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South by North-east

columns Updated: Aug 25, 2012 23:16 IST
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If I ever had doubts about the power and reach of modern communication technology the flight of tens of thousands of residents of the North-east from the cities of south India has, effectively if not definitively, laid them to rest. Swiftly, silently and perhaps surreptitiously it’s created a social upheaval akin to a revolution.

I’ve met no one who doubts that SMSs and MMSs have played a dominant role in spreading rumour and inciting panic. In just 140 letters, an SMS can provoke or frighten as effectively as an incendiary speech. And it’s a lot easier to pass on. It literally multiplies itself.

Of course, when it comes to hate speech and morphed images on websites or social media networks there are those who question the connection between this and the exodus and, perhaps, they have a case. I simply don’t know enough. But assuming a sufficient number of people log-in, I can’t see why the impact would be different to that of SMSs and MMSs, though no doubt slower to develop and, of course, initially restricted to those with access to computers and web connections.

What this means is that in the wrong hands — and who knows whose those could be, or where, or how many or how few — the mobile phone or a social network website can become a devastating weapon that can literally shift populations, embitter and enrage communities and ferment trouble on a mass scale.

My second point is that India is a very vulnerable country. Although there were just a handful of minor incidents in Bangalore and a single sizeable attack in Pune, why did so many feel so threatened by so little? The answer, perhaps, is ‘racism’.

Our fellow citizens from the North-east are neither understood nor received with affection by many of the rest of us. We criticise their morals, mock their cuisine and, to their face, call them “chinkies”. We rarely make them welcome and often cause them to feel unsafe. That’s why, when panic overtook them, they left in droves. It was, from their standpoint, a more rational response than to trust their ‘racist’ compatriots.

My third and, I believe, equally telling point is about the Indian world of netizens and mobile phone users. It may seem contradictory but, like many contradictions, it’s also true. We’re both unscrupulous and immoral about what we put up whilst naïve and gullible about what we believe. We’re simultaneously monsters and dumbkofs!

Now all of this raises a critical question about freedom of speech. Where people are sceptical and rational they can sift between downright lies, distorted truths and reality. They can handle ‘unrestricted’ freedom. But where people accept the unlikely, the improbable and, even, the impossible as true, we need to be very careful about what we say. Monsters can be silenced or ignored but the gullible need to be protected more consciously.

We’re different to America or Britain and far more vulnerable. Even fragile. Our growth may outstrip theirs but our cohesion is weaker and more easily prised apart. Google, Facebook and Twitter need to remember that. The noble principles that apply in London, New York and Paris need a little tweaking in Pune, Chennai and Bangalore.

Just as it’s not acceptable to shout fire in a crowded cinema hall for the fun of it, it cannot be permitted to deliberately frighten helpless innocent people who, for whatever reason, believe you and panic. That’s the point at which liberty becomes licence.

Views expressed by the author are personal