Social media platforms have indeed exacerbated the scope of evil deeds, but they have not occasioned evil.
If an alien were to land in India, read the news of lynchings, he may reach the conclusion that the social media, especially WhatsApp, was behind the killing of innocent people by mobs. The powers that be anyway seem to be convinced that the lynchings are not the result of their own failings; these are because of the blunders, if not mischief, of social media platforms.
To be fair to the Bharatiya Janata Party, we should remember that other politicians are no better. For decades, the Congress blamed the British and later also a mysterious “foreign hand” for India’s poverty, backwardness, and other ills. The communists, when they ruled in West Bengal, accused the Centre for the problems of the state. And parties opposed to the BJP have a wide-spectrum term: communalism.
WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging application, “must find solutions to these challenges which are downright criminal and [a] violation of Indian laws,” Minister of Law and Electronics & Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad recently told reporters after a meeting with WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels in New Delhi.
Notice that in the government’s scheme of things, the onus is on WhatsApp, not on the Central and state governments of India. This is not to say WhatsApp and other social media platforms have nothing to do with lynchings. These platforms have indeed exacerbated the scope of evil deeds, but we should not lose sight of the fact that they have not occasioned evil. At the end of the day, they are just tools, and tools can be used for good and bad purposes. Nuclear physics can be used for energy generation as well as for wiping out cities. Internet can be employed as an education tool—and learning bomb-making and watching porn.
But in our country, almost invariably emphasis is on coercion of the general populace, rather than of criminals. So, instead of cracking down on the mischief makers spreading rumours and carrying our murderous attacks, our political masters focus on coercing the citizenry. Unsurprisingly, such words as “ban”, “mandatory”, and “compulsory” are widely used in governance and public discourse.
Typically, a committee of secretaries has reportedly said that social media platforms need to act in a “time-bound” manner. The committee, which was constituted to deliberate and recommend for a separate law to deal with lynchings, has submitted its report to the Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The GoM also includes External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, Prasad, and Social Justice & Empowerment Minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot.
It may be recalled that the committee was set up by the government after the Supreme Court had come down heavily on lynching incidents. The apex court had reminded the government it was the “responsibility of the government to protect the citizens”. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that a government needs to be reminded about its primary responsibility; for this has been a truism since the days of the Chakravarti Samrats of ancient India and the Pharaohs of Egypt.
Another conspicuous feature of the committee’s recommendations is a separate law to check mob violence, to instil a sense of fear in the hearts of the perpetrators. “A final decision on the new law will be taken at the level of the Prime Minister once the GoM forwards its suggestions to him,” an official told the media.
Three observations can be made about the government response to lynchings. First, effort continues to be on shifting the blame to somebody else—social media platforms in this instance. Official sources have informed reporters that social media platforms—Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Twitter—could be made accountable if they don’t stop “malicious” posts/videos. There could even be criminal suits against the country heads of non-complying companies.
Second, emphasis is on a new, and apparently stringent, law rather than on improving the implementation of already existing laws. The reason is obvious: enacting new legislation is easier than strengthening the rule of law. The former would be an event, that can be celebrated and tweeted, the latter a long-drawn-out process of uncertain electoral benefits. At any rate, no media report has suggested that the government intends to undertake meaningful administrative, police, and judicial reforms.
And, finally, no measure, whether meaningful or insubstantial, can bear fruit if the political class is not going after the actual perpetrators in the first place. You can’t have a Union Minister felicitating convicted murderers and seriously expect peace to prevail all over the country. We would find such an expectation laughable, had it not been for the graveness of the issue. The alien may, however, laugh at the charade of a blame game being played out in the name of checking lynchings.