Conditioning content in a democracy

The government’s dichotomous response to the two episodes of the docuseries is perplexing.
(File picture)
(File picture)

About two weeks ago, on January 17, 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology proposed changes to the Information Technology Rules 2021. When—not if—they come to pass, these alterations will enforce beady-eyed and strict government oversight of online content. Telecom service providers and social media platforms would be mandated to delete any and all content branded “fake” by the Union government’s media arm, the Press Information Bureau, and other government bodies “authorised” to fact-check online content. This would be censorship on a level unprecedented in the putatively democratic world.

This proposed imposition of government censorship had been preceded by a bit of testing the waters—a gag order on the Joshimath land-subsidence catastrophe on sharing information with the media. Within 24 hours of this proscription, Joshimath went dark, and it remains so. There is not a smidgen of information anywhere about what transpires in this environmentally precarious region of Uttarakhand, one of the major gateways of Hindu pilgrimages in sub-Himalayan India.

Before imposing the changes, the chance for a full-on test of existent IT rules appeared a few days later. On January 20, 2023, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting invoked emergency powers already embedded in the Information Technology Rules, 2021, to direct YouTube and Twitter to block videos of part 1 of the BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question—which the Union Ministry of External Affairs called a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative”—as well as more than 50 tweets that hyperlinked to the videos.

Significantly, the ban was not extended to Facebook—the Meta ecosystem—and links to the videos remain in a dozen different hosts. Part 1 of the docuseries has been downloaded, presumably, by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Indians living in India and not using VPNs to circumvent blocked information pipelines. Part 2 has not been proscribed at all and is available for viewing worldwide. This accessibility is, not surprisingly, the reason why the second episode—far more chilling and contemporary than the first—has not evoked a similarly volatile response from the general public. Maybe the old democratic saw still works: that freedom of expression keeps a society palliated in times of crisis.

The government’s dichotomous response to the two episodes of the docuseries is perplexing. It is contradictory how the government handles those who insist on watching them even after being threatened with establishmentarian displeasure. After the first episode, the police detained a small handful of the louder students; after the second, there wasn’t the faintest resemblance of a frisson.

What was notable about the response to the first episode was not the government’s clampdown on it employing draconian laws but the widespread defiance of those laws. Viewings of part 1 exploded in universities across India, sometimes on portable screens and often on digital devices. When the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi cut off electricity to prevent the screening of the documentary, students instantly passed around a QR code of the link to where the documentary had been hosted and migrated to viewing it on laptops and smartphones.

The Opposition has boosted its already simmering contumacy. Political youth wings in Kerala, Bengal, and Delhi screened the banned first episode for the public. The Centre has not responded yet, to this bucking of legality, except with a surprisingly muted show of police force.

Why this public show of indecision by the Government of India, which has never before suffered from underconfidence or, even less, from reflex action upon perceived antagonism? Has its chairing of the G20—and the vision of a democracy hard at work that it needs to hard-sell to the Global North—moderated its autogenetic imperiousness? Now that it is gavel-holding in the premier international economic forum, does it understand that much of the G20 would like nothing better than to subdue its atmanirbhar ultranationalism? Narendra Modi has been good for the ruling duopoly, but, except for arms, deshbhakti has not exactly been good for business from the Global North. India has kept its doors open for foreign investment but tightly shut for foreign business.

How does the Global North make its louring, democratic, free-market presence felt over the Modi dispensation? Think, first, the BBC’s The Modi Question parts 1 & 2. Is the docuseries supposed to keep India on human rights straight and narrow during its yearlong chair of the G20? It’s possible. Is it meant to keep the Modi dispensation moderated in the run-up to the general election and thus reduce the probability of a repeat majority government? Maybe. In the absence of a smoking gun, we can but wonder. Think, second, Hindenburg Research’s explosive investigation into one of Modi’s closest hypercorporates, the Adani Group. How the world’s 3rd Richest Man is Pulling the Largest Con in Corporate History led to the Adani Group’s seven listed companies tanking a collective 20% in the stock market—within 36 hours of the éxposé.

In every sense, two of the Modi dispensation’s frontiers of poise and self-possession (despite deep liberal doubts about both)—democratism and economics—have been seriously put to the question by organisations embedded in the Global North’s systèmes de démocratie simultaneously.

But if one thing seems clear, it is this: with 16 months to go for the 2024 general election, the GoI’s hardheadedness about its uncommitted take on freedom of expression will be sorely tested, both from within and without. Students—and some Opposition parties—have taken the intractable, unappeasable warpath. And they are employing precisely those communication instruments that the government seeks control over—smartphones, laptops—indeed, the broad whitewater of spectrum and bandwidth. To its indubitable chagrin, the government might be constrained from wielding its iron fist—because the world is now watching.

Kajal Basu

Veteran journalist

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