'We don’t want to do moral policing': Modi govt's bizarre doublespeak on the porn ban

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi made eminent sense in the Supreme Court yesterday.

This is what he told the court about the infamous muddled pornography ban.

“How can you stop in on the privacy of your phone? The other thing is that if someone wants to watch it in the privacy of their bedroom, how can we stop that? These are now issues of 19(1).”

Article 19 (1) is about freedom of speech.

We don’t want to do moral policing: Modi govts bizarre doublespeak on the porn ban

Representational image. AFP

That’s pretty much what the Chief Justice had told the porn ban petitioners in the first place.

“Somebody can come to the court and say, ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room?’ It is a violation of Article 21.”

Article 21 is about a right to personal liberty.

So if both were on the same page anyway, why did the government wilfully slap egg on its own face and make itself the butt of jokes last week with its 857-site ban which Rohatgi himself admits “the department went and blocked without verifying”?

Perhaps it was an over zealous government lawyer like Pinky Anand who was responsible but Rohatgi does not mention that. What’s baffling in his statement to the court is that it seems to blithely ignore the fact that it was the government itself that had imposed the blocks in the first place and is now arguing is infeasible.

“There are many issues and we don’t want to do moral policing. There is also difficulty: the websites can change their names and change their website, and it becomes difficult. We will obey court orders, but we don’t want to become a moral police.”

But sir, the court did not ask you to be the moral police. It did not say go forth and ban these sites. The government chose to be the moral police and now it’s piously arguing before the court that it does not want to be the moral police.

Either it thinks our attention spans are so short that no one remembers what happened a week ago. Or the government’s left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

Sometimes the left hand and right hand which seem to be acting at cross purposes can literally belong to the same person.

Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama points out that while Rohatgi was championing the cause of adults and privacy in this case, the same Attorney General had repeatedly told the Supreme Court that there was no fundamental right to privacy in India. That was a case challenging the Aadhaar card on the grounds of privacy. In that context Rohatgi had said “The invasion of privacy is of no consequence because privacy is not a fundamental right and has no meaning under Article 21.”

No wonder the Internet Service Providers Association complains there is conflict between the directives it is getting from the government. “We will block whatever you want us to block, but we cannot block on our own because it’s a violation of our license. In the interim those websites are blocked. Let the government give a clear instruction of URLs.” (What that list of 857 contained were websites, not URLs.)

But the larger issue is not about #PornFree or #PornBan.

It has become one about chronic double speak. Even as Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad assures us that the government is “100% committed to the freedom of speech and expression, including on social media”, news comes that the government has directly issued show cause notices to three television channels for disrespecting the office of the President and the Supreme Court by broadcasting interviews with people who had differing opinions about the fate of Yakub Memon. An editorial in The Hindu calls it an “outrageous overreach” of the government’s powers:

"A perusal of the content under question shows only critical discussion by individuals of the judgment dismissing the mercy petition. There was nothing there amounting to defamation or contempt of court, nor was any aspersion cast on the office of the President beyond mere criticism of the decision to reject the mercy petition."

The Hindu points out that part of the problem is print is given more leeway in terms of freedom of expression than broadcast because the latter is believed to have “more instantaneous impact” and the broadcast spectrum is a public resource. “The distinction between the print and broadcast media should be removed and the broadcast medium allowed in full the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution,” opines the editorial.

Well, you have to be careful what you wish for.

The government might be thinking about parity but not exactly along the lines The Hindu imagined. The Telegraph reports the government is now mulling expanding its scrutiny of the Yakub Memon coverage from television to print media as well. "Action so far has been initiated against four broadcasters because they violated the programming code, but if some newspapers have also committed those mistakes, we will look into the matter," a senior official tells The Telegraph.

A government that prided itself on its finely tuned and focused communication strategy seems to be either schizophrenically confused or speaking out of both sides of its mouth depending on its audience. Either way it’s richly ironic that Rohatgi stood up and told the court that without self-regulation, we risk becoming a "totalitarian state… tomorrow they will say stop this, stop that.”

Perhaps like eating beef. Or 28 cuss words on film. And who's the "they" anyway?

The likes of a Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti or Giriraj Singh make hot-headed inflammatory comments. The upper echelons of government distance themselves from it, assure the media it’s not the view of the key cabinet members but do little else to counter it. The offending politician after a token half-apology carries on unfettered anyway never visibly suffering any consequence for their intemperate ways. That in itself sends out a mixed message.

And when enough of these mixed messages get out there, the question becomes will the real NDA government please stand up?

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Updated Date: Aug 11, 2015 22:54:01 IST

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