There are some things that are just plain illogical. Like defining broadband in kbps (what is this, 2005?), selling unlimited bandwidth at 20GB monthly caps (you, too clever for your own good ISPs, you!), and the existence of late 20th century relics known as “cyber cafes” (seriously, who still visits them?). Then there are other things that are more alarming than trivial, for their ability to set a dangerous precedent. Something that denies you your basic freedom even. The freedom to access anything that can be accessed legally – like going on YouTube and watching a “viral” video. In the wise words of Henry Ward Beecher (and a certain character portrayed by Matt Damon), what is freedom or liberty if not a soul’s right to breathe? And when it cannot take a long breath, laws are girdled too tight. “Without liberty, man is a syncope.”
And it is getting increasingly difficult to draw a breath in this great nation of ours.
First, the Dragon Age Inquisition ban for allowing gamers to explore homosexual character arcs. Now, forcing AIB to take down their latest viral video off YouTube for being too vulgar? What is this, North Korea? Hang on. Let’s recap a bit.
What a mess
A bunch of comedians that are amassing a large online fan-following that goes by the name of All India Bakchod, conducted a live “comedy roast” of certain Bollywood actors where the audience paid to attend and watch; the proceeds of which were donated to charity. The AIB Roast video was posted online on YouTube, went viral (#AIBRoast), amassing over 8 million views within just a few days last week. Then all hell broke loose.
On Monday, Akhilesh Tiwari, president of Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha, filed a criminal complaint against All India Bakchod and the Bollywood glitterati, objecting to the comedy roast’s insulting and abusive language. Since then, a lot of India’s right-wing moral crusaders have taken to social media to voice their outburst against the comedians in an attempt to protect the country’s youth and, erm, values. Even the Maharashtra State Government’s Minister Vinod Tawde had said, "Officials of the Culture Department will examine the videos for the content. If found vulgar, an action will be initiated," according to DNA – he later changed his statement. AIB has sinced pulled down the video from YouTube and explained their side of the story.
And here I’m left thinking – what’s wrong with a joke? Time to take a chill pill much?
As is the case with this genre of comedy, the jokes were – what many people would consider as – crass, crude, vulgar and obscene. Fine. But why morally police or censor something wantonly without having any regards whatsoever towards protecting and upholding fundamental rights such as free speech and expression in the first place? This is akin to cutting off a mad man’s tongue in the street as you walk past him just because you don’t like what he’s saying. I think saas-bahu soaps wrongly portray women as conniving, plotting, scheming and other despicable things – does that mean I lodge a police complaint or simply switch the channel? Are we going to let a few morality activists dictate how we live our lives at large? What does that say about the strength of our democracy?
“The show, which can be seen on YouTube and other websites, was extremely abusive and it is not only ruining the clean image of the Indian culture & women, but is also misleading today’s youth,” Tiwari reportedly said in his complaint, according to Quartz. It’s clear to me that Mr. Tiwari thinks today’s youth is incapable of understanding a joke when they hear one, or more specifically unable of digesting “non veg jokes” as we’ve all exchanged with our friends since hitting puberty – or are they only meant for sweat-soaked, smartphone-toting giggling gangs of men in Virar fast locals after a hard day’s work? Raghu Ram has been spouting profanities on MTV Roadies (a popular show among the country’s youth) for over a decade, yet we heard no hue or cry then? The show went on, no interruptions.
The state government didn’t do itself much favour by first admitting to take action (against AIB) if the contents of the video were found to be vulgar. Just what may that action be? According to Section 66A of the IT Act (amended in 2008), “Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.” That’s the cost of putting an unfavourable joke out on the Internet in India. I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.
There are criminal cases pending against 57% (or 161) of our MLAs that took the oath of power in the Maharashtra Assembly late last year. Not to mention our elected representatives have been caught watching porn on the floor of the assembly – Karnataka, I’m talking to you. Are we seriously going to take morality lessons from our elected officials?
Just how obscene is too obscene? Obscenity has been exhaustively examined by courts around the world, according to Bhairav Acharya, a free speech and privacy lawyer at the Supreme Court of India. The question of what is obscene was examined in the English case of R v. Hicklin (1868). The Hicklin test criminalises speech that has a tendency to cause criminal activity by depraving and corrupting the minds of those open to immoral influences.
The Hicklin test is not catered to the 'reasonable person'. Instead, it measures acceptable speech by the yardstick of those whose minds are inclined towards depravity. In this way, free speech vis-a-vis obscenity in India is held to ransom by those who get offended and take the law into their own hands.
All liberal democracies have overruled the Hicklin principle, including England where the case originates. Many democracies no longer recognise obscenity as an offence. It is time for India to do the same.
Or is this an attempt to command and control the Internet?
For a country that boasts strong secular fundamentals, democratic values, and one that’s aiming to be a superpower of the 21st century, our nation’s (and its lawmakers’) commitment to preserving and protecting freedom of speech and expression is flimsy at best. Nothing is in black and white, everything is a fifty shades of grey. Trying to navigate and understand the landscape isn’t unlike stepping on an old landmine in the Vietnamese countryside, where all you wanted to do was take a stroll down the hill.
We know our Constitution unequivocally states that “all [Indian] citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression,” as highlighted under Article 19(1)(a). However, Article 19(2) is quick to emphasize that this fundamental right isn’t absolute; it comes with several strings attached, empowering the Parliament to enact laws to rein in free speech for matters concerning national security, maintaining public order, decency and morality, among other things. One can argue these statutory limitations to be too broad and vague. Due to the process of constitutional amendments, sections 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code (since 1972), which deals with offences against public tranquility, tighten the noose around the privileges of free speech and expression, almost to the degree of making them non-existent.
You can only imagine how all of this can pose a dangerous precedent. The Internet changes the rules of engagement drastically and in the rush to control it, free speech is often left haemorrhaging by the roadside. Our current February issue explores this theme of free speech impediment and online censorship in greater detail. Take a look, while you still can. And while we’ve censored the cover to highlight an important issue, the way things are going, the time won’t be far when all magazines look like this by force:
I’m no judge, jury or executioner, but I have this much to say: we need to take a closer look at prioritizing our grievances, the society we want to live in, and the way we’re progressing as a nation. We call ourselves democratic yet we lack tolerance to respect the opinion of others – whether it’s a bunch of comedians trying to entertain their audience through “crass” humour, consenting adults holding hands on Valentine’s Day, or a viral video being shared online. We need to grow the fuck up.