What is common to Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed and Kapil Sibal, India’s Communications and Information Technology minister?
Simply put – both share a liking for smothering views that are not palatable.
Let us break down issues for which the two are ‘trending’. India is slowing down, says Mahathir, because it is too democratic. India should be like Malaysia was under him when the Southeast Asian nation went on to become an economic powerhouse while systematically suppressing the political rights of ethnic minorities.
Mahathir suggested that India needs to limit its democracy – the argument found favour with several Indian political leaders including Farooq Abdullah. Outside the political arena, the view has been endorsed among the yuppies, who ironically called for less democracy while using democratic tools of freedom of speech, dissent, and use of democratic spaces – in this instance the social media. A poll on the noted blog Churumuri has almost 57 percent of people saying that democracy was a hurdle for India’s growth.
There is nothing called ‘limited democracy’. You cannot have 67 percent democracy in politics; 53 percent in government and 100 percent democracy in the social sphere. Democracy is not just a political system. Instead it is a way of life – it is this democratic tradition that allows children in families to decide which course or profession they want to pursue and who they want to marry if they wish to self-arrange their match. If one calls for ‘limited democracy’ then will that person also condone honour killings – when youngsters are murdered for marrying someone of their choice?
Sibal’s argument – though slightly different from Mahathir’s – has similarities insofar as it calls for exercising controls. No doubt that offensive online content is in bad spirit and needs to be checked. There is no way one can condone derogatory comments about national leaders. FB, Twitter or other social media postings which inflame communal passions and can potentially spark of a riot cannot be encouraged. But can – and should – this can be done by controls is the moot point.
At the height of the Babri Masjid agitation, extremely provocative wall-writings and posters targeting religious communities abounded. Yet the government of the day looked the other way. There are very few people in public life who have not been target of some sort vandalism on the Internet. Wikipedia used to be full of vandalized profiles till a couple of years ago till the online encyclopedia created some checks and balances to reduce such instances somewhat. Comments posted after articles on websites – including by this writer – routinely use F* words and would not pass muster in any ‘letters to the editor’ column.
Just as nothing could be done to stop wall writings completely, it is simply not feasible to monitor the ‘virtual highway’ without introducing censorship. Provocative slogans stop having impact after a while. Similarly, vandalism on social media will also come to a naught. The more you try controlling, the more publicity they get. And you will get a ‘bad press’ – something that the Indian government can do without – especially now.