A day after the chopper crash in which Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat was killed, YouTuber Maridhas tweeted that Tamil Nadu is “becoming another Kashmir under the DMK regime” and it gives “freedom to form groups that can do any level of treason against the country”. The tweet added that “in such a state, any kind of conspiracy can be plotted” and that such “separatist elements should be destroyed”. The Tamil Nadu police filed a case against Maridhas and arrested him but the High Court quashed the FIR.
Maridhas did not furnish or even suggest that he had evidence to support what he said. The DMK represents the elasticity of Indian nationalism and patriotism. Its chief M Karunanidhi voluntarily took the Tebbit test of loyalty. British politician Norman Tebbit wanted to test the loyalty of non-white citizens of the UK to the crown by whether they cheered cricket teams from other nations. Karunanidhi famously said he loved watching the Indian team play cricket and felt disappointed if K Srikkanth got out. This was clearly a doubled-edged sword but laid bare the hyphenated identity of Tamils. K Srikkanth is Indian but also a Tamil. Karunanidhi supported the Indian team and felt especially bad if Srikkanth got out.
Maridhas did not furnish or even suggest that he had evidence to support what he said.
Periyar and his DK were supporters of the British and hostile to the Congress. August 15, 1947 was a day of mourning for him. But the founder of the DMK, Annadurai welcomed the exit of the British and an end to British imperialism. The DMK advocated secession until it was made unlawful by the 16th amendment to the Constitution.
Over the years, the DMK has come to represent the unique political position of most Tamils who consider themselves patriotic Indians but don’t feel they need to learn Hindi nor give up their strong regional identity that is separate from the identity of other Indians. Tamils are peeved they are dismissed as regional. For them India is composed of regions and the Indian nation cannot represent nor give prominence to one region over another.
Maridhas’s tweets were typical of social media. What was gossiped, speculated and talked loosely in private conversations is now being said in full public view on social media. In mediated media or mainstream media, as many call it, there is a level of cross-checking, a certain tradition of reporting and verifying before anything is put out. In social media there is none. There is no mediator, no gatekeeper.
Over the years, the DMK has come to represent the unique political position of most Tamils who consider themselves patriotic Indians but don’t feel they need to learn Hindi nor give up their strong regional identity that is separate from the identity of other Indians.
Objectivity, balance, cross-checking, fairness and moderation in the choice of words and ideas are of little relevance in social media. These values are, in theory, a part of the journalism world, not social media. Maridhas was, in a sense, reacting to social media content from Tamil Nadu that celebrated the deaths in the chopper crash. Neither was in good faith nor in good taste but social media does not care for such nuances.
For many decades, the mediated media was the only credible source of information that was independent of government. For that reason, it was also subject to much control by all kinds of powerful interest groups. In India, where media was either run by families, corporate houses or political groups, professionalism was not the dominant criterion in news selection and presentation. Most media houses had a slant and clear-cut go and no-go areas. Very few could claim to run truly professional publications. The slant was obvious and any change in the slant was doubly obvious.
Just as the mediated media’s professionalism was not scaling up to the same level that its business component scaled up, social media arrived as a disruption.
Today, social media has replaced mainstream media as the main source of news, information and opinion for many. Consumers of social media do not value social media because it purports to be truthful but for what mainstream media had failed to be – transparent, honest and courageous.
Our laws restrict free speech if it creates social disorder. In the Indian system, truth is no defense but public interest is. Courts have ruled against news reports saying what was important was not whether the reports were truthful but whether the public benefited from them. This opens the door to all kinds of politically motivated curbs on free speech. Governments can use the law-given restrictions to squelch criticism.
All parties have misused the restrictions or used them selectively, politically and ideologically. Following the chopper crash, more than half a dozen people were arrested all over India for social media posts on the chopper crash. The UPA government did not hesitate to invoke the IT Act for tweets against P Chidamabaram. The AIADMK government took action against Karuppar Koottam for a coarse and poorly informed campaign against Kandhar Sashti Kavasam. The verses talk about Lord Murugan’s spear protecting various parts of the human body including the anus. Meditation techniques going back to thousands of years seek to relax the human body to achieve peace of mind. The Kavasam uses the spear to take the listener’s attention to body parts and relax those parts.
The action on Karuppar Koottam was selective and political. At that time, the AIADMK’s ally, the BJP, had taken up a campaign in the name of Murugan’s spear and Karuppar Koottam was attacking verses devoted to Lord Murugan.
The FIR filed by Tamil Nadu police on Maridhas for his tweet was also politically motivated. The DMK government has been selectively clamping down on Hindutvavadis on social media. The Maridhas FIR that was quashed by the court was likely intended to create a chilling effect on critics so they thought twice about slurring the DMK or the people in power in future.
Maridhas’s tweets were typical of social media. What was gossiped, speculated and talked loosely in private conversations is now being said in full public view on social media
How India deals with social media and its half-truths, rumours, gossip, casual bigotry, poor taste and mischief will testify to its maturity and growth as a democracy. Social media tests our commitment to free speech. It challenges our qualified embrace of free speech. The 16th amendment in our Constitution allowed reasonable restrictions on free speech to preserve the country’s unity and integrity. Social media challenges that, too.
The Maridhas episode has shown that social media has become yet another battleground for political posturing. It amplifies media role in the public sphere disconnected from real issues.