Muting the murmurs
The Indian government’s move of blocking the first episode of BBC documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ reeks of conservatism. The documentary questioned the role of the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, in the state’s failure to contain the notorious 2002 riots. The Central government has discredited the documentary as a ‘propaganda piece’ which could potentially undermine the “sovereignty and integrity of India” and “adversely impact India’s friendly relations with foreign countries as also public order within the country.” It is difficult to figure out the correlation of allegations against an individual — even if he happens to be the Indian Prime Minister — with the potential national consequences enumerated above by the government sources. The apprehensions around sovereignty and integrity of the nation, and friendly relations with foreign countries are, at best, pretexts without much substance. The thin-skinned approach by the government is not suited for a vibrant democracy like India. Notably, the content in question represents a genre which is known for depicting reality; it is not fiction or even docudrama. It quotes former foreign secretaries and people at the ministerial levels of the UK government. Reality, most of the time, is a subjective conception. Different individuals and entities can have different versions of reality around an incident. The reality emerges not from one or two versions but as a synthesis of all the versions put in public domain, whatever be the source of each version. In a democracy, ideally, there has to be no hierarchy among different versions of reality. The factual perspective of varied factions should be given equal weightage. Blocking audiences’ access to certain content on frivolous or farcical grounds is akin to keeping them at bay with their quest for truth. It is also in a sense derogatory to the dignity of the audience. The moves of censors and bans are based on a flawed notion that certain content will dictate the conscience of the audience. This approach views the audience as a passive entity that swallows what it is served. People, on the contrary, are more active in their thinking. However illiterate, people possess the ability to process and filter things as per their wisdom which, again, has no hierarchy. Blocking them from certain content will obstruct their path to gaining a comprehensive understanding around a particular issue. People need to be left open to what the government has to say, what the Supreme Court has to say and what the BBC has to say. A Union Minister blamed some people in India for prioritising the BBC over the Supreme Court. It is a fact that the Supreme Court of India-appointed special investigation team (SIT) cleared Prime Minister Modi in the Gujarat riot case. But doesn’t the Indian Constitution allow for disciplined criticism of the Supreme Court? There is no finality when it comes to reality. The Union Minister also alleged that some people in India are carrying the baggage of colonialism — approximating one of the world’s most credible media outlets to Britain’s colonial past. However, if something is a baggage of British colonialism, it is the continuing tendency to suppress voices and restrict people’s access to different types of content. It has to be said as clearly as it could be, that anything which discomforts the ruling dispensation at Centre cannot be clubbed as anti-India. Be it the Oxfam report on inequality, the Pegasus reporting by international media, the BBC documentary, or India’s own NSSO data, there has been a tendency to paint anything inconvenient to the government's narrative as a conspiracy against India. The government must refrain from creating a wedge in public opinion by putting ‘national interest’ on the other side of the balance against discomforting perspectives. It must be clarified, however, that the Indian government is not legally incorrect, technically. Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, empowers the Indian government to block “information in case of emergency.” It is another matter that the rules themselves are quite controversial in the Indian context. The moral applicability of the move is also questionable, as it is uncertain whether the documentary presents the risk of emergency. Furthermore, morality apart, the viability of the ban on digital content in this age of VPNs looks feeble.