A liberal politician of India: Baijayant Jay Panda

Baijayant Jay Panda is an Indian parliamentarian from the Biju Janata Dal. His profile on his website reads thus:

“Elected to the 15th Lok Sabha from Kendrapara, Odisha on 16th May, 2009. Baijayant “Jay” Panda was elected to Upper House twice from Odisha and was leader of the Biju Janta Dal (BJD) in the Upper House.He is among the new breed of politicians who are redefining Indian Politics”

Even if he says it so himself, I believe he definitely is “among the new breed of politicians who are redefining Indian Politics”. For one thing, he has an active twitter presence (most Indian politicians do not even deign it worthwhile to have a twitter presence; leave alone an active one) and that has been largely my basis for forming an opinion of him. His tweets are fairly witty & lighthearted for an Indian politician. Also his comments and interactions on twitter reflect an ability to engage in discussions; something that the average Indian politician is loathe to, instead being ever ready to deal in rhetoric.

I didn’t know much about Baijayant Panda until about 2 weeks ago when I began to follow him on twitter. But a tweet of his today made me realize that he is a key leader in ensuring freedom of expression on the internet in today’s illiberal Indian society.  The screenshot of the tweet is as below:

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Now, Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act, (2000) has serious implications for freedom of expression on the Internet in India. The same has been discussed widely. Section 66A of India’s s Information Technology Act, (2000) contains draconian provisions that can be misused and taken advantage of by illiberal elements of Indian society which can lead to deleterious effects on the future of an open society in India. The following is an extract from the IT Act (2000):

Section 66A:  Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,—

(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or

(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device; or

(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.

Coming back to Panda’s key role in fighting internet censorship; he had initiated a private member’s bill seeking amendments to the Section 66 A of the IT Act, 2000. A private member’s bill is described as below on Wikipedia

A member of parliament’s legislative motion, called a private member’s bill or a member’s bill in some parliaments is a proposed law introduced by a member of a legislature who is not acting on behalf of the executive government.

A brief and somewhat discouraging summary of the performance of such bills is reproduced below from Wikipedia

Of the 300 odd Private Members’ Bills introduced in the 14th Lok Sabha, barely 4% were discussed; 96% lapsed without even a single debate in the House. Till date, Parliament has passed 14 Private Members’ Bills. Six of these were passed in 1956 alone and The last Private Members’ Bill passed by Parliament was ‘The Supreme Court (Enlargement of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Bill, 1968’ that became an Act on 9 August 1970. No Private Members’ Bill has been passed by Parliament since 1970.

Contrast on the other hand, the case of Subramanian Swamy, a widely respected economist, politician and academician who played an important role in prosecuting the key accused in the 2G spectrum scam. A few months ago, I had seen a tweet by Swamy where he threatened to initiate action against some of his twitter critics using provisions of Sec 66A. His comment was thus:

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This episode made me realize that even a distinguished person like Swamy cannot handle criticism and had to resort to threatening action using the draconian provisions of the IT act of India under Section 66 A. Also, that highly respected anti corruption crusaders like Swamy hold no promise as to the future of a liberal India.  That tweet by Swamy left a bad taste in my mouth given its implications of curtailing freedom of expression and its ill effects on a society as well as for the fact that someone with Swamy’s stature would resort to such petty behaviour.

But Swamy’s tweet doesn’t depress me much after knowing that we have a politician like Panda who is actively campaigning against internet censorship. And this definitely bodes well for the future of Indian politics which today unfortunately is dominated by criminals and narrow minded individuals.

Fighting the censorship of cultural terrorists

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Yesterday, an art exhibition in New Delhi showcasing  modern nude art was forced shut temporarily by activists of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Later, the organisers reopened it with police protection. The activists claimed that “the nude and obscene paintings show women in very bad light and disrespectfully and are highly objectionable.”

Late last month, there was a censorship controversy surrounding the Kamal Haasan produced & directed movie Vishwaroopam despite it being cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification of India. Certain Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu (TN) objected to the screening of the movie protesting that it portrayed Muslims in poor light and said that the movie’s screening could impact the “social harmony in the state”. A spokesperson of the Muslim organizations said, “There is a danger that the public may view any Muslim with a beard as a terrorist waiting for an opportunity to plant a bomb”. To add to the drama, the TN government banned the release of the movie in TN under section 144 of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code to ensure the preservation of the public peace and tranquility. Later, TN Chief Minister J Jayalalitha said that the ban on the film would be lifted if Kamal Haasan and the protestors come to a mutually agreeable way forward. Last week, Kamal Haasan reached an agreement with the Muslim organizations when he accepted to mute five scenes thus putting the controversy to rest, at least for the time being.

Both these cases highlight how certain right wing organisations claiming to be interested in how certain identities are projected in the public sphere have held hostage the performance and display of arts in our country. The former while protesting the paintings at the art exhibition sought to protect the identity of women in our society while the latter sought to protect the identity of Muslims.

One cannot fathom how such self appointed custodians of women and Muslims feel justified in causing disruption to other people’s lives in the name of representing and safeguarding the identity of their professed constituency. These people, I am pretty sure are in the vocal minority. The silent majority consists of right thinking people who believe that as long as we are not hurting someone else or coming in their way, it should be OK to act on our free will and exercise our right to consume what we choose to; whether it is in sphere of arts or ideas or whatever else.

These self serving goons who claim to represent their alleged constituencies and aggressively impinge on our freedoms continue to do so in various circumstances because they have seen that their subtle and overt threats at violence have worked in the past. If only these rogue elements were cut to size by showing that their threats do not work then they will have no incentive to keep raising their ugly heads in the future. These thugs must be taught a lesson and the internet denizens can utilize the power internet and the social media to do so. A couple of action points are highlighted below in this struggle against these cultural terrorists:

It would be great if people upload uncensored clippings from the movie Vishwaroopam and post it online on YouTube/Vimeo/Metacafe and other such video sharing sites so that interested people can see what the producer/director had original intended for all to see that caused these thugs offence and led them to raise the protests against the film.

On the art exhibition issue, people must go online in huge numbers to the Delhi art gallery’s website and view the paintings online and appreciate the same. Better still they should share these images widely and comment using social media. This will humble organizations such as Durga Vahini who have no business meddling in what people choose to do in their private lives when it comes to their decisions of consuming art.

The time has come to unleash the power of internet and social media in the form of concrete actions from the silent majority who hitherto have been suffering largely in silence or at best countering such tyranny by giving vent to their feelings on social media. A stronger action along the lines mentioned will decisively demonstrate to these goons and thugs that when it comes to discussions and engagement in the public sphere, they can no longer cow the authorities and general public into submission with their implicit and explicit threats of violence.

P.S (updated 9 Feb):  I unfortunately omitted another significant instance when a similar censorship occurred in J&K when some chap named  Bashiruddin Ahmad (who calls himself  the “Grand Mufti”) issued a fatwa against Kashmir’s all girl rock group Pragaash for singing. Pragaash disbanded after receiving a lot of hate posts and threats on their Facebook page. In this case, it would be all the more poetic to defeat these goons using the same medium they used for their threats. If someone could access a copy of their live performance at the Battle of Bands festival and share widely, it would be fitting reply to this moron who calls himself Grand Mufti and his demented followers!

Update to the previous update (27 Jul 2013): The aforementioned Grand Mufti had issued the said fatwa against Pragaash on the grounds that music is banned in Islam; however reports of him enjoying a musical performance in public clearly show that this cultural terrorist has different standards for himself and for others.