The undemocratic meeting of porn and politics

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Anindito Mukherjee, Reauters)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Anindito Mukherjee, Reauters)

Two days after the Indian government blocked access to 857 allegedly pornographic websites, the speaker of the lower house of parliament – the Lok Sabha – suspended 25 MPs from the opposition Congress party.

The Congress MPs had been demanding the resignation of three leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (the BJP) for complicity in scams involving millions of dollars and the suspicious deaths of dozens of people. Though if the MPs, who wore black armbands, made an impact, it was only on their vocal chords. Still, they were accused of disruption and suspended from the house for five days.

On the face of it the two decisions appear unrelated, but porn and politicians have converged in India before: in 2012 three ministers in the southern state of Karnataka were forced to resign after being caught watching explicit videos in the state assembly . And for most Indians the decisions are not merely connected, but fall in line with a pattern of moral regulation that has become standard practice for the nationalist BJP since it was elected into power last year .

It is a pattern of bans, suspensions and expulsions aimed at stifling dissent, punishing the opposition, and regulating personal freedoms. It is also an attempt to make a diverse population think and act according to the whims of a small, anachronistic group of people. These people – BJP leaders – seem to think their beliefs take precedence over the constitutional rights of others. It is also a sleight of hand meant to distract the public from real problems with real consequences.

The porn ban has little to do with sex, just like the suspension of the 25 MPs isn’t really about the smooth functioning of the house. It is simply more convenient for the government to pressure the speaker to suspend some opposition MPs than it is to respond to the protests by initiating an investigation into the corrupt, possibly deadly practices of its own leaders. It is also quicker to block porn than it is to do the hard work of preventing and punishing the crimes – inaccurately – associated with viewing porn.

But every time the government harasses people who are pursuing legal means of dissent or of self-expression, it makes a tear in India’s democratic fabric. Such a modus operandi is desirable for the government, but it is detrimental to India.

The number of bans imposed by the BJP since it came to power, with the hardline Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi at the helm, was once a source of mirth on social media. In one week in March party leaders in various states imposed six different bans , including the consumption of beef and the use of the word “lesbian” in films.

The joke is turning sour. The party was voted in on a platform of development, but it is routinely distracted from the big issues that plague the country, such as poverty, poor sanitation and violence against women. It has instead developed a fixation on matters over which it has no right to interfere, the regulation of which will in no way bring India closer to becoming a developed nation. This behaviour has triggered unease and fear within India, and bemusement and mockery outside.

In an attempt to mislead people into believing that it is in fact the government’s duty to regulate the internet, government sources have justified the porn ban as necessary to curb child abuse. But the BJP’s trademark lack of focus has led to mixed messages even here. Some government sources say the ban was necessary on “grounds of morality and decency”. Others describe porn as a “social nuisance”. Several of the banned websites aren’t even pornographic. These include the accurately named College Humor website, whose lead story today is a comic about mums being really bad at using the internet.

The government doesn’t say how it plans to measure the efficacy of the ban, because it knows it doesn’t have to. If the question arises, it will be easy to counter with the faux accusation that the petitioner is a “social nuisance”.

This foolish episode is best exemplified in the words of the conservative activist who filed the legal petition that led to the ban. Kamlesh Vaswani , a lawyer, said that he was prompted to call for the ban in response to the Delhi bus gang rape in 2012 , in which a 23-year-old medical student was killed. In his petition, Vaswani claimed that pornography was “worse than Hitler, worse than Aids, cancer or any other epidemic”. He called it “more catastrophic than nuclear holocaust”.

But like all the BJP’s bans, what may initially seem amusing hides a darker truth. Vaswani first took his petition to the supreme court. Last month the court rejected his petition, and refused to block access to online porn . The chief justice of India, HL Dattu, called a ban on porn a “violation of Article 21” on the right to personal liberty. He said adults had a right to watch porn “within the four walls” of their home.

Vaswani then approached Pinky Anand, a lawyer who was appointed additional solicitor general by the Modi government, and the ban quickly came into force. In other words, the Indian government went against an institution of the state to side with a man whose personal beliefs happen to match theirs.

The BJP’s violation of the supreme court decision is the loudest warning yet that the Indian government is dismissive of due process. Surely leaders who think they are above the highest court in the land must also think they are above the laws of the land?

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