Monday, 10 June 2013

On censorship, surveillance and dystopia

Cynics often take stances that are dark, pessimistic and leave little room for what sociologically could be called an ‘agency’-based approach. Censorship is one such area. Invocations of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, conspiracy theories, surveillance societies, are inevitable and unavoidable. Reality, however, to disappoint many, is far more complex and nuanced than ‘governments-out-to-get-us’. But then again, governments are getting us—artists, journalists, or activists, who express dissenting opinions, or upset the status-quo; people who question governments and regimes—both, dictatorships and democracies. The media and culture industries are stronger and more insidious than ever: not only are they manufacturing consent, they also manufacture conscience, often from a moral high-ground. Conversely, there’s also a new wave of media that destabilises these assumptions, with credible and commendable critiques. The picture, to put it in simpler words, is horribly complicated. And because we’re very used to a debate configured in binaries, his often disappoints cynics and their critics.
Last Thursday night, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on 'Censorship and Society', organised by Asia Society India and OPEN magazine. The panel, moderated by Supreme Court advocate, Madhavi Goradia Divan, consisted of brilliant speakers, like Mahesh Murthy, Neville Taraporewalla and Anjum Rajabali. Thus, their expertise ranged from media laws, new and social media, scriptwriting, and cinema. The arguments, therefore, covered a diverse range of topics, many of them discussing the nuances of the right to free speech, freedom of expression, and the right to information, and, of course, the media.
However, this post is not a report of last night’s debate; although, many of the arguments from it shall be the foci of my analyses of censorship, it shall not be limited to the same. In the following segments, I will review some of the pertinent points from last night, and proffer analyses of points which the panel missed out, or did not engage with adequately.  

In India, in the past year or more, we have seen an insidious culture of censorship and surveillance. Last year alone, several cases have highlighted this: a Jadhavpur University professor was arrested for circulating a satirical cartoon on Mamata Banerjee; Aseem Trivedi, an activist-cartoonist with India Against Corruption, was charged with sedition for “disrespecting” the national emblem and Parliament; in November, two young women from Palghar were arrested for criticising the virtual shutdown of thecity following Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s high profile funeral. At the heart of these cases was the infamous Information Technology Act (2008), and the equally infamous Section 66 A—which according to Divan, is “grossly disproportionate”. The “phenomenal diversity” of the media and the internet, she said, presents a paradox: it is both a liberating medium and an inhibiting one. According to Neville Taraporewalla, while the new hyper-media in India is “extremely volatile”, we still are “a pretty free country”. The need to adapt to these new environments, he felt, is still very important. Mahesh Murthy said that, with the IT Act and liability act, the government has potential deniability as individuals can now decide what is offensive and may issue takedown notices for the same. In most cases, the question is largely about power and political clout, rather than hurting the sentiments of people. Earlier this year, Murthy was charged with defamation along others, by IIPM head Arindam Chaudhury, for posting critical opinions against the institute. 
Anjum Rajabali, who wrote the scripts for movies like AarakshanRajneeti, and the critically acclaimed The Legend of Bhagat Singh, suggested that we be more passionate about our liberties and expression. He cited the cases where films in India have been banned, or censored often under the threat of violence made by fringe groups. In many cases, like Kamal Hasan’s Vishwaroopam, films are banned even when passed by the CBFC. He said that the film community is a fairly strong and powerful group; but producers, instead of challenging these calls for bans and censorships, immediately buckle. The government defending the peoples’ liberties, he said, is a pipe dream.

Censorship, then, covers a myriad range of issues and concerns, and it’s nearly impossible to give justice to—or even list out—all of them. From the panel’s discussion, however, it seemed clear that Murthy and, to a lesser extent, Taraporewalla, were of the notion that we don’t need censorship. Murthy’s arguments included the idea that more repression would lead to the Streisand Effect. We, according to Murthy—and this included politicians, public, fringe groups, etc.—need to “develop thicker skins”; that we “need to protect ourselves from offense”, and not expect the state to do so. Murthy, in my opinion, explained instances of censorship as aberrations: how imbalanced and immature society, and the political class is, to react to criticisms (to his credit, he also said that no society is ever mature). However, this is problematic on two accounts.
Firstly, the media is deeply political; access to media, and the access to representation itself is imbalanced, warped and contingent (this was made clear by Rajabali’s response to Murthy). So, to suggest that Muslims should not take offense at drawings of the Prophet ignores the complex geopolitical configurations in which debates on Islam are embedded and embroiled in. It is, also, a hegemonic system: Muslims may not have equal access to representation without reductionist debates defining what Islam is and how violent it is (see, as an example, the Intelligence Squared debate ‘Islam is a Religion of Peace’, especially Maajid Nawaz’s interventions). One need only look at ground breaking studies on media and culture industries, like Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Culture Industry or Noam Chomsky’s Media ControlNecessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent (co-authored by Edward Herman), for an understanding of how imbalanced, misplaced and biased media representation can be.
Secondly, with the advent of the new media, conventional media has come under intense scrutiny. As Murthy pointed out, the new media (which, he claims is us) has outmoded the conventional media; far more Indians now rely on the web for information dissemination, and access to it; express their opinions on it, and so forth. Thus, any critique of media in the 21st century has to be a discursive critique, not an objective one. With the sheer complexity of the media, this task has become difficult, if not entirely impossible. And formulating a critique of this shall be my concern in the proceeding paragraphs.

According to the Internet World Stats,as of June 30, 2012, there are around 137 million internet users in India, which is 11.4% penetration. And it is only a specific demographic group that has access to the internet, and thus, avenues for representation. Critics of the social media often point this out, but my concern here is with the quality of user generated content. Of course, with limited resources, I can hardly construct trends. But this does not change the fact that there is a lot of hatred, anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit sentiments, misogyny out there on the web.
For instance, the recent phenomenon of ‘Internet Hindus’, and steady rise in Hindutva, is a case in point, brilliantly highlighted by Ramachandra Guha in his book Patriots and Partisans. Misogyny is another worrisome trend. Two particular cases come to mind. A report on BBC Hindi revealed how journalist and CNN-IBN news anchor, Sagarika Ghose and women’s activists, Kavita Krishnan and Meena Kandaswamy were victims of sexist and misogynistic attacks online. Ghose, who was abused on Twitter by right wing nationalists, was called a “high class prostitute”; Krishnan was speaking at a online discussion when someone with the handle @RAPIST posted abusive comments, and asked where he could “rape her using a condom”. Despite the harassment, the chat was not moderated and the handle was not blocked by the site administrators. An apology was later issued to Krishnan (I urge you to read Anja Kovacs' post on what Rediff could have done to support Kavita Krishnan against rape threats).
A plea for more censorship in these cases is very problematic, and often unfeasible. For one, what would constitute censorship here: the fact that members of the public are trying to censure women? Or that we, the more liberal, secular voices, want more regulation? Both these questions only deal with the symptoms: the latter is difficult because most abusers use anonymous profiles or handles, which are notoriously difficult to track. Moreover, the fact that the police and law enforcement agencies simply do not care exacerbates things. Tragically, this leads to public intellectuals and journalists, like Ghose and Krishnan, to self-censor. It is unacceptable that any self-respecting activist or writer, irrespective of their gender and political leanings, ignore such slander and threats, or “have thick skins”, as Murthy suggested.
The deeper problem here is that there is no discipline in using the new media and the internet. While we may celebrate anonymity and anarchy on the web, every time a group like Anonymous or Op India hacks a government webpage (merely a cosmetic exercise in my view), there is no deeper or meaningful engagement with the politics of the internet. Most comments on websites like CNN IBN, or NDTV, or Hindustan Times are trolls, often lampooning the “sickular” nature of writers and journalists. If, as Murthy put it, the internet is a mirror to society, then we are, largely, a very awful society, no?

The semantics of censorship, then, can configure our debates and discussion in limited ways. Not that this was a major flaw in the panel; it would be ridiculous to assume that. But it is also equally important that we pay attention to the theme of surveillance. Hugely popular in sociological and cultural studies literature, the theme of surveillance and policing gained prominence with the influential works of Michel Foucault, mainly his book, Discipline and Punish. The radical notion proposed by Foucault was using Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ as a metaphor for the policing everyone engages in. Thus, peoples’ sexualities, their health, opinions, and other facets come to be policed by soft institutions, like the market, the health and medical industries. It is important to note that Foucault was wary of configuring panopticism and surveillance in rigid binaries; power, for him, is fluid, and exists in micro spaces and “capillaries”, and wherever there is power, there is also resistance to it. Thus, he recommends that we “cut off the head of the king”; that is, look at power configurations as more fluid and complex, rather than emanating from one particular source, like the government or oligarchies.
Following Foucault, surveillance, then, has a lot of ramifications for debates on censorship: one, there is both abject apathy and brutal repression on the part of the state in defining what dissent or offense is, which influences its response: thus, the women at Palghar were arrested promptly, but women who file complaints receive no action altogether. To put it in simple words: ‘society’ should be as much the subject of interrogation, as ‘censorship’ is.
In an earlier post, I had argued that the arrests of Aseem Trivedi and the Jadhavpur University professor, and the government’s crackdown on the protesters in India Gate after the brutal gang-rape and murder incident, are the result of (what I called) a ‘governance of paranoia’. That is, politicians’ and the political class’ fear of dissent is fuelled by the fact that political leadership in the country has become fragile, tenuous, and must reassert, to use philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s terms, “that the emperor is clothed”. In simpler words, the information society we are living in is more opaque than transparent; information is more readily accessible than its credentials. This makes slander a great political tool. Unfortunately, the real victims of slander—Ghose, Krishnan and the millions of other women—are conspicuously left out.
The debate, thus, must focus on not if we need more or less censorship and regulation, but critically examine the dynamics of the same.  That is, we must constantly be wary of censorship/surveillance of freedom of expression, and of censorship/surveillance of our access to information. It is in the latter that we are often failing.
Education and pedagogy are areas where censorship is most operational. One reason for this, perhaps, is because the link between pedagogy and propaganda is most direct: we saw this in Nazi Germany. China is experimenting on this presently; even in India, the teaching (and writing) of history often reasserts moral values rather than a critical interrogation of the same. But who is it that decides what students should study and what they should not? More importantly, on what grounds are these decisions made? This question: of censorship in education, was the one I posed to the panel. Unfortunately, their response was less than adequate.
There are three particular instances I had in mind while framing my question: one, the Yuva Sena-led protests following which the Vice Chancellor of Mumbai University deleted Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey from the English Literature curriculum; two, Mamata Banerjee’s move to delete references to Karl Marx from the state board texts, and banning English language dailies from libraries in West Bengal; third, a more general point, that is, assault against scholars for “offending sentiments” rather than the nature or credibility of their work. The examples of the GoI denying historian Peter Heehs' visa renewal, and the Sambhaji Brigade’s ransacking of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute also come to mind. Of course, I concede that I only mentioned the first example, which informed the responses of the panellists.
Nevertheless, Neville Taraporewalla’s reply, where he said we need to agitate more, and, curiously, that we have failed the Anna Hazare movement, was completely beside the point. (In my opinion, the Anna Hazare movement failed itself; as did Anjum Rajabali, if I remember correctly. Do read this post I wrote during the peak of the movement). Madhavi Divan’s response was more articulate, when she said that we need to speak up against such street censorship. However, Mamata Banerjee’s ban on Marx and the newspapers was not street censorship; it was one initiated by the political executive. So was the detoxifying of syllabi by Arjun Singh in 2004. And, if you bear with me, so is the Delhi University’s ambitious plan of the four year undergraduate programme (FYUP)—and I say so because not only does this overburden students with less-than-required courses, but because the poor quality of the same would fail to instill any sense of criticality in them (see Gautham Bhan's excellent review of the FYUP on Kafila). 

As with most discussions I’ve had the fortune of attending, this one, too was enlightening. Certainly, there were several perspectives I came across, many of which I wasn’t aware of, or never considered. At the same time, I was also fortunate enough to find an engaging forum to express and apply ideas I already had.
On a more personal note, censorship is something about which I have very strong sentiments: not because, as someone aspiring to be in the expressing-ideas vocation, I wish to ensure that the creeping political influence is kept in check. But, because by denying access to newer ideas, and spaces for debate and discussion, I believe that we’re inching closer to a kind of dystopia—or, as Francis Fukuyama would have it, a tale of “two dystopia”—where our opinions and ideas would either lead to persecution, or self-censorship, both of which are unacceptable to me. For, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not only the censorship of opinion/expression that we must be worried about, but also that of our access to informed, free, and credible opinions and ideas. 

Notes & AcknowledgementsFor the comments made by the panelists, I have, to the best of my abilities, provided quotes, and summaries of the general gist of the discussions. And I take full responsibility of any misquotes, and am more than willing to change them, if credible corrections are pointed out. My arguments, of course, are my own, and I believe I have done enough to specify the same. 
There are several ideas, some covered by the panel and some not, that I have missed out entirely; for instance, Wikileaks, the on-going trial of Bradley Manning, or the United States government’s incessant surveillance of journalists, and even the debate on copy-right infringement and intellectual property rights (like the Delhi University photocopying case). These examples clearly can, and need to, be addressed by any discussion on censorship. 
I am thankful to Nolina Minj, Malathi Jogi, Natasha Patel and Alex Thomas for their reviews of this essay. Unfortunately, due to certain logistical constraints, I haven't been able to make the all changes they recommended. I shall do my best to do so in the next blog update.


  1. Brilliant post! The only point I differ on is that I won't characterize the changes that are coming in the newer forms of media in qualitatively different terms. Internet has caused a burst of literacy and increase in access, no doubt. But early newspapers and urbanization did the same in their time. Do we find correlates between now and then? For some phenomena, yes. Slandering, definitely not new. Threatening, not new either. Yes, there's a world of difference between moderation in newspapers (which letters to the editor get selected) and moderation on social media. Anyhow, to me the slander of the foulmouthed is also a product and sub-process of the manufacture of consent. So the important thing to take care still remains the same.

    1. Of course, the problems of old media are - although compounded - relevant for new media as well. Which is where I tend to disagree to a holier-than-thou attitude towards new media, and all its emancipating claims. Yes, it's problematic to construe the manufacture of consent (or conscience) as a top-down process; which is why I find a Foucauldian concept of power being dispersed useful. But I'm also wary of being limited by it. And perhaps, that's the challenge for us: to hold seemingly diametrical ideas in our heads, and engage in sustained critiques.

    2. Btw, I did mean manfacture of consent/conscience as a top-down process. If it's in the context of a media, then it's difficult to imagine that consumers exert any direct force upon the media-owners of a kind that the media-owners could exert.

  2. Excellent write-up Proshant! I am glad to be exposed to so many of these new ideas of looking at surveillance.

    Something that particularly interests me, is this idea of 'soft institutions' that socialize populations into a certain worldview and belief that is further played out by the latter to monitor and repress dissenting voices. I see that it is the undercurrent factor in many of the examples that you have cited.

    I strongly agree with you about the idea of a lopsided access to ideas, information and representation. It is such a seering factor today that, for instance, dictates most of our citizen discourse about political leaders and the debates that go around them.

    On a similar vein, I would also like to share with you a personal instance about the persecution- self-censorship dichotomy. If you remember, we were discussing about ideas of justice, punishment and things like that on a recent Facebook update I had put up about the rape incident. A couple of days later, my Mom was quite aghast by reading the update and she strongly demanded me to stop expressing my opinions for fear of an external backlash. I asked her a simple question, "If you disagree with me, should I stop expressing my ideas and opinions?" I was not expecting this, but she responded in positive. That's what soft institutions do to you.