[Cleopatra, the Queen to the messenger: What say you? Strikes him.
I’ll spurn thine eyes, like balls before me!
I’ll unhair thy head!
Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,
Messenger: Gracious madam, I only bring news]
— Anthony and Cleopatra, Act 2 Scene 5 [set in 40-30 BC; written in 1606]
Cleopatra’s attitude towards messengers translates in the present times into a suspicion of journalists, protesters and fact-checkers. The state makes allegations of conspiracies to destabilise it by broadcasting “bad news”, or create disharmony by reporting news of hate crimes, and then puts many of the messengers in jail . Like Cleopatra, it seems to believe that reporting about violence, or threats of violence excites passions and causes discomfort. When it is reported to international audiences, it causes embarrassment. When the incarcerated reporters plead their bail applications, the state insists that they must not be allowed to come out, and if at all they do, they must be barred from writing, or tweeting, or speaking.
The Supreme Court recently protected one such hapless messenger, endorsing his right to continue tweeting, even as he is released on bail in multiples cases that blame his reportage for causing disharmony. It is this attempt to reconstitute writing about violence as an offence of disruption and destabilisation that is especially curious.
In that case, the state reportedly argued thus: “See the Sitapur case. There was a speech by Bajrang Muni where he has a lot of followers. On April 2, he makes objectionable speeches. Nobody comes forward for complaint. On April 7th, the accused here makes it viral. He does not tag Sitapur police. He makes it viral. Speech was about raping women of particular community. Within few areas, there was major communal tension in Sitapur area.”
If we were to not treat this argument as nonsensical and made only for the purpose of registering the state’s presence in court, it acquires an odd quality. The state is arguing that the systemic hate speech, often violence, and delivered to large crowds in public spaces is not a dangerous and destabilising thing in itself, until the time that it is reported to a larger community, whose passions are inflamed upon hearing of such incidents. It is akin to a group of friends being really upset with one amongst them, and boycotting her because every time they gossip about somebody, she snitches. She goes and tells them what was said about them, causing great frictions. But this is an inaccurate analogy. For one, hate speech is mostly delivered publicly, often in the presence of those it is targeting. It is propagated on social media platforms, and often enough on TV. Even when it is delivered in enclaves, it is systemic and has a cumulative effect on peoples’ perceptions. Years of cultural and political propaganda have painted Muslims as predators of land, livelihood and women, disloyal to the nation and changed the way people interact with them. It has triggered both structural violence (in calls for social boycotts, which translate into ghettoisation, in their sharp decline in representation in Parliament and government,) and direct violence. We have being subjected to gigabytes of unverified information about Muslims on WhatsApp.
In this context, the primary incident of hate speech, threats of sexual violence or an actual hate crime is the offence. Its broadcast is a natural way to protest the incident, if the state won’t immediately respond to such offences. Reportage is not violence. Bona fide broadcasting of “bad things”, unless one is directly invoking retaliatory violence, is not problematic. If the state, and the courts do not respond, then naturally in a democracy, counter-publics — those who feel excluded from wider public discourse and therefore set themselves up in political opposition — would want to mobilise public opinion to pressure the state into action.
Why is the state so scared of counter-publics? There is the overwhelming shadow of Partition upon everyone’s sub-consciousness — to the exclusion of many other examples of Muslim mobilisation, both “progressive” and “conservative”, which might be considered nationalist and democratic — that tends to put everyone on guard. However, non-violent counter-publics mostly expand democratic politics, not obstruct them. If the state wants to prevent such political formations, then, rather than criminalising political mobilisation of some groups, it should quickly intervene so that large parts of the population don’t feel excluded from society. There is also a new anxiety about “global conspiracies” to broadcast “Indian bad news” to global audiences. It displays an ignorance of how news and ideas travel in a wired world. How “word associations” are formed across continents.
In my experience, informed global audiences do not necessarily rely on tweets to form opinions. Sometimes they rely on primary material like court transcripts: From what is actually argued in court; from parliamentary debates and speeches, and from judgments: Like how we in India formed an opinion about Roe v. Wade from what the judgment itself conveyed, not from viral tweets about it. I happened to be with a professor of law in the US, when he paused on the word “syndicate” while reading an oral transcript of a court hearing as reported in ‘Bar and Bench’. The state was referring to those who consistently report “bad news” as part of a “syndicate” and guilty of conspiracies. “Hmm…” he said. “Syndicate? We first used the word in the late 19th-early 20th century to refer to Italian-American mafiosi who indulged in organised crimes of gambling, extortion and such. I wonder what the counsel means in this particular context?” I shrugged my shoulders. “McCarthyism, I believe”, he concluded.
The writer is a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court