There is a fine line between right to free speech and offending others. Right-wing governments the world over argue that there should be minimum legal barriers to human expression, a thought which has faced strong headwind from liberals and the Left. Critics of unrestricted free speech claim that it ends up targeting religious and political minorities.
And they aren’t entirely wrong. India too has in recent months witnessed vitriolic online campaigns directed against prominent movie stars including Aamir Khan, or for that matter, anyone who has been seen challenging the Hindu nationalist discourse backed by supporters of the Narendra Modi government.
Anyhow, the free speech debate was thrust into Indian Parliament as Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani defended controversial right-wing Twitter users accused of tweeting incendiary remarks that some see as enabling communalism and rape. A Rajya Sabha MP, Irani on Friday reacted strongly to rival MP Derek O’Brien’s speech, in which he had called out 26 right-wing Twitter users for making inflammatory remarks on social media.
In a powerfully-worded defense for right-wing trolls, Irani defended the right to free speech in India.”An individual was named yesterday by my colleague Derek O’Brien, that individual is not a politician, not a celebrity… he’s a common citizen who has the right to free speech but does not enjoy the privilege of this house.”
However heartfelt Irani’s defense of free speech may have been, she did overlook the fact that some of the Twitter users followed by PM Modi have in the past posted remarks that can easily qualify for hate speech.
An unverified Twitter account for Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), @RSS_org, tweeted out disparaging remarks against Muslims in March last year, comments which were later deleted. The deleted tweets were however published on a website. One of the tweets reportedly read,
“Bfore expctng Modi to do some James Bondish act, Can u pls start boycotting Illegl immigrants Maids, rickshaw, auto, Kabadiwala, Barber etc?”
There were also reports back in 2014 that several Twitter users who Modi follows have posted derogatory remarks against Muslims and political opponents. Former actress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Gul Panag and journalist Barkha Dutt have also found themselves at the receiving end of sexist comments reportedly made from the Twitter accounts @actindia and @nations_choice. Both these accounts feature in the list of 1,641 Twitter accounts that Prime Minister Modi still follows.
So, turns out that O’Brien did indeed raise a few valid concerns on online trolling in Parliament.
— Derek O’Brien (@quizderek) February 2, 2017
(Source: Twitter/Derek O’Brien)
Should a Prime Minister of a secular country follow social media accounts that so openly spew hatred against women and minorities? Don’t think so!