Moviegoers in India were disappointed this month when producers of the critically acclaimed Hollywood film “The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” cancelled the film’s release in India. The decision followed demands by the Indian Censor Board to cut scenes that were deemed “unsuitable for public viewing in their unadulterated form” – specifically scenes of torture and rape. Such censorship of films and TV shows isn’t new here, and Indian audiences have grown accustomed to random and often baffling cuts to even the most innocuous content. However, the recent surge in government censorship and regulation of different media – particularly, the internet and social media – has the Indian and international media buzzing.
Consider the following: In the last six months, the Indian government took 22 internet firms, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, to court over “objectionable content” posted by users online; lodged a formal complaint with the U.S government over remarks made by U.S TV host Jay Leno about a sacred temple in Amritsar; and raised a complaint with the producers of BBC’s show “Top Gear” for an episode that mocked “India’s culture and people.” And, it doesn’t end there. TV shows on English and Hindi language channels are increasingly facing the chop (literally) for “inappropriate” language or content.
These incidents have sparked an intense public debate about the extent to which the government can (or should) determine what the Indian public gets to watch, read, or hear. Some have described this trend as the rise of a “nanny state” where media content is pre-approved for public consumption, while others have raised concerns about what this new regime of censorship means for the freedom of speech and expression. For example, the government’s crackdown on Google and others comes at a time when the internet and social media have become important conduits for the expression of people’s views and opinions. In August last year, social crusader Anna Hazare’s “India Against Corruption Movement” made headlines for its innovative use of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter to organize rallies and galvanize support for their campaign to create an independent anti-corruption agency or Jan Lok Pal in India.
Traditionally, censorship in India has been justified on the grounds of “cultural sensitivity” and the idea that Indian audiences need to be shielded from content that could offend their social, cultural and religious beliefs. Speaking to the media on the case against the internet companies, Telecoms and Information Communications Minister Kapil Sibal was quoted as saying: “We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us.” But as political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, “cultural sensitivity is not a pre-given fact in India.” The reality is that India today is undergoing rapid social and economic changes.
More than 50 percent of India’s population is below the age of 25 and nearly 65 percent under the age of 35. There are an estimated 100 million internet users in the country, with the number estimated to triple by 2014. Mobile phone penetration, particularly in rural areas, is extensive with over 800 million subscribers in 2011. With the rapid expansion of well-paying jobs in sectors such as IT, software, and business-outsource processing, many young Indians have access to disposable incomes far greater than their parents and have aspirations to work and live abroad. Against this backdrop, the government’s efforts to censor the internet and other media is an anachronism and symptomatic of a pre-liberalization regime of state regulation and control that is long past. And let’s face it, in a country of 1.2 billion people monitoring or policing user content is simply not feasible.
As India positions itself as a global leader in the 21st century, one of its greatest strengths is its loud, boisterous, and often frenzied democracy. The right to freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental pillar of this democracy, and efforts at curbing this right through arbitrary laws and rules will only serve to turn back the clock on the country’s social and economic progress. Mahatma Gandhi once advised a newly independent India to pursue a path of spiritual and inner purity embodied in the principles: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Surely a state that censors and curbs the free flow of information isn’t what he had in mind.
Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s program officer in India. She can be reached at email@example.com.