Imperfect sympathies are of ancient vintage, but Charles Lamb gave his prejudices charming expression only in the 19th century. In his time, the appeal of his presentation overcame the sense of discomfort — should any of his readers have had it; as a writer today, he would probably have been less ingenuous, or dropped the subject altogether. Social organization, orders of hierarchy, the sense of the global order, genres and norms of communication have all changed unrecognizably since Lamb’s time, in his country as in this. From the pleasures of light-hearted prejudice expressed wittily and the satisfactions of frivolous nastiness dashed off in a smart phrase to sustained hate speeches and malicious comments inciting conflict, everything can now come under the sharp scrutiny of laws that demand ‘reasonable’ restrictions on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. As the Supreme Court said in the context of a petition made by a social networking site, in a large country such as India, where there are crores of people, an objectionable remark made public could cause havoc, particularly if it referred to political or religious issues.
The court reportedly used the example of the hasty return of people from the Northeast to their home states following rumours spread after violence in Myanmar. The court’s concern is not surprising. Communication is no longer limited to the letter and the speech, the book and the social conversation. Telecommunications and social media have opened up an indefinable space of exchange in which the apparently private takes but a second to become ‘public’ — given the number of people who may ‘share’, on phone or screen — or the public appears in the guise of ‘private’, as numerous ‘friends’ simultaneously pick up the same content on their individual screens. The world of social communication is like an invisible hall of mirrors, in which a comment may resonate with far greater impact than in older modes of exchange.
The existing laws against defamation, against incitement to hatred or violence, against attempts to create division between groups can said to have gained more point with the explosion of this new space. The Supreme Court’s refusal to accept the petition made by the social networking site challenging the validity of the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 as violating the constitutional rights to equality before the law and to freedom of speech and expression appears based on this perception. By holding that there cannot be unbridled freedom of speech on social media, the court was reiterating the nuanced principle of freedom that lies at the root of public order and harmony. Restraint is as important as it was earlier; the medium of communication is irrelevant.