Citizens worlwide have been resisiting the threat of internet censorship that governments seek to impose — and justifiably so. But while we have seen democratic revolutions such as the Arab Spring emerge from the power of the net, it is increasingly becoming clear to even the most ardent defender of internet freedom that the hatred out there simply cannot be ignored.
On the internet, anyone can say anything and largely get away with it, making it a near-perfect means for fanatics. India, in particular, with its religious diversity and history of communal tension, constantly struggles with this issue. Earlier this week, the phrase ‘Internet Hindus’ was trending on popular social media website, Twitter, brought to the fore by a discussion about online religious fundamentalism on Al Jazeera, a news network based in Qatar. The panelists sought to put in context the largely vocal community of internet users who support right-wing Hindu ideology. These ‘Internet Hindus’ have become synonymous with an “abusive, vocal, uncouth group of people who subscribe to Hindu nationalism,” said one panellist. The tribe of ‘Twitter jihadis’ is now responding with equal fervour with mostly anonymous fundamentalists who are vocal with their message.
“The problem,” says Pranesh Prakash, programme manager at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), “is that internet conversations become extreme. Liberals don’t get embroiled in heated arguments while fundamentalists, dedicated to extreme ideologies, tend to win out.” Web censorship, he adds, is in vain as the net is too vast to control.
Online fanaticism is not limited to Hindus. For long, extremist Islamic groups have taken their jihad on to the world wide web. Of late, jihadist groups have mushroomed on social media to expand their base of support. The trend was observed by BBC Islamic Groups Analyst, Murad Batal al-Shishani, on Twitter. Even the recent arrest of Lashkar-e-Toiba’s handler of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, Syed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, was possible after he was tracked on Facebook trying to recruit young Muslims for ‘the cause’. The Afghanistani Taliban, in fact, has its own news website with a running Twitter feed. The site offers the ‘voice of jihad’ with events propagandised from the Taliban perspective – American and Afghan soldiers are referred to as puppets, minions, cowards and even terrorists.
Islamic groups, however, are not a major cause of concern for India, according to Prasanto K Roy, a tech analyst and social media commentator. “Jihadist groups are a relatively small minority in India. But right wing Hindu groups have majority support.”
The greatest issue, says CIS’s Prakash, is that these fundamentalists are increasingly well-organised and make great efforts to build a stronger extremist position. They are encouraged, he says, by the likes of Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, who believes that minorities in India should only be given political rights after they acknowledge their Hindu ancestry; Francois Gautier, a French-Indian writer and journalist who supports the cause of Hindutva; and Zakir Naik, a Mumbai-born Islamic televangelist whose controversial opinions often attracts criticism. Prakash also says that on the net, “Many people are not only manufacturing opinion but also manufacturing facts as the basis of that opinion. These falsities are fuelling Right-wing anger.”
Governments are hard pressed to effectively censor and discourage otherwise reprehensible dialogue. The UPA attempted to tackle what they see as ‘objectionable content’. In December 2011, based on a petition, the government prosecuted internet giants like Yahoo, Google, Twitter and Facebook for hosting offensive material.
Legally, various sections of the Indian penal code, notably 153A – promoting enmity between communities – can be applied in cases of hate speech. But online speech falls short of being prosecutable, says sociologist Dipankar Gupta. “Something can only be (considered) hate speech if it directly incites people or results in violence, like statements made by Varun Gandhi in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Online fundamentalist speech does not cross the boundaries of the law. And we cannot prosecute someone for their opinion.”
When a Twitter post asked the question whether certain people could be violating section 153A, the response was far from reasonable, or even civil. One person wrote, “We p*ss on you and your secular section.” Another urged others to report the user to Twitter as spam and have him blocked. And of course all this comes with the barrage of by now infamous Twitter terms like ‘sickular’, ‘pseudo secular’ or ‘Congress Dirty Tricks Department’. They have thousands of followers, even their own websites and are extremely organised.
“The larger question is whether we should tackle this legally or develop other methods,” says Siddharth Narayan, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum. “Hate-speech laws have been misused in the past. We don’t need a clampdown on internet freedom. We just need a more nuanced application of existing legislation,” he says.
When looking at net-speak, it is tough to distinguish between generic statements of hate and a genuine call to violence. The internet has no intermediaries; no editors to censure your posts. Then perhaps it bodes ill for India’s secular democracy, and for secularism in the world at large, that uncurbed dialogue, which seeks to crystallise hate between communities, is spreading like an epidemic. CIS’s Prakash says the government cannot cope with this. “But we as society should be strong enough to respond, even if we disagree.”