A few days after people who supported Nupur Sharma were killed, and the protests began, my friend Murthy dropped in. He turned up at my doorstep in the evening, and, when I let him in, began to work his way through a bottle of scotch I’d bought just that morning.
“So what do you think of all this hullabaloo?” I asked when he had finished his first two drinks and was pouring himself a third. Besides being curious about his views on the matter, I wanted to save some of the scotch for myself: Murthy has yet to master the art of drinking while talking.
That question was a mistake, because even though he can’t talk while he’s drinking, he can certainly think and drink, and he did. He finished his third drink in short order and poured himself a fourth before replying. “It’s all because of the media,” he said. “If they didn’t make so much noise, things would be much quieter. Besides, people pass on misleading messages on social media. So, it’s the media and social media that are the cause of this trouble. They should be controlled better.”
“What about freedom of speech and information, and democracy?” I asked.
“I believe in all those things”, he said, taking a large sip. “Democracy might be flawed, but any other system is even worse.”
“Really!” I said. “But you've tried to interfere with the electoral process from time to time, haven’t you?”
“Seldom. I’m very selective about these things,” he said. “I introduce some small variations in the process. Always with the best of intentions, for the greatest good of the greatest number.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t know exactly what he did, and couldn’t really argue my point.
“But it’s the will of the people that matters,” he said. “That’s the bedrock of true democracy. People express their will through elections. They stand up to be counted, and their representatives implement their will.”
“But how do we know that the representatives implement the will of the people?” I asked.
“They’ll lose their seats if they don’t,” he replied. “They lose the next round of elections if they don’t do what the people want. Simple.”
“What about all the corruption and malpractice in government?” I asked.
“What corruption?” he asked. “It’s all very well for the public to say that the government is corrupt, but where’s the proof? You have to follow due process, right? What’s democracy without due process? We might lose some time but that’s better than the alternative. Our system minus due process would be worse than it is now.”
“But what does all this have to do with the Nupur Sharma case?” I asked. “And with controlling the media and social media?”
“Everything,” he replied. “Hear me out… So, democracy is the way.”
“So what?” I asked.
“You can’t afford to antagonise a lot of people if you want to win elections,” he replied. “Elections are what democracy is all about, and we agreed that democracy is best. Right?”
“Right,” I replied.
“So the elected part of government can't afford to offend any large cohesive group because they can’t risk votes. If you offend any big group, you’re going to lose your position. So: you go along with them. You see what I mean?”
I didn’t. “Even if going along with them means breaking the law from time to time?” I asked. “And ignoring the need for free speech in a democracy?”
“What is the law?” he asked. “It’s the will of the people, isn’t it? And the courts have discretion in deciding about freedom of speech. There are clearly defined areas where they can use that discretion. To avoid public disturbances, for instance. And, if you think some judgments are unfair, you can always appeal to higher courts.”
“Again,” I asked, “so what?”
“I’m not through yet,” he said. “You shouldn’t offend the smaller groups because that would be majoritarianism, forcing groups of people to do things they don’t like just because there are fewer people in them. Being majoritarian is oppressive, and that’s against the spirit of democracy. So you don’t offend the smaller groups. Right?”
“In effect, you can’t offend anyone,” I said. “Is that it? What about the law? Science? Reason? Aren’t those things a part of democracy?”
“Of course!” he said. “As long as they represent the will of people, except maybe very small groups! That’s where media and social media are messing up. They transmit misleading information. And people believe it.”
“Shouldn’t the public be educated?” I asked. “So that they won’t swallow the nonsense you get on social media?”
“Precisely my point!” he said vehemently. “Educate the people. But that’s going to take years. Generations. What do we do until everyone’s properly educated?”
“You tell me,” I said. “You’re the expert.”
“Simple,” he said. “We use something like the Rotary four-way test on all public information. Four crucial questions. Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? These need a ‘yes’ answer.”
I picked up a couple of newspapers that I read regularly. “Look at these news reports on our foreign policy and the economic situation,” I said, waving them in his face. There were denunciations of the government in one, statements of support in another, and others sat on fences. “If we use your four-way test, you know what would be left in the papers? Government press releases and snippets about Johnny Depp’s divorce and starlets’s vacations and cricket. There’d be no debate, no controversy!”
His face lit up. “Exactly!” he said. “Wouldn’t that be just perfect?”