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The Absurd Tyranny of iSibal: Vrinda Gopinath

December 11, 2011

Guest post by VRINDA GOPINATH

by Hemant Morparia

Well, Information and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal’s prickly suggestion to pre-screen content on social networks like Google, Facebook and Twitter, has invited such derision from the internet world that it has given him a tag to his name – Idiot Sibal. For iSibal, it’s not his status on Facebook that should bother him, but the ruinous unmasking of the minister in status-anxiety New Delhi. Sibal, after all, prides himself in belonging to the elite movers and shakers of the Capital – educated, connected, and gold card holder of the Stephen’s Old Boys Network. For the status seekers, this is a world of privilege and entitlement, cosmopolitanism and tolerance.

Now you would wonder what came over the blue-stockinged Technology Minister to make such an ill-thought out statement. Sibal’s liberal snobbery is not always what it seems to be, for there is a lurking autocratic and despotic streak, even archaic at times, that has surfaced time and again. And it is this aspect that has largely been ignored in the bedlam over his latest decree to social network companies.

Consider this: in September 2007, as Science and Technology minister in UPA 1, Sibal was the most vociferous critic of a proposed amendment to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, which would have made the client of a sex worker also a criminal. At the Cabinet meeting, Sibal banged on about legalisation of prostitution, which would license and regulate prostitution, while ignoring that in the absence of such legalisation, the amendment would at least ensure the law is fair, by targeting both the sex worker and client.

Then again, in August 2009, as HRD Minister, Sibal had challenged activists up in arms for denying them inclusive education. In his much-acclaimed Right to Education Bill, Sibal struck off children with severe disability saying provisions must be made for them in special schools. Nor did he include autistic and cerebral palsy kids, and it was only after sustained protests all over the country that he finally conceded to their demand.

Of course, his contempt for the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement of April and August 2011, was barely concealed, when he persistently poured scorn on Team Anna’s proposed anti-corruption law and even mooted the idea of Anna’s arrest. As the government’s points-person for negotiations with Team Anna, Sibal barely showed any tack and reserve, so much so he was pulled out after failing to make any headway with Anna’s team.

Sibal’s faux modernism and scientific temper seems to be a sham too. It is with socialist gusto that Sibal decrees his edicts to the People. It is now evident that Sibal first summoned Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo! to his office three months ago to convey his deep displeasure at the Facebook pages about his venerable party President, Sonia Gandhi. Like some autocratic party apparatchik, Sibal shook with rage saying, “This is totally unacceptable,’’ and demanded the network bosses pull out the offensive pages and pre-screen content before it was uploaded on their sites. It was only later, to cover up his fawning, that Sibal brought in the ban on abuse of religious imagery on the net.

And like some Orwellian nightmare, Sibal has decided he will herd the misguided masses with forceful government coercion, to what can be read, said, hated and loved on social media. What he fails to see is the practical failure of such policies, which is so routine as to be hardly worth mentioning. The much larger point to be made is that a ban punishes citizens for the failure of government to enforce the laws that already exist. Suddenly, the globalizing mantra of cheerleading liberalisers like Sibal, seems to have flown out of the window and some weird puritanism and control-seeking has crept in.

There is a lurking feeling that Sibal is being tempted to rein in the “clicktivists” (read Anna & Co., et al) at some later stage, after the successful British operation to crack down on Facebook rioters of August 2010? Two men from Cheshire, Jordan Blackshaw, 21, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were jailed for four years each for using Facebook to incite disorder during riots in England, though there was no real evidence to show people rioted based on their posts/messages.

Even more inspiration for Sibal must come from the British Home Office, which had promptly summoned representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry, in the wake of the English city riots, to hold “constructive” talks, aimed at preventing violence being plotted online! Prime Minister David Cameron had also declared the police may need extra powers to curb their use. Ah, Mr Sibal, he seems to be warming up to the idea of colonising the social network world, just like the imperialists once did to us.

(Vrinda Gopinath is a journalist and political commentator based in Delhi.)

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More on internet censorship in India from Kafila archives:

More on Kapil Sibal from Kafila archives:

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2011 10:03 AM

    i agree. this is a condemnatory act Bala

  2. Sajan permalink
    December 11, 2011 12:12 PM

    This is such an unfair attack on Mr. Sibal.

    Kapil Sibal is no ‘faux modernist’ feigning scientific temper. His temper is perfectly scientific. And perfectly equable. The idea of the urbane Sibal shaking, presumably with autocratic and/or despotic rage, boggles the mind.

    It is entirely possible that internet content cannot be regulated, though I wouldn’t bet on it. It is daft to suggest that it shouldn’t be regulated at all. Pray, why not? When I last checked, there were no special dispensations for the media or the internet under Article 19(2). Reasonable restrictions on free speech apply to individuals and, by extension, to whatever media they choose to express it on. Section 499 of the IPC is pretty clear on the subject of defamation, and while there are plenty of arguments in favour of reading it down, or at least de-criminalizing defamation, I haven’t come across any compelling arguments for legalizing libel, even if it is on the Holy Land of the Net.

    It isn’t clear what Vrinda means when she says “Sibal has decided he will herd the misguided masses with forceful government coercion, to what can be read, said, hated and loved on social media.” If she means censorship (or what some call ‘pre-censorship’) is a bad idea, so it is. If she’s suggesting that the masses, misguided or not, have an absolute right to whatever is read, said or hated on the social media, she could be wrong.

    Mr. Sibal’s fault lies not in trying to regulate the net, but in trying to pre-censor the net. As he knows perfectly well, while freedom of speech may be a given, freedom after speech is a chancy business.

    Why did Mr. Sibal take this rash step? My guess is that he’s come under such pressure from his parliamentary colleagues to censor the net that he simply had to demonstrate the extent of their folly. During the Emergency, the mandarins of the I&B ministry tried to contribute their two bits to the cause of population control by insisting that every song request on All India Radio should be accompanied by a sterilization certificate. The idea was so breathtakingly insane that, rather than argue with the ministry, the AIR Directorate caved in gracefully. It didn’t take very long to prove to a rather miffed minister that, for some inexplicable reason, radio listeners would rather not mess with their gonads for the love of Asha Bhosle.

    The I&B Ministry itself, since 1997, has frequently come out with Broadcast Bills and draft Content Codes under pressure, if only to prove to assorted MPs and ministers that it is Not A Good Idea and that it could Alienate the Media and Cost Them Votes. The public outcry over such regulatory moves, including the recent eruption of Mt. Katju, has made a compelling case for not messing with the media. I’m sure the present kerfuffle over internet censorship will give Mr. Sibal some much needed breathing space, so that he can work on a sensible and workable regulatory policy for internet content. Which, to be honest, as anyone who has typed “S____ G____ is a” into Google Search will attest, seems not entirely undesirable.

  3. small blue dot permalink
    December 12, 2011 1:20 AM

    excellent commentary though it needs to be added that what will be and are actually already being shut down are the civil liberties sites (tagged as “Maoists”), the profreedom Kashmiri sites (tagged as “terrorist”) – sheer cunning, to proclaim concern about Islamophobia and then hit hard at anyone dissenting from Brand India in all its historical manifestations – but then nobody does sheer cunning better than the Indian elite, they learn it from the cradle – sit back and enjoy the show….

  4. abhishek permalink
    December 12, 2011 11:48 AM

    often these snobs use the same line “one should not over use their freedom”whats the “line”,according to these snobs the line is society’s norms,screw society.if a person doesn’t break the law of the land then he can do whatever the hell he wants to do.Freedom means you can do whatever you want to do and the only limiting power is the constitution,the constitution grantees you a freedom of speech and you can say whatever you want unless you incite violence,if some one says hinduism sucks or islam sucks he has the right to say that(as he is not inciting violence,if he was he would say something like muslims or hindus need to leave this country etc)
    we might hate what they say but we don’t have the right to take away their right,so if you have a problem with cuss words,or “sleasy”movies dont watch em and mind your own business

    • December 12, 2011 4:48 PM

      if a person doesn’t break the law of the land then he can do whatever the hell he wants to do

      The problem is when the laws themselves are so vaguely framed as to allow for wide interpretation, and can be used to cover anything.
      Our so called free speech laws come with a clause that they can be restricted if they offend ‘public morality’ or ‘can incite violence’ (I’m paraphrasing of course).
      Sibal is only exploiting this weak law to put forth his ban. Unless we have a US style First Amendment clause in the constitution (Parliament shall not make any laws restricting the freedom of speech of the citizens on any grounds whatsover), morons like Sibal will continue to do things like this.

      Our archaic laws have to be amended. Simply protesting Sibal is no use, tomorrow anyone else can do the same thing.

  5. December 12, 2011 4:49 PM

    Furthermore – one should also remember that these laws were framed by the British – to keep their empire stable and prevent the subjects from getting out of hand. Such laws have no place in our society if, as we often trumpet, that we are a free democracy.

  6. December 19, 2011 5:28 PM

    The problem with the guy you described as iSibal is that in his case, the ‘i’ is in uppercase.
    This ‘I’ in uppercase has created problems for the government in Baba Ramdev case, Anna case, 2G case, IIM case.
    In each of these cases, he has been shown his true worth.

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