On 5 October 1988 the Indian Government headed by Rajiv Gandhi announced its ban of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. India was the first country to do so. Large-scale protests against the book in India and the rest of the world began soon after this ban, which probably acted as more of an instigation than the actual contents of the book. It was one among many instances of Rajiv Gandhi looking for short-term political gains without considering the consequences, though Rushdie’s portraiture of Indira Gandhi in Midnight’s Children may not have helped.
So many years later, it seems the Congress has learnt no lessons from the past. Kapil Sibal wants to ensure no blasphemous content that hurts communal sentiments finds its way on to the web. Admirable as this sentiment may sound in the abstract, it is an absurd idea. Unless we plan on becoming China (even Sibal is unlikely to want that, though it would mean that issues such as the 2G scam become far easier to manage), there is no way the web can be monitored in this fashion. For that matter, even print could not be monitored. Rajiv’s ban led to the Satanic Verses being far more freely available in India than it would have been otherwise.
Material accessed through the internet can be uploaded anywhere in the world, which means the default setting of the web is defined by the most liberal laws anywhere in the world, and Indian legislation to the contrary is pointless. For those who have never bothered but may now want to know how to bypass various restrictions placed by the Indian Government, or for that matter office administrators, just google ‘proxy servers list’, go to any of the pages listed there and type the address of the site you have trouble accessing. This is all it takes. Clearly then, the Sibal initiative is not born out of genuine concerns, because there is no way it could be implemented. Like the ban on Satanic Verses, such screening only attracts attention to the website to which access is being restricted.
What then is the Government hoping to achieve? There may be some truth to the suggestion that in the same way that Rajiv may have been offended by Rushdie’s portrayal of Indira Gandhi, Sibal may have been affronted by the denigration of the Congress First Family on the internet, but that can hardly be the basis for this initiative. Another possibility, bolstered by Digvijaya Singh’s quick approval of Sibal’s suggestion, is that once again with UP elections approaching and Muslim votes a critical factor, the party is playing politics in time-honoured fashion. Sibal should realise that this was exactly what Rajiv intended, and we all know how badly that ended for the party and country. The one genuine concern may be the protests in Kashmir that took place a fortnight ago. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani’s call for protests against blasphemous content on Facebook once again did bring Kashmir Valley to the edge. But does Sibal really believe screening content on Facebook is the road to peace in Kashmir? Geelani is searching for pretexts and he will use one where he can find it. The problem in Kashmir lies elsewhere, and this government is confusing symptoms with causes.
This leaves political opportunism and unquestioned loyalty to the First Family as the possible motives for this initiative. These may be attitudes that have come to define a Congress person in the popular imagination, but these are not attitudes that can be the basis for regulating content by a minister of information technology who on the face of it does not understand the very basics of the institutions that define his portfolio. More and more, Sibal only reflects the hubris of a government cut off from ground realities. This has been evident in his own statements made earlier when he questioned the notion of any loss in the 2G scandal. It is evident in the step-by-step retreat in the Government’s position that has revealed how the 2G scandal was not the act of a single errant minister. This is also why this government has dealt so badly with the Lokpal issue, was clueless on FDI, and is now facing such heavy criticism over its decision to monitor content on the web.
It says something for this government that the very people it counts on most to defend its record in public are the ones who have contributed most to the perception of a government in disrepair. Sibal pretends to be speaking on behalf of a nameless, faceless constituency whose interests he is seeking to defend. No such constituency exists, and even with Digvijaya’s approval, such attempts will not yield benefits in UP. What it will again ensure is that the intentions of a government already under siege will be subject to even greater scrutiny.