I always used to wonder how the mighty USA allowed all fringe voices to thrive (1st Amendment) and how we in India are not able to do that. One of the well known satirist, playwright and journalist, Mr. Cho Ramasamy said many times that, we in India can’t afford to do that as ours is still a young democracy, where millions are still not literate and any opinion of extreme nature can offend sensibilities of one section or another, thus while it may work in USA, India is still not ready for that.
It’s the reason why we said banning satanic verses (Salman Rushdie) or trying to arrest a painter who made some nude portraits of a Hindu Goddess was OK in the Indian context. Personally I hated to interfere with any artist’s liberties but I understood Mr. Cho’s point of view and agreed.
Mr. Cho did not live to see the full effects on how social media can turn everything upside down, where the difference between real news and fake news will disappear and conspiracy theories can eventually wind their way up to prime time news.
Crazy beliefs and conspiracy theories are not new as some tend to believe this has started only with QAnon. For decades, a small percentage of Americans believed (and still do) that moon landing was fake, UFOs are real and successive American Governments have captured and kept them in underground bunkers. But these conspiracy theorists never found a national outlet (media) to vent their opinions. Mark Zuckerberg changed all that. He and other social media entrepreneurs built their businesses by never flagging & never controlling what appeared on their platforms. Even the eventual ban on Mr. Trump by Facebook and Twitter happened only after congress certified the election and the riot happened on the Capital. Had Mr. Trump won the election, things would have continued as it were and anyone could have voiced any crazy opinion. This uncontrolled media has now made conspiracy theorists to become congressmen and congresswomen. Twitter and Facebook have a nice excuse, they are not news media but just a platform to exchange views and news. How convenient.
Problems in India is totally different. We had just a state media on Airwaves and Television for decades. Print media was independent. But it was totally controlled by the left leaning elite. The national media hated any sort of conservative views and pro right organizations, like the RSS, were called terrorists. All worked well for the elite. But then, the social media arrived and Mr. Modi used it to reach his millions of followers. Remember Mr. Modi was not given any prominence in the national media, they celebrated when he was denied a USA visit visa and said it was the right treatment for merchant of death. He, in turn, refused to entertain them. But his voice was heard and his views were read by millions thanks to social media and people thought, at last, the common man could identify with a leader. They elected him to be their Prime Minister.
The elite media was not done yet. They thought it was just an aberration, and they could roar back. When he demonetized the currency they demonized him. And every single gaffe, every single lynching (rare but did happen) was blown out of proportion and they wanted to hang him for that. When thousands of tribal population were killed in a massacre in Assam in the eighties, there were not so much of protests in media vis a vi one single lynching in Modi period. Both acts are heinous, but for the media one act under Mr. Modi was more cruel than the thousand acts under previous regimes.
Of course their evil designs did not work. Mr. Modi was elected again and then the wheels turned. Now the right wing is playing the same cards which the secular media has been playing all these years but with greater reach and attention. They have found a voice and the media to express themselves. The pendulum has swung all the way.
A prominent writer and thinker Mr. Jeyamohan has written this about Ms. Arundhati Rai, darling of secular media when she made some damaging comments about India and its leaders.
“இன்று இந்தியாவில் பேச்சுரிமை, கருத்துரிமை என்பது இந்தியாவை அழிப்பதற்கான பேச்சுகளை பேசும் உரிமை என்று எடுத்துக் கொள்ளப்பட்டுள்ளது. இது, பேச்சுரிமையை நமக்களித்த முன்னோடிகளுக்கு மிகப்பெரிய அவமதிப்பு அன்றி வேறல்ல. பொறுப்பற்ற உரிமை என்பது போல அழிவை அளிப்பது வேறொன்றும் இல்லை.”
“This translates roughly as follows.
“In today’s India, freedom of speech and freedom of expression is considered as freedom of speech to destroy India. This is totally disrespecting to our elders who gave us this freedom to speak. There is nothing more dangerous and destructive than speaking without responsibility.”
There were hundreds of incidents where the darlings of English & Western media could say anything about India, its culture, its elected Prime Minister. No one said anything. But today any tweet by any right wing enthusiast is condemned in strongest possible words and ridiculed.
Even the journalists who I respect most like Ms. Tavleen Singh, seemed to have missed the point. The more you push a large section of people back to a corner, the more they react violently. This has now resulted in a situation where anything said against Mr. Modi is called seditious. Of course people in power don’t act responsibly as well. Our External Affairs Minister is a career diplomat he had seen the world and served as Ambassador in a dozen countries. He should have advised caution to his colleagues when some tweets by international celebrities appeared about Indian farmers protests. There was no need for his ministry to react to tweets of Ms. Rihanna and Ms. Thunberg. They gave a huge explanation which set a chain of action in motion. Moreover, people are trying to see a pattern even when there is none. They think that the world is against their country and leaders.
As far as common man reacting to these tweets, it nothing new. It is the same people who went berserk when Maria Sharapova asked who is Sachin Tendulkar. It is also entwined in our psyche that the west should always speak high of us or not at all. So there is no wonder people who don’t know anything about Ms. Rihanna or Ms. Thunberg started commenting and abusing them. The blame should go to the ministry. Had they ignored those tweets, the extreme reactions from common public, though laughable, would not have happened.
The only way we can get back to sanity or at least a semblance of it, is to put some control on Social Media if it is not possible to entirely ban them. Of course one never thought that a suggestion to shoot the messenger (Social Media) will one day become a serious advice. But I actually don’t see an end to this madness. At least the social media should be treated as news organizations so that there could be some serious controls on what is written or tweeted or texted. Or else every country will have the same problem. Express and endorse an opinion to execute the speaker of the elected house and then get elected to serve alongside the same speaker. How ironic!
A tough subject to write and you have done a good job by taking a very balanced view. I support your observation that some time it is best to ignore than offer explanation or retaliate.