Not too long ago, in the course of a one to one media interaction at this year’s India Today conclave, Shri. Amit Shah, the President of the Bharatiya Janata Party, while answering a question regarding the police crackdown on the JNU students, accused of shouting anti-national seditious slogans, while marking the death anniversary of the convicted terrorist Afzal Guru, made it clear that aside from tolerating speeches and slogans that attacked the sovereignty and dignity of the nation, his party and government possessed the courage and ability to withstand the worst kind of trolling, criticism, whether personal or otherwise, against any individual, his party or a government decision. The clarity in this thought process, and the manner in which he articulated his party’s position on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in India, along with the reasonable restrictions on the same, was something which impressed me immensely.
It is with some consternation then that one wonders if the decision of India’s incumbent Union Minister for Women and Child Development, to constitute a separate cyber cell to scrutinize complaints against individuals who resort to trolling and ‘abuse’ women on internet platforms, does not perhaps contradict the BJP’s stated ability to withstand the worst kind of criticism against individuals, party and government. Because even though it is possible to define what constitutes ‘abuse’, the word ‘troll’ is a very wide term; and interpreting what kind of trolling is acceptable and what isn’t is a very subjective matter.
Also when it comes to abuse, it should be noted that there are already penal laws in place in our country, which adequately address the grievances of women who are at the receiving end of harassment and abuse; Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code being the most suitable for this purpose. Further, each state police unit in India already does have in place a cyber-crime cell with which criminal complaints can be registered.
Why then must there be any role at all for this newly constituted cyber cell in the Ministry of Women and Child Development? Does it fall within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Women and Child Development to act like a quasi-police and judicial authority that registers, scrutinizes and interprets what constitutes ‘abuse’ and trolling?
The Mainstream media of course has already hailed and spun this new development as a necessary move to check the many pro-BJP and pro-Hindutva trolling on social media. A sure indication of how these supposed ‘trolls’ have emphatically broken the monopoly of the mainstream media that has for several years now dominated the public space while propagating a skewed and biased narrative. The media’s hypocrisy no doubt shines through when they feel no compunction, on the grounds of protecting free speech, in condemning the police action on JNU students, who call for the balkanization of India; but are ecstatic at Maneka Gandhi’s decision to constitute the new cyber cell.
To cut a long story short, Maneka Gandhi’s decision to constitute this cyber cell marks the beginning of policing on the internet. Even though the Hon’ble Minister may claim that her primary motive behind this move is to preserve the dignity of women; the fact is that she has already begun asserting her power by lodging a complaint against a parody account of her on Twitter
A move which has resulted in the suspension of the said account. This move on the part of the Minister automatically raises the question about how this cyber cell under her ministry will function; and what the criteria for deciding if action ought to be taken against a particular individual will be.
Does the Hon’ble Minister intend to take action against an individual, simply because the speech or expression of that particular individual does not sit well with the sensibilities of the Hon’ble Minister? The same Hon’ble Minister whose presumably pro-women sensibilities as an Editor of a magazine named Surya, back in the year 1978, did not restrain her from making the editorial decision to publish in her magazine, a series of really graphic photographs, which showed the son of a prominent politician in compromising positions with a woman he was in a relationship with. Perhaps the dignity of women was not particularly important to the Hon’ble Minister back in 1978.
But perhaps some criticism must also be directed towards the NDA government as a whole for taking the support they enjoy on various social media platforms for granted. They must not forget that the mobilization of support for the BJP and its allies on various social media platforms played a role, albeit a small one in helping them come to power in New Delhi. The muzzling of these very voices that helped mobilize support by a Minister of their own cabinet, will only prove to be counter-productive to their politics and vision, which has frequently in the past been condescendingly, demonized by the biased mainstream media that doesn’t waste any opportunity to brand them as communal and fascistic at the drop of a hat. This is the propaganda machine that the voices of these supposed ‘trolls’ are taking on; voices which unfortunately the Hon’ble Minister, is perhaps working towards shutting down.