Freedom of expression isn’t belief in hate speech

PM’s silence on why he continues to follow certain Twitter users is distressing

By Karan Thapar

‘What sort of person applauds the murder of a fellow human being? And what sort of person follows such people on twitter?’ These are not rhetorical questions. I mean them genuinely. In fact, they’re probably questions each of us should ask ourselves.

 

Gauri Lankesh’s assassination ignited social media with tweets justifying her murder and, even, saluting her killers. What’s worse, these thoughts were expressed deliberately, loudly and publicly, not hesitantly, sotto voce and behind closed doors.

 

VikramAditya JungBahadur Rana proclaimed: “I hail those who did that … salute them.  Now plz don’t stop at that.  Start shooting all those like her & d antinationals in this country. I hope this is a good start.” Jagrati Shukla tweeted: “Your deeds always come back to haunt you, they say. Amen.” Miss Mumbai was more blunt: “Better she is dead.”

 

The tweets in hindi were no different. Ashish Mishra wrote: “Jaisi karni vaisi bharni (as you sow so shall you reap).” Nikhil Dadhich added: “Ek kutiya kutte ki maut kya mari sare pille ek sur mein bilbilla rahen hein (a bitch has died a dog’s death and now all the pups are whining in one voice.)” Using hindi and english, Oxomiya Jiyori wrote: “God had different plan for group of ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’.”

 

These people can’t be dismissed as lunatics or depraved because they’re followed by some of the most senior members of our government. Ashish Mishra, Nikhil Dadhich and Oxomiya Jiyori are followed by the Prime Minister himself. In fact, Ashish Mishra claims he’s the social media advisor to the Ministry of Information Technology. Ravi Shankar Prasad and Vijay Goel follow his twitter handle though the former has now ‘unfollowed’ him. So far, however, Mr. Modi has not.

 

The truth is social media has made the dissemination of such poisonous sentiments possible. Earlier they were confined within small closed groups. Now these feelings are expressed with pride and defiance. The embarrassment or shame that once surrounded them has disappeared. Why has that happened? What sort of people are these? And do we have to accept their behaviour?

 

The questions that arise when you discover the Prime Minister and his senior ministers follow such vile people are more disturbing. Do they agree with them? Do their thoughts reflect what they cannot themselves say? Don’t they realize such association will taint them? Or don’t they care?

 

Within hours of Ashish Mishra’s abhorrent tweet, Ravi Shankar Prasad dissociated himself from this gentleman. “I strongly condemn & deplore the messages on social media expressing happiness on the dastardly murder  … expressing happiness on the killing of someone is shameful, regrettable and totally against Indian traditions.” But why was he following him in the first place? And what has he done about the man’s claim to be an advisor to his ministry?

 

That still leaves the Prime Minister. He hasn’t dissociated himself from any of these hateful and indefensible comments. Indeed, he continues to follow these twitter accounts. Why?

 

The argument that by following such people the Prime Minister is not giving them “a character certificate” is specious because Mr. Modi can’t be unaware they proudly flaunt the fact he follows them and use it to gain popularity and credibility. The second defence that “he believes in freedom of speech and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone on twitter” only raises the question does that include hate speech? In this case it seems it does.

 

Now, don’t we, the people of India, have a right to ask questions about this? And as a democratically elected Prime Minister, who calls himself the Pradhan Sewak of his country, does he not have a duty and moral responsibility to answer?

 

Mr. Modi’s silence is more than depressing. It’s deeply distressing. It will lead people to conclusions that may not be correct but could seem logical and justified. In his own interest, therefore – leave aside ours – he must speak in response to our concerns.

 

Of course, it’s possible he was unaware how horrid the people he follows actually are. We can all make mistakes. But when you discover you have, the onus is on you to immediately correct yourself. If you don’t, you have only yourself to blame.

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