Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Question of Morals?

There has been a lot of stink raised over the past month on what is seen as a concerted attempt by the government to impinge upon the constitutional freedoms accorded to every citizen and resident of this country. The two prominent incidents that have gained a lot of traction, especially in the media are ‘Internet censorship’ and the ‘Mumbai Police Social Service branch’ headed by the rather infamous Vasant Dhoble. While both have seen the spurt of spontaneous protests, more pronounced in the virtual world, Dhoble’s actions seem to have fomented the more vitriolic of reactions. And while the amount of claptrap circulating on various media forums is certainly amusing, I’m going to attempt to pare off at the media smokescreen and make a case on some basic facts. Though I must swiftly introduce a clarification: The idea of this piece is not to pick sides nor attempt a black-or-white classification. Like every aspect of human life, this area too retains shades of gray.
Anti-Dhoble Hype?
Vasant Dhoble, assistant
commissioner of Mumbai police, head of the Mumbai Police Social Service branch, is a hockey stick wielding cop who claims to be waging a war with the nefarious elements of society. His detractors, though, choose to paint him as a megalomaniac who seems to be hell bent, enforcing his parochial moral compass on jolly members of the society. While the lacunae are Dhoble’s mode of functioning has certainly been highlighted, the positive offshoots of his drive have been unceremoniously ignored.
For instance, a team of the Social Service branch, led by Dhoble, on the June 25th, 2012, raided a massage parlour ‘Shy Lee’ in Powai and rescued seven girls who had been allegedly forced into the flesh trade. People who live in Mumbai are aware of the underground sex trade and child labour industry that flourishes under the nose of the authorities. In such light, Dhoble’s actions functioning under whatever motive certainly deserve appreciation.
Another instance bandied around while tearing into Dhoble, is an incident involving a popular suburban roadside eatery, Amar Juice Centre, near Cooper Hospital in Juhu. Living and studying in the vicinity of this social menace, I’ll recount a firsthand account of the brash and disgraceful functioning of this establishment.
An illegal installation, it’s the talk of the town for breaking laws with impunity and subsequently the blatant bribing of officials. Encroaching upon the footpath, setting up tables and chairs on the roadside, functioning late into the night with nonexistent hygiene standards, local bodies describe it as nothing but an absolute nuisance. Serpentine queues of cars align themselves along this very street, as waiters prance around the streets serving patrons in their cars, unmindful of the major traffic snarls it causes and the sound pollution that occurs right outside one of the city’s integral civic hospitals.
So it comes as no surprise then, when local residents and social activity groups from around the city have expressed their unequivocal support for the Social Service Department’s latest drive.
Dhoble’s credentials and previous service record hardly inspires confidence, but his drive to check such anti-social elements should be appreciated.
Licensing laws are in place based on sound reason and breaking them is unacceptable and contrary to the tenets of the law. The results of unlicensed activity on our streets can find the form of underage drinkers acting unsociably close to where we live and degenerate elements mushrooming across the city, fuelling alcoholism and drug addiction, two of the major concerns for modern India. So when a posh pub is hauled up for certain violations, it’s part of the larger design. Stipulations are put in to avoid overcrowding to ensure the greater safety of the patrons as they party into the night. In case of a fire or any other accident, such limitations aid in ensuring rescue operations as well as help in minimising the damage. Too often, the local disco is crammed with people, leaving hardly any space to swing around freely.
As far as the implementation of archaic laws go, some dating back to nearly a century, it’s for the legislators to take notice of the constantly evolving social parameters and respond with adequate supervision. Ambiguities of the law need to be clarified to ensure the executive branch that the police do not function like unchecked mafias.

Internet Clampdown
On a very distinct note from the above actions, no reasonable justifications can be offered for the actions of the Department of Telecom led by the virtual world’s favourite clown, Kapil Sibal and the band of ISPs (Internet Service Providers).
What began with the bulging number of yearly requests to Google ( transparencyreport/removals/ government/IN/) to pull down content from its various sites and search results, has now degraded to the blocking of file and video sharing websites.
It is pertinent to note that India holds the ‘numero uno’ spot when it comes to government-made content removal requests to Google. The rather unsettling part of this statistic is that out of the 101 requests made, only six were backed by court orders. The rest were made at the behest of the police and government. This seems to be an extension of the government’s plans to put in place a regulation under the pretext of checking blasphemous content, a move that is widely perceived as an attempt to curtail our freedom of speech and muffle the voices of discontent that have found a safe haven on the Internet.
Luckily for us, Google and Twitter have shown some fight and refused to cave in to the irrational demands made.
But what irks me the most is the Madras High Court ‘John Doe’ order, which was misinterpreted by the ISPs to pull down legitimate file sharing websites like Vimeo and certain torrent websites, which had been offering their co-operation in tackling piracy.
While piracy is certainly a legitimate and apodictic problem, it needs to be dealt with regard and respect for the legal file sharing operations that the website facilitates, ensuring that the interests of the other users are taken into account. Such arbitrary blocking is counterproductive; it contrives against the basic principles of the Internet and calls into question the authorities intentions.
India’s Internet freedom has now been called into question and unless we citizens wake up to check this insidious activity, we’ll be regressing to darker times. It’s depressing to see how many of us have become blasé to the idea of Internet censorship. Recently, an anonymously organized protest was held in Mumbai, where a measly crowd of twenty attended the event. The government’s surreptitious actions, coupled with the amendments to the IT Act 2000, have been looked upon with deep suspicion by the virtual community. The need of the hour is to educate the common public about these fairly oppressive notifications. The scrutiny and the eagle-eyed surveillance of the public at large is the only leash that can keep the government in check.

This is a column I wrote for the August edition of Youth Incorporated Magazine.I'm reproducing it here.The original can be read at this address.

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