These are bleak times. The economy is in bad shape. Parliament has become an arena for noise instead of lawmaking. National power grids collapse with frightening speed. Crusaders against corruption become politicians overnight. And Supreme Court judges and auditors usurp the right to govern India. As a political commentator,I have found few cheerful subjects to write about. That is until the government announced its plans to censor the Internet.
Why should this announcement have cheered me up? Quite simply because it reminded me that however bad India looks at the moment,it is nowhere near as bad as it used to be in those socialist times when I began my career as a journalist. I joined The Statesman newspaper two months before Mrs Gandhi declared the Emergency and imposed press censorship. The Statesman,like this newspaper,chose to defy her diktat and was forced to submit to pre-censorship. On some days,the newspaper was returned so late at night that it became pointless to print the next day.
As a humble reporter,it was not my job to report on the momentous political changes of the day so I was secretly thrilled to become a victim of censorship personally. A series I did on Delhi hospitals was considered too dangerous to be published. This occasioned my first visit to the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in Shastri Bhawan that in those Emergency times was the nerve centre of Mrs Gandhis exercise in totalitarian rule. The officials who manned the PIB had a full sense of their power and did not take long to convert the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting into Orwells Ministry of Truth. It is important to remind you here that Indira Gandhi herself realised what a big mistake censorship was and admitted it was one of the reasons why she lost the 1977 election.
It should have been one of the first tasks of the Janata government to learn from this mistake and abolish the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting altogether. Why this did not happen is a question that needs to be put to Shri Lal Krishan Advani who was in charge of this ministry at the time. It was the one chance for change and it was lost. So censorship of the electronic media continued till it became impossible because of satellites and the arrival of Rupert Murdochs Star channels in the early nineties. Then came the Internet,making censorship even more difficult,which is why the governments current efforts are no more than a waste of time and taxpayers money.
After I read the list of hate spewing websites the government had decided to ban,I spent a morning browsing YouTube. They were easily available. So I saw Maulana Masood Azhar vomiting venom against India,Qadiani Muslims and television. I heard him gloat over the hijacking of IC 814. He was one of the evil men India exchanged for the passengers on that ill-fated flight. I saw Hafiz Saeed making hateful speeches and I saw Praveen Togadia and other leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad expound upon their own hate-filled worldview. In their eagerness to implement this new exercise in censorship,officials ended up banning sites like Jihadwatch.org. This is a website that keeps a watch on jihadi activities. It is not used to spread jihadi terror.
Will our political leaders never learn? Will they never discover that India is not China and that despite their best efforts it never became the Soviet Union? Or could it be that I have got it all wrong and that it was after Vladimir Putin started putting punk bands in prison that a new breeze of inspiration blew through the fetid corridors of Shastri Bhawan,bringing with it memories of glory days?
On a more serious note,may I suggest that the Opposition parties stop blocking Parliament and use it instead to demand the abolition once and for all of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. It should never have had a place in a democratic country and certainly should not have one now. Since it presides over the Government of Indias ludicrous and embarrassing propaganda advertisements in the press,the case for abolition becomes more compelling. While we are about it can we demand an end to that silly department that censors foreign magazines carrying incorrect maps of India? It is yet another exercise in wasted taxpayers money since the magazines can all be read online and usually are.
As for those journalists who have gone out of their way to support Internet censorship,for reasons I cannot fathom,my advice to them is that they give up journalism for more profitable careers in government. At least that way they will not be betraying their dharma and even if the I&B Ministry bites the dust,there will always be propaganda work available.
Follow Tavleen on Twitter @ tavleen_singh