Can I troll you, please?

A couple of months back, there was an appalling controversy over television presenter Mayanti Langar, wife of cricketer Suart Binny, being trolled on twitter and other social media platforms for the cricketing performance of her husband. The extent to which people would go to abuse someone who is not even the direct subject of their ire is something that strikes at the root of what society has turned into today, led by a group of people who get immense satisfaction in making fun of celebrities.

Following this event, The Times of India ran a cover story on its supplement dealing with the issue of women cricket anchors being subjected to ridicule and abuse for how they look and how they present themselves. A famous anchor talked about how the news the next day would be on the dress she wore rather than the work she did. Another presenter mentioned that she used to wonder why people just commented on the way she looked and not on the interviews she took (either good or bad).There were also misgivings that a single mistake on their part would be hyped up while a mistake made by the men would be let off as just a slip of the tongue.

Public policy issue

While there is a tendency to look at this problem from purely a moral angle- on what is right and wrong, we can put on different caps to analyze this issue.

If we look at it from a policy perspective, we enter into the hotly debated topic of defining what is free speech and how If should or should not be constrained for public benefit.

Liberals freely quote Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution that gives the citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression but conveniently forget the ‘vague’ 2nd clause of the same Article that places reasonable restrictions on various grounds, including those of morality and decency.  Since the definition of ‘reasonable’ is debatable, there have been several defamation and, in what seems to be the popular trend these days, sedition cases foisted on people who might have different ideologies.

The Tamil Nadu government alone has used it to their full advantage, slapping 200+ defamation cases against journalists and political opponents. The Supreme Court, rapped the TN government for restricting forms of dissent and said “If somebody criticizes the policy of the government, if the person criticized is a public figure, he has to face it instead of using the state machinery to choke criticism”.

But what about the others, who don’t have the public machinery to back them up?

Defamation as a criminal offense

In India, defamation can be either a civil or a criminal offence, with the complainant given the option to choose either or both.

Section 499 of the IPC defines defamation, saying that it can either be based on something published or spoken either with intent to damage reputation or with knowledge of reputational harm that might arise out of the aforementioned statements. Section 500 talks about the punishment, with imprisonment up to 2 years, with or without fine.

Recently, in May 2016, the Supreme Court, after hearing pleas from public figures like Subramanian Swamy, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal (there is something indeed that these leaders across political parties and ideologies agree on!) refused to quash the criminal defamation law saying “Right to free speech is not absolute. It does not mean freedom to hurt another’s reputation which is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution”.

Does this mean that every scratching comment on actors and presenters could, potentially, lead to a defamation suit?

Exceptions to the rule

There are certain exceptions to Section 499, which allows the harm to reputation, in some instances.

The sixth exception says “Merits of public performance.—It is not defa­mation to express in good faith any opinion respecting the merits of any performance which its author has submitted to the judgment of the public, or respecting the character of the author so far as his character appears in such performance, and no further.”

Which leads us the very pertinent question- what exactly was the role of the journalists/reporters and what constitutes their “performance”?

Would the media company employing the presenters, be able to prove that the only reason the presenters were selected was based on their cricket knowledge and that their role was just to pass on their knowledge to the public? Is there any way to prove or disprove that the way they look and dress are part of their ‘performance’? Or, would it really make a difference if the presenters were selected based on the same metrics that were commented on, in what can be loosely categorized as bad taste, by members of the general public? This is an issue that several actors and other celebrities might face day-in and day-out, especially with the increased use of memes and trolls on social media platforms to poke fun, sometimes without valid reasons.

Section 66A of the IT Act

Section 66A of the IT Act provides power to arrest a person for allegedly posting offensive content on websites. The Act came in the news after 2 youngsters in Maharashtra were arrested after ‘posting’ and ‘liking’ comments on facebook that a political party took offense to.

In March 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the Act was ‘draconian’ and called it unconstitutional as it compromises free speech. The Bench said, “It is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right,”.

In this judgement, the Bench also stressed that the liberty of thought and expression was ordained by the Constitution and unless a clear degree of increment was present, ‘allegedly objectionable’ posts or discussions should not be curbed by anyone, clearly upholding the right to free speech.

Summary

Looking at the constitutional provisions and the judgements discussed above, it does look like people can mostly get away with statements that in normal parlance would be considered offensive and definitely unparliamentary (incidentally, you cannot be prosecuted for statements made in parliament!), even though defamation is still a criminal offense.

Women victims have an extra provision for protection through Section 509, which deals with ‘Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’.

A big problem with the way our laws are defined is that certain terms like reasonable/performance/decency/grossly offensive etc. are vague and open to interpretation. In today’s context, where everyone seems to have an opinion and shares it with the world on social media, it is very difficult to differentiate between what constitutes free speech and what is clearly defamation. It would really be interesting to see what would be the outcome if these television presenters did indeed file a defamation case!


Ramdas is a member of LSD. He is still confused with the thin lines separating business, media and the law. Any comments on the topic will be much appreciated.

Croatia, stirring thy soul

Language is a powerful paradox. On the face of it, it just has functional utility of communication. But as you peel off the layers, you unravel an intricate art spun from words. Deep in this web are some words that are special, having the potential to stir souls as no one can. If there was one word to describe these words, it would be exquisite. Countries pose a similar paradox, with the layers indicating only the usage of countries for habitation but as these layers are peeled off, you see some countries that stand out from others. For their nature, for their gifts and for their beauty. Croatia is one such exquisite country.

The Adriatic Sea coast enroute Dubrovnik, from Split

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Love with Prague

I had high expectations of Prague even before I went there. That was mostly because all my female friends who have been there recommended it vehemently to me. “Prague ki feel hi kuch alag hai!” was what I had heard. I didn’t realise that soon enough, but when I did, I knew just the word to qualify Prague. If Budapest is wild, Prague is romantic.

Yes, Prague is as romantic as romance can get. If Budapest is a prostitute, Prague is the lover. If Chain Bridge is about sex, Charles Bridge is about love. The narrow alleys of Prague, with the cobbled stones and bright-coloured houses, hesitatingly invite you to explore the city, just like a lover seduces you to explore her deepest secrets, while holding back simultaneously. But you truly have to be patient to realise this true beauty of Prague, for there are many tourists trying to woo her simultaneously. “A city is not a concrete jungle, but a human zoo”, said by our walking tour guide, kept resonating as I went through this town.

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The wild wild Budapest

Money is a strange thing. It changes not only its color but also its worth as it changes hands and places. And money is truly powerful when things come cheap. For then, it injects shots of greed into your blood and makes you crave for new experiences. And Hungary is an embodiment of that greed. But Hungary is one temptation you should not resist. After all, as Gekko said, “Greed is good.”

Hungary wants you to taste it, lick it, devour it and throw it as if it were a chocolate bar, leaving a sweet after-taste. Hungary has been bedded by a lot of colonial powers, from Romans to the Soviets. Her compromised virginity has now made her like a prostitute, who seduces you into her brothel, wants you to make rough sex to her and forget her, but not the amazing time you had. And that makes Hungary wild.

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Austria

Austria is in many ways a close kin of Germany, emulating its language as well as rudeness. But it still has its own distinct character. And continuing with my previous articles, if Netherlands is trippy, Austria is musical. And a lot of the accolade goes to arguably the greatest composer of all time, Mozart. There is also this Sound of Music connection with Salzburg, as the entire classic was shot there. Again, musical!

Salzburg breathes Mozart, visibly and otherwise. There is the Mozart birth-house, Mozart living-house, umpteen Mozart cafes and hotels. Even while the extent of commercialization is pitiful, it pains me when an entity tries to owe its entire identity to a single person. As Saral da says, “A system is greater than the sum of its parts” and so is a city. And the soul of an entire city/town is ruined in one shot if a single person is the only towering influence. This over-exploitation of Mozart ultimately led to Salzburg being just another nudnik town, quite different from what I had expected.

There are two good destinations quite near Salzburg — Werfen Ice caves and Hallstat Salt mines. Mountains give me immense joy (and that in a way signifies the quantum of pain as I am not doing Iceland this year). And the Austrian Alps were no exception to that, as we had a brush with them during the Werfen trip. It was quite early and foggy (and even snowed a bit) when we had started and the fog hid the alluring snow-clad Alps, just as a veil hides a beautiful bride. It’s not really cold until a strong gush of wind greets you at the entrance of the caves. After that, you enter a 42 km (read that again) ice cave, the largest in the world. There are steep glaciers, long icicles, natural sculptures created by the wind and limestone ceilings. It doesn’t actually feel like 0 degrees in there, may be because the limestone absorbs all the cold in the winter season. Nevertheless, only the 1st km of this cave is open to the tourists. And truth be told, it was not that great. The icicles should have been longer and denser, the wind stronger and the cave colder.

The guide inside Werfen Ice Caves (Clicked by a friend)

Nonetheless, when we exited the cave, we were greeted with a view spectacular as any, as the bride had lifted its veil by then. The curvy waist of that bride, the Salzach river, in its pale blue water flowed in between the cave mountain and the majestic Hohenwerfen castle, overlooking the snowy mountains, created the picture that any second-grader draws when asked to describe scenery.

The next day we hopped on a train to Vienna and went to Vienna’s most famous destination — The Schonbrunn Palace. I particularly liked this one because of its bright colors and mammoth size. Palaces are usually dull from the outside, with greyish tones and reddish bricks. But this one isn’t. The Palace and its gardens, spread over 435 acres, make you forget the city buildings, as you walk calmly alternating between arrays of lush green trees, orange autumn leaves and creepers.

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Iceland

A different kind of heaven on Earth

Iceland is not a big country. It is about 500 km wide coast to coast and harbors a population downwards of 350,000. It is not a world power or a major influencer of global geopolitics. But the beauty of Iceland is not in its size or inhabitancy or clout; it lies in sheer natural landscape and terrain.

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The never -ending road

A car and a road is the way to explore the island. Public transportation is minimal and the infrastructure is built for vehicles to ply on empty, smooth roads at high speeds though the law limits the speed to 90 km/hr. Straight paths covered with tar stretch for scores of kilometers without obstruction, occasionally ornamented by narrow bridges over shallow streams. When in the city, roundabouts ensure that one possibly cannot accelerate to one’s heart’s content, and for good measure. Wind speeds easily touching 35 km/hr make cars drift. The danger of doors getting blown away is real. Dense fogs reduce visibility to a few meters. It is a norm to drive with your headlights on. Halting without blinking parking lights is a sin. In the outskirts, the darkness makes the driver grateful for the one vehicle in front of him that he can follow. Continue reading →

Know Thyself

So many of us stumble through life doing what we’re told is right, doing what we think the world expects of us or simply doing what feels right. Very few actually ask the question ‘why?’ for all these actions. Those who do often mire themselves in existential ennui. The crux of the question is not directed at a system of beliefs or the universality of certain requirements that society presents to an individual. No, the question is an attack at the heart of all that constitutes the human experience, ‘ Who am I? ‘. Over the millennia of civilization society has attempted to desensitize the individual to this query. We are given an easy road to follow, take these many turns at these points in your life and you will eventually land up at the end, reasonably satisfied. Don’t as the difficult question, it’s just a trap. Yes, ignorance is bliss.

It makes me wonder what exactly would happen if the people inhabiting the planet were to accurately identify their inner selves. It’s in a way analogous to fully knowing how your biological self functions, with the added twist that knowing how your body functions doesn’t give you autonomy over the functions in most cases. Knowing your desires, needs, triggers and fears in full clarity would result in a beautifully recursive process. Looking at yourself unbound of the other parts hindering you and shielding you, with enough resolve it would allow you to reshape yourself as needed. But what is doing the reshaping? Is it the present you or the future you, or a portion separate that cannot be known?

Perhaps that is why it is a difficult question that is so often left aside for safer intellectual pursuits. It’s an ever-shifting maze designed specifically to keep you trapped. It’s an outcome of the observer effect compounded tenfold. Not only does the subject change as it is being observed, but the observer is the subject as well. No wonder then that the existential crisis can be a maddening black hole. But this cannot be an excuse that lets us shy away from a challenge that is hiding away one of the most crucial truths of what it means to be human.

Kapil is a member of LSD. He likes diving into philosophical topics a little too much.