Here we go again. The UPA government of India wants to dictate once more what people should know and what information is OK for people to handle. It routinely blocks websites, prohibits or limits the use of mobile text messages, and is now threatening to block twitter altogether. The government’s repression of the people is an old habit and it should not evoke any surprise or comment. Yet the fight for freedom of speech and expression is too important to life and liberty that one should not give up merely because one has been on a losing streak for centuries. We, the people, have to win that battle if we have to win the war for freedom.
The cornerstone of a democracy is an informed citizenry, if the notion of a democracy has to have any meaning that is internally consistent. If those who ultimately are in charge of determining how society is going to be ordered are not informed, then the result would be disastrous. Let’s be very clear that in a democracy, ultimate power rests with the people and not the government which is granted its legitimacy by the people. Unlike an authoritarian system where the people are ruled by a small gang of powerful overlords, a democracy is by definition rule by the people. A democracy cannot function if the people are prevented from knowing what’s relevant for proper decision making.
If in a democracy the government makes the claim that information should be carefully controlled, curated and censored for public consumption, it leads to an inconsistency. It means that the people are incompetent and incapable of handling information but yet somehow, even though not fully informed, are able to decide and choose who is to be entrusted with the important task of making public policy. Without the people having the freedom of speech and expression, without the freedom to be exposed to the widest range of ideas and opinions, democracy is a meaningless word parroted by ignorant demagogues for purely self-serving ends.
India is supposedly a democracy. But that is a contestable claim given the reality that Indians are ruled rather than being the rulers. Citizens have to get permission from a paternalistic government for what they can read or write, see or hear. The British colonial government of India quite understandably ensured that it controlled all avenues of information and that the people were not too well-informed. Colonial rule is like that. The situation does not appear to have changed after 1947. For sure, India got free of British colonial rule in 1947 but it is equally clear that those who rule India today are not free of the colonial mindset. It appears that Indians transitioned from one form of repressive government to another.
Let me put it this way. India is not free today any more than it was under the British. India is under what I call British Raj 2.0. India’s lack of freedom of expression is one very important component of the new Raj.
It is almost axiomatic that comprehensive freedom of the people and the general prosperity of the nation are necessary correlates. It is not an accident that all countries that are free are also the most prosperous. India and the US are frequently mentioned in the same breath as great democracies. Yet, the contrast is striking and heart-rending. India is a desperately poor country while the US is the richest and the most powerful nation in the world. Americans enjoy freedoms that are entirely missing to Indians. That suggests at least, if not prove, that Indians are not really free in any meaningful sense of the word.
It is no accident that the entire modern revolution in information and communications technologies was born in the USA. Not just the underlying hardware — the internet or the computers — but all the applications that enable its use — such as the world wide web, the email system, blogging, social networks such as twitter, the whole set of tools that make people to people communications possible — all originated in the US. Social networking and communications lie at the roots of social capital, and social capital is what creates the wealth of nations. India’s material poverty is certainly an outcome of the lack of social capital, and that is not being allowed to be created by India’s repressive governments.
Once again, I cannot but contrast India and the US in this context. The Constitution of the US guarantees freedom of expression. The so-called Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, was adopted in 1791. The First Amendment states,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The United States Congress, the supreme legislative body of the federal government of the United States, is expressly prohibited by the First Amendment from putting limits on the freedom of speech or press. I have read and heard it repeated so frequently that I know it by heart. I cannot say the same thing about the first amendment to the Indian Constitution. In fact, I have not met anyone who has even read the Indian Constitution. Be that as it may, the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution empowers the government to limit freedom of speech and expression. How is that for a contrast? And just by the way, you cannot memorize it either since it is long and written in such terms that no person without years of study can even understand it. I am certainly not going to quote it here but I challenge you to understand it and memorize it. I couldn’t.
But let’s get back to what the repressive UPA government is attempting to do by throttling whatever little freedom of speech Indians have. The repressive (and I choose this word advisedly and repeat it lest we forget) UPA government does not want people to know how disastrous their misgovernance has been for India. If Indians truly get to know about it, the Sonia Gandhi Congress-led UPA will not stand a chance of winning elections ever. In their desperation, they are now intensifying their war against the people.
It must be stated, in all fairness, that the previous Indian governments have not been champions of freedom — including the freedom of speech and expression — either. What the present UPA government is doing is in line with that but they have two reasons for their urgency in repressing information. First, they have misgoverned the most and therefore they have the most to lose if the public becomes fully aware. Therefore they have a desperate need to keep real information under control. If they had done a good job, they would not be running this scared.
Second, these days it is remarkably easy to store, disseminate and access information. Mobile phones and the internet have made it possible for people to circumvent the government controlled traditional media channels and get past the government propaganda. People are not stupid, although the UPA government appears to think so.
The UPA government’s haste in repressing social media more than anything else reveals its desperation. This is actually a good sign and tells us that there is still hope for India. When the government is afraid of people, the people are most likely winning the war. Indians still have a chance at real freedom, something that has eluded them for so long. But first, we must understand what real freedom is. And that is what the government is afraid of people finding out. Social media might create social capital India needs for freedom.
Let me end with a quote from that indefatigable champion of human freedom, Prof Milton Friedman. He wrote, “Freedom is not the natural state of mankind. It is a rare and wonderful achievement. It will take an understanding of what freedom is, of where the dangers to freedom come from. It will take the courage to act on that understanding if we are not only to preserve the freedoms that we have, but to realize the full potential of a truly free society.”