Nidhi Mahesh

Blog Saturday, April 11, 2015 - 12:16

While India awoke to freedom at midnight, Indian netizens got freedom on a sunny day, bright and promising, heralding a whole new era in exploiting the world wide web. Celebrations and jubilations across the country – from the capital to tiniest towns and villages in remotest corners – mark this #onlineazadi! Indeed it is a momentous occasion and a reaffirmation of our fundamental right to freedom of expression and free speech.

The scrapping of Sec 66A by the honourable Supreme Court of India once again demonstrates the deep conviction in democracy in the country. India may have a hundred other flaws but its commitment to democracy can never be questioned, it was proved all over again.

Supreme Court with its March 24 verdict has convincingly slapped all those misusing the law and showing the state muscles in clamping down with ferocity on common citizens for their free views (be it Mamata Banerjee flying in a rage on her cartoons, Shiv Sena taking offence to a girl's view on the hazard to public life a demigod’s funeral, or more recently Azam Khan’s ire on a school boy’s sharing of a quip!)

However, while we rejoice in our vindication of the right to free speech, we must also spare a moment to delve on what this freedom implies. Like all freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, this too is not absolute and would have its boundaries, though not the hedgy fencing that the state imposed till now. So where are the boundaries and who draws those? These are important questions that need to be answered.

The freedom of netizens must and definitely must be self-regulated. A greater scrutiny, by the individual himself must go into every post and share. We need much more maturity and consideration of other people’s sentiments, without someone holding a gun on our head. There has to be a clear distinction between right to free speech and right to offend. Mark it, nowhere in the world do we have a right to offend. Now you can argue, those who want to take offence can do so on anything, serious or trivial. True, there are no set frameworks to decide what is offensive and what is not. It is more a matter of perspective. But what helps make a distinction is the intent – some of the abusive posts have very clear intent to hurt a particular section of people. Those need to be avoided. In fact, in my views instead of sharing or commenting on such posts airing our arguments in disagreement and braking into internet brawl, we should simply ignore those and let them die their natural death. Most such posts are meant to provoke, and not reacting to them will defeat their purpose.

Today many of the battles for civic liberty and justice are fought on the social media. The sheer power of it to mobilise public opinion and bring the powers that be on their knees has made most governments treading carefully. The Arab Spring was largely a revolution egged by the social media.

Closer home, hundreds of campaigns make rounds daily, prominently the Nirbhaya campaign and more recently the whole debate on the BBC documentary on her, India’s Daughter. There have been fierce debate o every platform and both in favour and opposed to the documentary put forth their views vociferously. There was largescale condemnation of the comments by the two defence lawyers who made lousy and disparaging remarks on women. Their comments sparked rows and the Bar Council was forced to issue notices to them. They may well claim that they have the freedom of speech and can say what they want in a free democracy, but the fact that their comments were not only in bad taste but also patronising the perpetrators of violence against women, had them in the dock. The authorities were forced to step in, in view of the public sentiments and pressure of civil society. Now imagine similar comments made on the internet by someone and the authorities rushing to take it off. What should we do? Should we cry hoarse that it is an impingement on our freedom of expression on the internet? 

I come across hundreds of offensive and abusive posts and comments on social platforms every day. I mostly ignore them. But then ignoring them forever may be an issue, tolerance is not infinite. Again, I agree what I find abusive, may be completely acceptable to others, and I must respect their views. Similarly, I would like to be reciprocated. The freedom of internet or #onlineazadi, in my view comes with greater responsibility and demands a mature handling. Are we there yet? 

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