India: Watch What You Say

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Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
Bal Thackeray, founder of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, Mumbai, 2010

Everyone knows the ongoing case of Free Speech vs. the Communist Party of China. We pay too little attention, by contrast, to the struggle for freedom of expression in the free or partly free countries of South and Southeast Asia. Their controversies may be more fragmented and incremental than the often frontal confrontation with party-state censorship in China, but the implications for global freedom of expression in the Internet age are almost as large.

These countries do, after all, include India, which is the world’s largest democracy, its second-largest emerging economy, and, given China’s aging population, will in the foreseeable future become its most populous country. India, by itself, has the potential to be a swing state in the worldwide debate about the terms and limits of freedom of expression. Yet smaller countries sandwiched between those giants, such as febrile Thailand and today’s dramatically changing Burma, can also, by their example, have a significant impact both on the region and on wider understandings of such slippery notions as “Asian values.”

Earlier this year, I spent nearly a month in India, Thailand, and Burma, talking and learning about free speech issues there. Here, in the first of two dispatches, are a few notes from India—and some tentative reflections upon them.

On the dusty pavement of Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road, in the center of New Delhi, a man squats on his haunches, near a poor family who appear to be living on the street. But what is that object the squatting man holds in his hand? It is not just a mobile phone; it is a semi-smartphone, and he seems to be playing quite expertly with its settings and apps.

Just across the Rajpath, New Delhi’s grandiose version of the Mall, my wife and I find—mounted on an imposing boulder in front of the National Museum—a metallic reproduction of the third-century BCE edicts of King Ashoka. This is one of the most ancient public policy documents to advocate something akin to religious tolerance (to use the modern word), but also care and liberality of spirit in the way we speak about other people and the things they hold sacred. Free speech and its limits, then, discussed in India some 1,900 years before John Locke.

Less than a mile away, in his tiny office opposite the Supreme Court, sits Advocate Prashant Bhushan—a precise figure with a neat mustache, Hercule Poirot in Indian lawyer’s garb. He shows me a petition that he will shortly present to the “Hon’ble Court.” Its argument is that several sections of the country’s Information Technology (IT) Act are so loosely drawn that they violate three articles of the Indian constitution, including its own Article 19, which protects freedom of expression.

The wording of the IT Act is indeed overbroad. The power to block a website or social media outlet, for example …

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