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Harvard Punishes Free Speech in India

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It's going from bad to worse to farce for free speech in India. In fact, by the time you reach the end of this blog, its contents might be illegal on the subcontinent.

First, a few months ago, India's Communication and IT Minister Kapil Sibal decided that Indians were texting too much -- the fact that texting played a role in coalescing and coordination of the unprecedented anti-corruption movement was, of course, simply coincidence. So he declared he was going to cap texts to 100 messages per day per SIM card (phone number).

Businesses that rely on texts for bookings and confirmations, like cab companies, were thrown into disarray. The uproar was so great, Sibal relented. Sort of. The cap is now 200 messages per day per SIM, forcing some businesses to buy multiple phone numbers to meet their texting demands, and leaving many Indian teenagers practically incommunicado.

Then Sibal (or, more likely, his political bosses) took offence at the way some in government were being portrayed in social media. Now, smart political operators would have used the sites and tweets to gauge public sentiment and put together a counter-strategy. Or, if the impact was relatively minor, just ignored them as a small price to pay for the good fortune of living in a democracy.

Instead, Sibal summoned Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and others into the principal's office for a little chat. He reportedly demanded that they use real humans to prescreen and censor social media for objectionable content.

While not being explicit about what would be considered objectionable, it doesn't take a genius to make an educated guess -- a quick look at the government's track record will do. According to Google, between January and June 2011, Indian officials asked for 358 items to be removed from sites like YouTube and Blogger. Eight were for hate speech, three were for pornography, one was on national security grounds, and 255 were for "government criticism."

As any 12-year-old could have told him, Sibal's move resulted in a predictable pushback from a now decidedly unsocial media. #idiotkapilsibal started trending and Facebook users began to put 'Kapil Sibal is an idiot' as their status (at this point, this blog is now probably illegal in India).

Ironically, even when Indians manage to publish something politically controversial in India, they might still be censored, or at least censured, by those outside the country who don't like their message.

In response to the triple bombing in Mumbai on July 13, 2011 that left 26 people dead, Former Indian Law Minister Dr. Subramanian Swamy published an op-ed in a mainstream Indian daily called 'How To Wipe Out Islamic Terror'. Dr. Swamy is not much loved by the current Indian government as it was through his anti-corruption campaigning efforts that the previous Telecoms Minister ended up in jail on corruption charges, and he is actively pursuing other high ranking members of the government on similar charges.

Dr. Swamy's article was complex and controversial, involving layers of presupposed knowledge. For example, he wrote, to counter the terrorists "goal" to "blast temples, kill Hindu devotees," Dr Swamy proposed a strategy to "remove" masjids that were built over the sites of Hindu temples (this itself being against the background of the widespread destruction of Hindu temples by Muslim conquerors in India and, more recently, in Kashmir).

The article was unquestionably provocative, but what it provoked was debate -- a good thing for any democracy, especially on a difficult topic.

However, it seems, it was too much free speech for Harvard University. For years Dr. Swamy, a Harvard Ph.D. and former Commerce and Industry Minister of India, has taught summer courses in economics at Harvard. This year, in an unprecedented move, his courses were taken away based on the article. The Harvard Crimson justified the move by saying, in part, "there is the further concern that his publications may incite religious violence."

The fact that the article appeared five months ago and so far it has only spurred healthy debate is one issue (indeed, judged by their own standards, one could argue that by whipping up this fever around the piece the Crimson is itself stirring things up ).

However, even more problematic is the idea that one should censor publications out of fear. Will the Harvard Crimson also write editorials against inviting Danish cartoonists onto campus?

Who knows? In April 2010, in an editorial about the South Park episode that was censored by Comedy Central for showing a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad, the Crimson wrote: "The repression of free speech due to threats of violence is regrettable and unjustified."

But the same piece also said: "Although we agree that Comedy Central made the right choice in censoring itself, we hope that the media continues to fight for free speech." I hope so too. And the media includes you, Harvard Crimson.

India is a remarkable place, one that has produced remarkable, and controversial thought. From Buddha, to Gandhi, to Kautilya, to Akbar the Great, to Tagore, to C.V Raman, Indian thinkers have engaged, enraged, and ultimately enlightened the world.

It's hard to know what will spark the next great thought -- an article to disagree with, a blog post, a tweet. Whatever it is, India is strong enough, and mature enough, to handle it. Even if its politicians and Harvard are not.