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India: the dangers of an assault on free speech


Kashmiri Muslims listens as Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Mohammad Yaseen Malik addresses a rally. Some Indians have sought to bar certain speeches related to the Kashmir separatists' quest for independence as treasonous.

A day after Google announced a 49 percent increase in censorship requests from India, an Indian member of parliament spoke out against the country's moves to police the web in an interview with the Wall Street Journal's "India Real Time" blog.

As mentioned in GlobalPost's report on the so-called "Internet Hindus" earlier this week, in April last year India framed new rules for implementing the 2000 Information Technology Act, which required companies like Google and Facebook to remove any content which could be deemed offensive or objectionable within 36 hours of receiving a complaint.


"The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) rules that are being proposed, represent a serious risk to our democracy and they could be seen as legal intimidation of citizens and entrepreneurs by the government, established political and business interests and religious and cultural bigots," Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an independent member of parliament, told the Journal. "They also violate the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression of the Internet users in the country, by providing for a system of censorship or self-censorship by private parties."

According to Chandrasekhar, the risk is that either the government or internet companies will be too zealous in censoring political speech, just because a particular group doesn't like it, rather than because it meets any legal definition of defamation or hate speech. When, for instance, should the government step in to censor so-called "blasphem?"

"India has a due process of law," Chandrasekhar says. "With a legislation like the Information Technology Act that explicitly provides for actions for defamation and obscenity, the courts or tribunals should decide who is right or wrong and not a bureaucrat or politician. Most of the categories specified under the rules are ambiguous and undefined. For example, ‘grossly harmful’ is not defined."

Unfortunately, despite a robust legal system, India's political structure has never really separated church and state. Instead, the idea of secularism developed by Jawarlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, endeavors to protect and propogate India's various religions, going as far as to enshrine different laws for people born into different faiths.

And that will make dealing with a sticky subject like blasphemy very politically incorrect -- whether the gods in question are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh.