In times rife with political uncertainty, you always have two options: to use your voice and stand up for what you believe in, or stay silent. In a democracy, the former should be a no-brainer. The right to free speech and expression safeguards citizens’ right to express their opinions and beliefs in any manner they deem fit. With the rise of social media, sharing your opinions with the world has become all the more easy. However, when those raising their voice are suppressed and liberally branded under terms like “anti-national”, it can create a sense of fear among people.
Across the world, young people have been grappling with the issues that plague the unjust world they’ve inherited. With one of the youngest populations in the world, India isn’t far behind. But as arrests and detentions of those speaking out against the government rise, these young people are falling victim to the system they are protesting against.
On February 14, 2021, 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested in connection with a farmers' protest “toolkit” that compiled various ways in which supporters could amplify and help the ongoing protest against new agricultural laws in India. Recently, comedian Munawar Faruqui was released after spending over a month in prison on the suspicion that he might make jokes about Hinduism. Journalist Prashant Kanojia has also found himself under arrest twice for social media posts that the local police considered inappropriate. These actions have been criticised widely by public figures and common people alike, even as scores of others believe this is the way to treat “terrorists”. People have also been using the hashtag #fingeronyourlips and posting pictures of themselves with a finger on their lips in a peaceful digital protest against the suppression of dissent and Ravi’s arrest.
In a culture where young people trying to take charge are often dismissed as being “just kids”, many of them end up not being taken seriously. On the other end of the spectrum, young dissenters end up ruffling the feathers of those in power, inviting serious consequences. We asked young Indians how they feel sharing their unfiltered opinions on the Internet, and beyond, amidst the crackdown on free speech. Many refused to talk, owing not to a lack of things to say, but to the fear of possible repercussions.
Ritushree, 33, corporate lawyer
VICE: Hi Ritushree, what are your thoughts when it comes to publicly sharing your opinions?
Ritushree: Before posting anything anywhere, the first thing that comes to my mind is my job, and how saying something offensive might leave me unemployed. I have saved many tweets in my drafts, and never gotten around to pressing “send”. I’ve also deleted many tweets after posting them, thinking they might attract right-wing trolls. They hound you and your employer and the risk of losing your job is too high, especially in this economic slowdown.
Is there anything else that affects how you talk about the things you believe in?
Definitely my gender and sexuality. In the past, I have been trolled for being queer. The trolls never argue about the point I’m trying to make, but they get personal and it can hurt. I have been called slurs as well. I just end up blocking them.
But yes, before sharing anything, I review it thoroughly and check whether the words are offensive enough to cost me my job and mental peace, or worse, lead to a legal complaint. I also have to refrain from posting anything which is too controversial, so in a way I have imposed self-censorship. It's scary that you can't say what you want but that's the sad reality. After the way students are being jailed for protesting and now that Disha has been arrested simply for sharing something, I am really scared.
As a lawyer, I have started carefully reviewing everything I say from a legal perspective. This is scary as hell.
Tyler, street artist
VICE: Hey Tyler, is it possible to share unfiltered opinions today?
Tyler: It's sad to see the youth who support a good cause behind bars, while other powerful people connected to the government get away every time. If the rich and powerful can’t grow a spine, it's up to the youth to decide the future of this country. We must never be fearful about what we are doing when it is right.
Do you think being anonymous helps you deal with that fear and avoid these consequences to a certain extent?
No. If the authorities really want to catch me, then it will take them five minutes to catch me. Maybe it helps me avoid personal attacks, but that’s about it. However, street art is an anonymous art form. Most of them are, right? And I won’t say that it’s an absolute totalitarianism right now. You can still say a lot, but people did get arrested for sedition during the time of Congress rule as well. But whether you get away with it or not depends on who you are. At the end of the day, they can find whoever they need to find.
Anushka, 22, masters student
VICE: Hey Anushka, what do you feel about putting unfiltered opinions out there in the current climate, political or otherwise?
Anushka: I guess putting out unfiltered thoughts should be appreciated, unless they are rooted in discrimination or call for violence. You can't just say something derogatory and be like it's my opinion. You know what they say, opinions are about pizza toppings, not human rights.
Do you ever fear repercussions for being vocal about politics, especially when sharing experiences of being marginalised?
Earlier, all my social media profiles had my face and my professional details but when I learned about personal data, and how all of these could be used by certain people against me, I immediately took all of it down. Even my face in a public profile could be used against me, especially if I’m a person of a certain gender. Alhough people perceive me as a cis female, I identify myself as gender non-confirming. But that doesn't stop any male from commenting on my appearance or my body. I have received backlash so many times, whenever I put across my opinions about caste and gender. People have called me names and made unsolicited remarks or comments about me or my family.
Every day, we come across opinions and jokes about our community. Most people don't even know about the struggles, but mock us, especially when it comes to Dalits and conversations around reservation. Every day there is a new problematic take on how we are taking away their right to study, when that is not the case.
But there are some things I would never talk about on social media, like religion, or about militarisation and the army, because I have seen people getting doxxed and receiving threats for doing that.
Ronny, 34, film director, screenwriter and photographer
VICE: Have you ever faced any serious consequences for using your platform to talk about politics and other matters of importance?
Ronny: I was attacked with a ‘bhojali’, a weapon to kill, when the Anti Citizenship Amendment Act protests were going on in December 2019. There is a considerable amount of fear and anxiety in both, the minorities and the progressive section of the society. The current dispensation is fighting a political battle on one front, and a very significant cultural one on the other. The atmosphere has constantly been at a boiling temperature for the last couple of years. The young who still have a heart, and who don’t want to live in an authoritarian state will speak up. Who’s going to stop them? Is it even possible? And if that space is consistently taken away from them, or if no efforts are initiated to acknowledge, address, and treat these very real anxieties at the highest corridors of power, then we are fast tracking towards the sun which will burn everything. It will be disastrous for the idea of India, its democracy, its institutions and most importantly, its people. Some kind of peace and reconciliation process should begin immediately, because it’s already too late.
Naeema, 19, architecture student and freelance artist
VICE: Hey Naeema, have you ever regretted sharing your opinions, online and elsewhere?
Naeema: Yes! Looking at recent events, there is no assurance for my freedom, anything can happen here. I usually talk about what I want to anyway, but I do recheck if I’ve said too much. I’ve realised that some people just won't accept the facts, and I regret getting into arguments with them, it’s pointless. I've even had arguments based on art, once this friend kept saying that a nude painting is painted in order to seduce and gain followers. I tried, but I couldn't convince him otherwise, he was so blinded by his opinion that he wouldn't even try to look past it.
Krish, 19, law student
VICE: How’s it going, Krish? What’s it like to try to get people to talk about the legal side of contemporary issues?
Krish: It can be scary, dude. Before I started sharing posts encouraging people to talk about things on my Instagram, I thought activists and journalists who claimed their lives were in danger were overdoing it. But now I know better. It’s not even like all the censorship comes from the government. Every person is a parallel government in themselves today, they’re all playing this monitorial role.
Recently I talked about polygamy and its link to Islam and tried to share the legal perspective of it, and how Indian laws governing marriage make it possible. People were so scared to publicly comment their thoughts on it that they only replied in my DMs. One guy messaged me asking, “Why are you always talking about Islam? Why don’t you ever pay attention to Hinduism?” That’s because there’s nothing to clarify there. People have already said everything there is to say about it. There is so much whataboutery.
Do you think social media has made it easier to reach people who have different opinions than yours?
I don’t know how much I agree. You know how you can pay to promote your posts and reach a larger audience? Usually, Instagram takes six to seven hours to approve a post you want to promote. But a couple of posts I wanted to promote almost six months ago haven’t been approved yet, just because they mention the word “BJP” or allude to the ruling party. The level of sensitivity, not just of people on these platforms, but of the platforms themselves, is on another level.
Kareema, 22, content creator
VICE: Hi Kareema, do you ever fear repercussions for talking about politics so openly and if yes, how do you deal with the fear?
Kareema: There have definitely been many times where I have wanted to speak up about cases of blatant discrimination, but have felt afraid about facing repercussions for being “too vocal”, especially having a minority identity myself. Personally, I have dealt with this fear by being subtle whilst being direct enough to touch upon the topic. Of course, I must recognise that that is not the best one can do, but in a time like this where the youth is getting taken away for quite literally simply questioning things that are wrong, you have got to self-preserve to continue to use your platform in some capacity.
Aman, 27, IT professional
VICE: In light of recent events, what do you think about sharing unfiltered opinions, Aman?
Aman: There is an environment of fear which makes it difficult to speak your mind, but I’m not scared of the government. I’m going to try everything in my power to stop this crackdown on freedom. Of course, this government is not entirely to blame. Everything that they’re using to their advantage, including regressive laws like the UAPA, have trickled down from the Congress era. They’re using police, judiciary, media, all these institutions in a way they deem fit, to treat dissenters unfairly. But I think fear is their main instrument. The more we fear them, the more they will scare us. I try to combat it by being as politically engaged as possible, and helping people by volunteering on the ground.
Priyanka, 22, illustrator and poet
VICE: Hi Priyanka, what do you think of the way young people are being treated for using their voice?
Priyanka: Have you seen the state of this country? This is not new, during (protests against) CAA, so many young activists were jailed, or had police action taken against them, be it Amulya, Ardra in Bangalore or Kris in Mumbai. This policing has always existed, it has existed on the internet in the form of vicious attacks by the government funded IT cells and trolls. Day by day, this silencing and bullying and policing of voices, especially young voices and those from marginalised backgrounds, becomes stronger. More younger people than ever are on the Internet, opining on everything, as we should in an ideal healthy democracy. Sadly, India isn’t one, and I, along with so many young people constantly live in the fear of being arrested for anything we say. I’ve had threats sent to me about issuing FIRs against me when I was 17, for making “offensive art”. Honestly, nothing surprises me as this point, and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before these threats become real.
What is it that still keeps you going in these times?
I’m incredibly in awe of so many of us who continue to unabashedly exist on the internet and speak our minds. More power to us and hoping that fear never beats us down, at least not until the police beats us down quite literally.
Rishi, 19, content creator
VICE: Hey Rishi, you regularly get hate for talking about your views. Do you fear serious repercussions?
Rishi: Honestly, I’m already facing repercussions, including being known in the public eye as “Hinduphobic” and “the enemy of an ideology”. People make derogatory posts about me, I receive threats of being harmed on a regular basis, so much so that I have become desensitised to them. There are also always chances of being called out by right-wing celebrities who pick on activists. So you have to keep a low profile always—come out, say what you want, and retreat into your cave.
But do you always speak your mind?
Of course not. I do censor myself quite a bit, I try to maintain as much decency as possible. I’m very careful about using terms and labels. I wouldn’t say “all cishets…” or “all heterosexuals…”, but I only say “all homophobes…”. I can’t stoop to their level by generalising them. People from my communities are often generalised, our caste titles are used as slurs. I’m basically a chamar, and they use “chamar” as a slur. I am that slur, but I reclaim it. I speak my heart out, and do not follow a specific ideology, be it Ambedkar’s or Karl Marx’s. I follow my own rules of thumb, and go by what I know is right, so there’s no fear.
Nitish, 24, strategy associate
VICE: Hey Nitish, what do you think about how opinions are being shared in recent times?
Nitish: Personally, I’m always worried if what I know and am talking about is even right. I’m skeptical if what I’m reading is filtered based on my own ideology, and if that data is even consistent with what’s happening on the ground or just tailored to what I believe. This applies to everything, including topics like climate change.
Most opinions online only care about their own convenience, and it’s a myopic way of things. When people say things like “everyone should stop eating meat” or “everyone should reduce usage of resources”, they don’t realise that for some marginalised communities who have close to no resources, these acts are essential for their survival.
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