after going through the phrase, after reading his ideals and that of his critics; after  comparing him vis-a-vis Bhagat Singh, Jinnah, Bose, Ambedkar and many more, the big idealised image did go down. Yet, the simplicity of the message DD made remains: there is no shortcut to expressing one’s voice against tyranny, but to do it.  A few strokes is all it takes to un-build an empire!

I used to think about it when the English professor once shouted that the greatness of this man (Gandhi) lies in giving a ‘firm spine’ to us. Debatable are both; i.e. it was Gandhi who actually made us any worthy of “spine” or that we (Indians) have actually come to a level to claim a democracy any more than voting in every 5 five years and a bit more than that….. But for the little we have gained, and for the little we built with it, should the simplicity of this message be lost? A message that it takes only a few sketches, strokes or words to define a world of ideas…. that it is so simple! The simplicity was not just about Gandhi, but the narrative he, among many other people, gave about the idea of freedom. But why is it so hard to imagine nowadays for the powers-that-be?

As a nation, as people, we would discuss, debate and quarrel. We might like or dislike people and ideas from this “free” world. We would and should point fingers at each other in the sense of righteousness or moral angst. For a very few, it could even be slander, pun and just-for-a-laugh. But the simplest of the rules that should  remain is that, this is the freedom our predecessors fought and won for us and generations to come. You cannot take down us ….. We will not surrender in front of any ‘insolent might’. And we shouldn’t, so long as the idea of India remains.