The Freedom of Speech or the Fallacy of Sensibility?
“It’s the fear of being killed!”
Without context, do you want to guess who said this?
Not a character in some gangster movie nor someone driving in an unsafe city after dark.
It is Shantanu Anam, a 30-year-old actor-writer-director who works primarily in the digital arena and mostly in the genre of comedy.
And his murder-phobia is not related to the heady world of crime or action at all. It is, in fact, the fear of being killed for making a joke.
Anam’s fear may seem strange, but it is rooted in what he has seen his fellow artists go through in the recent past. In July, for example, stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua received rape threats and abuses for making a joke about the Maharashtra government’s Shivaji statue project in a video posted a year earlier. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon, or perhaps drove it, and assured those who had been offended that “legal action” would be taken against her.
Her case is not the only one. Of late, social media has become a breeding ground for rage-fuelled “boycotts” of artists whose work is found to be “offensive” by some sections of the audience. This anger begins to present a more real and tangible threat to the content creator when it shifts from online to offline spaces. It then raises questions on the limits of citizens’ freedom of expression and who decides where to draw the line.
To take a more contemporary example, in October, the jewellery brand Tanishq released a short advertisement film as part of its “Ekatvam” (“unity” in English) campaign. The video showed a Muslim mother-in-law hosting a baby shower ceremony for her pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law. Very quickly, it went viral on the internet and #BoycottTanishq began to trend on social media. People accused the brand of promoting “love jihad,” a term used by right-wing Hindu groups to allege that Muslim men use marriage to convert Hindu women.
According to media reports, one Tanishq showroom in western Gujarat state received threatening calls and a visit from a group of people who demanded an apology note be written and put up at the gate. Finally, the brand decided to take the film down “keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff.”
One month later, it was Netflix’s miniseries, “A Suitable Boy,” at the receiving end of this anger for a scene in which a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy are seen kissing in a temple. Narottam Mishra and Gaurav Goel, leaders from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also expressed their displeasure and requested that legal action be taken against the producer, director and those involved. The Madhya Pradesh state police, accordingly, registered a formal complaint against two Netflix India executives.
These major incidents represent a more general atmosphere of polarisation on the internet that seeks to shut down any voice, art or opinion that is different from the one held by the loudest majority, including those who wield political power.
Journalist Swati Chaturvedi, in her 2016 book titled “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army,” suggests that these online hate campaigns are organised and orchestrated by the governing party’s Information Technology (IT) Cell. Supported by the statements of a former BJP supporter who claims to have worked as a volunteer in the IT Cell, the book alleges that there is a network of volunteers who are instructed to “troll” and target detractors of the government, including journalists and actors.
Around the same time, in November, the central government brought over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hotstar under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Until then, facing close to zero government regulation, this move prompted a fear of censorship of digital content among critics.
My repeated calls to officials from the ministry yielded no answers, leaving me none the wiser about what this is really going to mean for the freedom of expression on the internet.
With this as context, it appears the internet’s great democratising power may be at stake.
Through the Eyes of Young Artists
Anam told me that through his art, he aims to tell stories that offer a fresh perspective and subvert little things in regular day-to-day lives. But he often finds himself having to alter the kind of content he wants to make because of the fear of social media backlash.
At one level, the big platforms and brands quash ideas at the brainstorming stage itself because they are afraid of upsetting those in power and being “cancelled” or “boycotted” online. It is not in their corporate interest to lose a large chunk of the market. Since these are the only two outlets digital creators have in order to make a living, their creativity is severely filtered, especially when dealing with themes that are “progressive” or “liberal” and when discussing the government or public figures, he said.
At another level, it is an internal fear that makes Anam compromise on the kind of stories he wants to tell. “We have to play it safe; we all have families. I’m afraid of how my parents or I will be perceived and the kind of impact it will have on our personal lives.”
He is particularly afraid of acting if the script mocks major epics of ancient India, critiques the government or talks about Hindu-Muslim relations. “A lot of shows and movies that exist today and push uncomfortable conversations may not get made a few years from now. The range of stories that we’re allowed to tell is only going to get narrower, I think.”
But Nikitha Loraine, a 22-year-old copywriter at Dentsu Webchutney for YouTube India, with her own personal YouTube channel called “Pobody’s Nerfect” and a lot of idealism, does not want to label any topic as off-limits for her channel. Although she recognises that “the internet can be a scary place,” she is determined to continue to experiment with any and every topic she feels passionate about.
She has made several observational comedy videos, but one that really caught people’s attention was a short Instagram reel that sought to expose misogyny and put out a feminist message. She was soon bombarded with several sexist comments, such as “Go back to the kitchen,” from unknown men. While it did affect her and make her wonder if she should have ever tried to make her point in the first place, she soon decided that her purpose would be defeated if she did not tackle the issue. And so, she responded to each and every negative comment on her video with humour.
Loraine has closely observed other young creators, especially those “who try to cross the boundaries drawn by society,” face bullying of an extreme degree on online platforms. “It scares me – the fact that people have the freedom to comment whatever they want on our content and that they can often misuse it. But that’s not going to stop me from making videos.”
And that brings me back to my original question. What legitimate limits, according to the law, are placed on an individual’s fundamental right to the freedom of expression? And what can be classified as illegitimate limits imposed by the mob? How do the laws play out in online spaces?
Limitations on Free Speech
According to Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression but with reasonable restrictions that can be imposed by the government through laws. These restrictions are in the interests of the sovereignty, integrity and security of India, public order, friendly relations with other countries, and decency, as well as in cases of contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence.
Advocate Puneet Bhasin, an expert in technology, online entertainment and cyber laws, elaborated on this. “It is a breach of the right to freedom of expression when what is being said violates the fundamental rights of another individual. But there has to be actual violation of rights of this other individual, it can’t just be a perception of having been violated,” she said.
When I asked her about the “A Suitable Boy” case, she said that she had not seen the whole show but the controversial scene is not prima facie a violation of anyone’s fundamental rights.
“It’s being blown out of proportion because those people feel their sensibilities have been hurt,” she responded. “Now it is for the court to determine whether a piece of art in opposition to someone’s opinions, thoughts and ideologies – religious and otherwise – amounts to a violation of their fundamental right and if action, on these grounds, can actually be taken against the artist or creator. Until now, the Supreme and High Courts have never considered this to be so; ideally, that’s how it should be because people’s thoughts can also keep changing. But with the number of such cases that are coming up, it is imperative for the court to offer some clarity on the matter soon.”
What Bhasin did say with absolute certainty though is that if anybody – creator or not – is being harassed or bullied online in the name of having “offended” someone’s sensibilities, they should take it up with the social media platform where this is happening. If the platform does not take any action, it will be in trouble.
In that case, the next step for the person being bullied would be to approach the law. “There are existing laws which can be used to combat cyber bullying. If somebody is insulting or harassing you, a police complaint can be filed. And if they are threatening you, that comes under criminal intimidation and is an even bigger offence,” she explained.
Faced with these new challenges, artists who are trying to change the world and create an impact using online platforms will have to find fresh ways to circumvent undue restrictions imposed on them.
Anam, for one, has no doubt that this will happen. “However hard anyone tries, art is the medium that is going to be the hardest to stifle. Someone somewhere will write a poem that’ll move a million people. And someone’s going to make a film that will uphold liberal ideals. There will be stories that will reach audiences, voice the concerns of the masses and educate people in a way that academia and media and politicians cannot do. Art is always going to find a way to come through.”
Tarini Mehta is a staff writer at StoriesAsia. Based in Delhi, she covers politics and culture.