Facebook Users Beware: Every Post you Make, Didi’s Watching

Mamata BanerjeeOn October 6, a front page news item on Hindustan Times caught my eye: “Didi claims CPI(M) defaming her with Facebook campaign; asks TMC leaders to lodge a complaint with the police.”

I read the article with more than a passing interest. Surprisingly, it hadn’t attracted much reaction on Facebook groups, which have a lot of pro-Left pages/users and have attracted the wrath of Ms Banerjee.

Social networking sites, especially Facebook, have evolved into a tremendous medium to connect easily with a lot of people. It also provides the users to vent out their frustration, anger against whosoever they feel like. Many celebrities have been the target of social networking site users.

I can understand the ire of Ms Banerjee, who has been the target of pro-Left users of FB and feels it tantamounts to defamation. To her, there is a fine line separating freedom of speech and right to infringe privacy of others. Perhaps she is not aware of the landmark judgment of the case Maneka Gandhi versus Union of India, where the Supreme Court held that freedom of speech and expression has no geographical limitation and it carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thought with others not only in India but abroad also. Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions.

However, the reason I had a more than passing interest in the issue lies elsewhere. During the pre-poll run up, the users on social networking sites were immensely active. I have read reports that said the Trinamool Congress had realised the potential on the social networking sites well before the Left and had many IIM grads using this media to build up Ms Banerjee’s campaign. In fact, the electronic media too had witnessed mud slinging by both the parties. Both the parties had loose canons who put foot in their mouths by uttering obscenities and had passed vulgar comments. While Left leaders were made to apologise in public, I did not come across any TMC leader expressing regret. In particular, some comments against then CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, which amounted to character assassination, were atrocious and obnoxious. The persons concerned did not even appear to have an iota of remorse for having uttered such obscene comments against Bhattacharjee. Similarly, I personally disliked the way Goutam Deb spoke on media; the arrogance and the contempt for the Opposition he displayed was in poor taste. Either the Left leaders were totally ignorant of the reach of the media and the public reaction it can create, or they were blissfully unaware of the ground slipping beneath their feet, or for that matter both.

During the election campaigning, where the Left was battling for survival and the TMC sensing imminent victory, the media had a field day. Both the parties had channels tacitly supporting them. In today’s world, money power dictates everything and every piece of news can be paid for.

Mamata’s comment could possibly be interpreted by her detractors as a typical Fascist remark. Fascists are known to destroy every vestige of democracy and have no misgivings about using administrative measures to bludgeoning of public rights of expression with full state collusion.

To get back to the point I was making. I had read reports of Ms Banerjee venting her anger out at a particular TV channel; and had reportedly threatened to take revenge once she came to power, which was at that juncture, just a formality. I can relate the two comments — pre and post poll. To be a successful leader, one has to endure public reaction. No one possibly can satisfy all the people. In the highly polarised atmosphere in Bengal politic, the Opposition always controls over 40% of the votes. In any democracy, this is indeed a healthy sign.

However, the signs are ominous. Is Ms Banerjee showing signs of nerve? Having achieved her cherished ambition of being the first woman Chief Minister of the state, is the crown already feeling heavy? Is she feeling her throne to be a bed of thorns? Being the chief Minister of a state is certainly a different ball game from playing the firebrand Opposition leader. Now, she just cannot resort to the oft-used histrionics of her Opposition days. It was so ironic to read that she is now preaching the Opposition not to indulge in the very same acts she had earlier perpetrated during her days in Opposition — calling bandhs at the drop of a hat, roadblocks, road shows, throwing public life at disarray without notice, destruction of government property etc.

She has just won her maiden Assembly elections with staggering margin decimating the Left. The euphoria of the mass for her is still on the rise. There should not be any reason for her apparently to come out with such a statement — to curb criticism on FB — which may tantamount to gagging of freedom of expression of individuals at this juncture.

In fact, recently Biman Basu said at a press conference personal vilification of the Chief Minister was not paying any dividend and urged party workers to refrain from such personal attacks.

However, I am certain that the TMC think tank has correctly realised the potential of the social networking sites. In a none too distant past, two governments have come down viz. Tunisia and Egypt; the Opposition used the social networking sites to communicate and build up and foment the protests. The prowess of the social networking sites is simply colossal. Similarly, online protests have brought about relaxation of government laws in Jordan and Morocco. The protests and expression of opinion on social networking sites have seamlessly cut across international boundaries, virtually igniting a global discontent on key issues.

Ms Banerjee’s comment could possibly be interpreted by her detractors as a typical Fascist remark. Fascists are known to destroy every vestige of democracy and have no misgivings about using administrative measures to bludgeoning of public rights of expression with full state collusion.

Till date, Ms Banerjee is unfazed of the protests against her government, which has apparently failed to stymie the spiralling food prices. Her policy against the Maoists has backfired. She has not only gone back on her pre-poll promises of withdrawal of the joint forces from Jungle Mahal, a full scale offensive against the Maoists is on the anvil.

Her party workers are paying little heed to her own slogan “Change not Revenge (Badla noi, Badal chai)”. In rural areas, CPI(M) workers are reportedly being hounded up, over 40 Left supporters have lost their lives so far since she came to power. There are reports in newspapers that Marxist book stalls have not been allowed to be opened in many areas during the Pujas. Reports of extortion by the ruling party workers have been highlighted even in many print media that had openly backed Ms Banerjee earlier. Of late, Kolkata has witnessed a spate of daring daylight robberies. The crime index has reportedly shot up in the past few months. The condition of Kolkata streets is deplorable. Prolonged power cuts have become order of the day. Despite her warm welcome by GJM leaders and activists in the hills in her recent visit, there is a lurking fear amidst the bonhomie that the demand for separate Gorkhaland state would surface again.

How long will the people remain captivated by her charisma and charm? Ms Banerjee knows for sure that sooner or later, the same electorate which voted her to power will be asking awkward questions on the delivery of those promises. Ever since her days as the Railway Minister, she has been announcing a slew of projects left, right and centre. No one really knows whether the projects would ever see the light of the day, or for that matter how the projects would be funded, given that she has supposedly inherited a “bankrupt” state. Further, she has to take a call on industrial development of the state, particularly after she single-handedly drove the Tata’s out of Bengal, which many people feel has been a historical blunder. Yet, the reverse acquisition theory had made her dear to the rural folk, who treat as a messiah of the poor and downtrodden. How long she can compromise on the land acquisition issue for the industrial houses that supported her election campaign? (Read: M for Mamata, M for Myth)

Thus, the TMC think tank knows that sooner or later the media would run out of scams like Garbeta skeletons and Rajarhat land deals to maim the previous government. It would start looking for news and issues to malign the present establishment and whip up support for the Opposition to increase their TRP for pure business reasons. It is precisely the reason she has started focusing on the cyber-dissidents. She is aware of the potency of the hate campaign they can generate, in particular, amongst the Generation Next. Just as they did for Anna Hazare, which had sent tremors across the Indian polity and struck at its foundations.

We were promised Kolkata will become London. If Facebook users now come out with reminders of the promise, would they be defaming the CM? Right to freedom of expression does not give the people the power to malign? Or does it?

In fact, after the Egypt upheaval US President Barack Obama had said “there are certain core values that … we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking.” He himself has been the target of many FB users. Millions of protesters are attending mass demonstration on Wall Street against financial greed and corruption. FB is full of comments of people who think Obama is a complete failure and he is solely responsible for the present sordid state of affairs in theUS.

However, Paschim Banga will never be United States. We were promised Kolkata will become London. If FB users now come out with reminders of the promise, would they be defaming the CM? Right to freedom of expression does not give the people the power to malign? Or does it? I have read an article that quoted Ms Banerjee’s as saying “20 point earthquake was caused by global alarming“. If such comments invite FB posts, would the users be liable for defamation?

Exactly how will the present government douse the voice of protestors on FB or other social networking sites in the name of defamation and personal vilification? Will there be an emergency-like situation in Bengal? The issue is fraught with risk, will the government go ahead with the job or is it merely a threat? Which side will blink first?

The consequences are far reaching and catastrophic to say the least.

Shall the adage ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ (it’s modern age Internet interpretation) prevail? Will the individual users of FB take up the gauntlet to raise their voice against the threat of use of the police, judicial system and the state machinery to muzzle freedom of expression through coercion and intimidation?

Let us wait for the events to unfold.

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Soumya Datta

About Soumya Datta

The author is a sports aficionado, having participated in various forms of sports like football, cricket, hockey, table tennis since school days.He is an avid watcher of English Premiership League and a die-hard supporter of Arsenal.
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