The Great Indian Ban Wagon

May 21, 2012 12:40 am by

The Satanic Verses came into our house, wrapped in newspaper and in a nondescript plastic bag. It was as though it wanted to fool us into thinking it was a large packet of sanitary napkins. However, given that my father was clutching this packet to his chest and in no circumstance can I imagine Whisper inspiring that much possessive love in a man, this attempt at nonchalance was wasted. We had The Satanic Verses for a few hours before it would be smuggled out to a country where it could breathe freely and not have to pretend to be a feminine hygiene product. I remember that my father did not as much read as devour the novel.

I asked my mother why he didn’t just keep it for another day and send it back to his friend by post. My mother said it was banned. The obvious question to that answer was “Why?” and for once, my mother struggled for an explanation. “Some people don’t think it’s a nice book and so some other people in the government have decided it’s better that nobody reads it,” she said to me finally. It sounded like ridiculous logic even to my kiddie self, particularly since my father was reading it in the other room, ban be damned.

Nearly 25 years later, I’m a little more grown-up and the idea of banning things, especially creative works, still makes no sense to me. These days, what’s coming on the ban radar seems more ridiculous than ever before. Since last year, those who rely upon Reliance Communications to connect to the Internet may have noticed that the network isn’t entirely reliable. Before the release of Singham (July 2011) and Don 2 (December 2011), both distributed by Reliance Entertainment, Reliance Communications blocked access to file-sharing websites in an effort to prevent piracy. Earlier this month, Vimeo came in the line of fire and when Reliance subscribers went to the site, they were told it was blocked according to court orders. Apparently, this move was to ensure that Reliance Entertainment’s latest release, Dangerous Ishq, made the maximum possible money at the box office.

I’m not sure what is more difficult to explain—that Reliance Entertainment thought Dangerous Ishq would have box-office earnings, or that anyone would want to waste bandwidth, time and storage space on the film; or that Vimeo, a favourite with indie filmmakers and known for hosting a lot of original content, was considered a threat. Meanwhile YouTube, the shady den that has everything from puppy videos to pirated films, remained unaffected because that’s where all the Bollywood trailers and song videos are put up. On the other hand, if you want to see some award-winning short films or see what’s the latest upload at the official White House channel on Vimeo, you’d learn that there’s a John Doe order preventing you from accessing the site. John Doe? Seriously? Why haven’t all the proud indigenes who clamoured for city names unstained by colonial Anglicisation protested against this Americanism?

According to Wikipedia, a John Doe order “is used in the UK to describe an injunction sought against someone whose identity is not known at the time it is issued”. In India, it seems to be a phrase that’s bandied around mindlessly by a few Internet providers because there is no court order banning the sites that are flashing this notification (yet). While the government of India is no champion of freedom of expression on the web, the decision to keep people from viewing certain sites is an entirely private, corporate one. It’s an arbitrary decision because it’s not just file- and video-sharing websites that are facing this injunction. Did you want that “I Dream of Sushi” Delivery Gown from Because that, I’m told, is facing a John Doe order too, for some inexplicable reason. Unless you have something against pregnant women, Pretty Pushers does not have objectionable content and given our ever-exploding population and the bland family planning campaigns the government sponsors, it’s safe to say India isn’t anti-pregnancy.

Recently, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, opined that India is more liberal than Europe and the US. Perhaps it would be pertinent for Sibal (and Reliance Communications) to look not at Europe and America but to Iran and China, where Internet censorship is rigorously enforced. Yet Iran is home to a vibrant and sharply political blogging culture and the Chinese have found ways to access Facebook and Twitter (and set up their equivalents) despite the great firewall of China.

To give Sibal the benefit of doubt, maybe he was referring to the freedom enjoyed by politicians because in that case, he’s absolutely right. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine an elected representative killing time watching pornography while attending the European or American equivalent of Parliament. And that’s just a trivial example. We all know that politicians are truly free to do anything they want in this country. The laws are as flexible as flubber for them. They’re enacted inflexibly for the benefit of us humble, everyday citizens, and it is to preserve our delicate innocence that Sibal wants a draconian set of rules that will regulate the content we can access on the net. If he has his way, John Doe will probably follow us around like the pug in Vodafone advertisements

Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a copy editor at Elle magazine.