Censoring the Internet in India

I wrote in February about India’s crackdown on religiously offensive speech on the internet. In response to lawsuits in Indian courts, Facebook and Google have removed images that allegedly cause offense to Hindus, Muslims, and other religious communities. In The Atlantic this week, Max Fisher writes that the censorship issue is again getting attention, with the US State Department calling on India to respect the “full freedom of the internet.” Fisher wonders, though, whether India doesn’t have reason to clamp down. A long-standing dispute between Hindus and Muslims in Assam has recently reignited, fueled by rumors on the internet that each side was planning to massacre the other. Eighty people have already been killed, and 300,000 displaced. Religious hate speech on  the internet hasn’t caused this crisis, of course, but it has contributed to it. What is the Indian government to do? Fisher writes:

Walter Russel Mead, writing on the ongoing crisis, called India’s long-running communal tensions “the powder keg in the basement.” With the already-dangerous risk of ethnic combustion heightened by a population with easy access to rumors and an apparent predisposition to believing them, maybe that powder keg justifies Indian censorship. Or maybe it doesn’t; free speech is its own public good and public right, and, in any case, censoring discussion of such sensitive national issues could make it more difficult for India to actually confront them. This is just one of the many difficult questions that Indian leaders will grapple with as hundreds of thousands of their citizens flee their homes, chased out by “a swirl of unfounded rumors.” I don’t envy them.

What is the object of “human rights”?

To ban works of literature, of course.  Dante’s Divine Comedy is on the chopping block, even at universities.  From the story:

The classic work should be removed from school curricula, according to Gherush 92, a human rights organisation which acts as a consultant to UN bodies on racism and discrimination.

Dante’s epic is “offensive and discriminatory” and has no place in a modern classroom, said Valentina Sereni, the group’s president . . . .

It represents Islam as a heresy and Mohammed as a schismatic and refers to Jews as greedy, scheming moneylenders and traitors, Miss Sereni told the Adnkronos news agency.

“The Prophet Mohammed was subjected to a horrific punishment – his body was split from end to end so that his entrails dangled out, an image that offends Islamic culture,” she said.

Homosexuals are damned by the work as being “against nature” and condemned to an eternal rain of fire in Hell.

“We do not advocate censorship or the burning of books, but we would like it acknowledged, clearly and unambiguously, that in the Divine Comedy there is racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic content. Art cannot be above criticism,” Miss Sereni said.

The concession about not burning books is truly magnanimous.  Perhaps the woman may have missed the exquisite pain previewed for Popes Clement V and Boniface VIII in the Eighth Circle.  But the latter probably deserved a bit of hell, given his pretensions to temporal power.  Perhaps Dante and Ms. Sereni agree on the issue of simony. 

No matter –Dante was banished in his own time, so it is fitting that some right-thinking folks wish to banish him today.  Still, if I could offer a little lawyerly advice to Messrs. Cervantes, Chaucer, and Shakespeare — keep your heads down.