online moral policing

Social media is a great medium to connect and inform, and can be a tremendous asset if it works positively for you. But when it doesn’t, the negative fallout can be quite a handful from most, as Mohammed Shami learnt the hard way on the 26th of this month.

Shami, who hails from the quiet town of Amroha in U.P., happens to be one of India’s leading fast bowlers, with a large fan following in India and overseas. Amiable and friendly off-field and passionate and aggressive on-field, is what describes Mohammed Shami best. He prefers to let his lethal bowling do most of the talking and has never been known to seek media attention.

On the personal side, he remains happily married to Hasin Jahan and the couple have an adorable daughter. All was well until Shami posted some pictures with his wife and daughter on Facebook on the 26th and that set off a frenzy of reaction on social media. Several people posted unsolicited and uncharitable remarks about his wife, Hasin Jahan, for displaying pictures of herself in public, wearing a dress that many believed to be un-Islamic.

Shami faces the heat

Shami was trolled in a very nasty way for putting up pictures of his wife in a sleeveless gown that many others  thought was very elegant and graceful. The trolls came from all hues of people, from orthodox Muslim clerics to so-called cricket fans and also included people who know very little about cricket or Shami but still had an opinion about what his wife should or should not wear in public.

But that’s the nature of free speech in India and a medium that delivers that speech in an instant to wide audience, across geographies. And when that free speech borders on hate and carries the potential to instigate violence, then the freedom of the medium itself comes into question.

Shami is not the first nor the last to be trolled

Social media is awash with examples of people being trolled with politicians and celebrities topping the list of targets. Very recently, the nation received the much awaited news, over social media, of the arrival of young Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi, born to Saif Ali Khan Pataudi and his wife Kareena. What should have been a moment of joy, celebration and greetings for the couple, turned out to be a trigger for all kinds of people expressing their objection and disgust at the couple for naming their first-born – Taimur.

Taimur Lang, as we all know from history, was the fierce warlord of Turkish-Mongolian origin who conquered most of Central Asia during his time. History has recorded his brutal assault on Delhi through North India, wherein lakhs of people, including women and children, were slaughtered at the hands of his marauding army.

So when Saif and Kareena announced the arrival of Taimur, it evoked widespread reaction on the logic and reason for naming their son after Taimur. Incidentally, the name Taimur is 10,802nd most used name in the world and quite popular. In Arabic, it means ‘Iron’.

Another example would be Amir Khan’s remark on ‘intolerance’ that led to him being flooded with nasty trolls on social media and subsequently become the subject of heated debate on primetime television.

Shah Rukh Khan too has been trolled recently for his inclusion of Pakistani actress Mahira Khan in his forthcoming film, Raees. The list of troll victims is endless.

Time to rekindle debate over free speech

India is now rapidly adopting technology and the present generation is more open to advice and criticism than what the older generation had been used to.

Social media is driving social behaviour and trends and this is here to stay. Free speech is more cherished by the younger generation than has been with earlier generations. So, the question is, should free speech come with responsibility and self-control or should it be allowed to flow without restriction?

The debate in favour of free speech

Those favouring free speech argue that it is a necessity for a society to evolve freely and in a democratic way, where everyone is free to express their opinion, whether favourable or otherwise.

The debate against free speech

Those against it argue that free speech can instigate individual or mass violent reaction and therefore, the same must either be policed or at least self-controlled, so not to exceed the point where it becomes a hate speech which may or may not have the potential to instigate violence.

The consequences

Either ways, the victim of trolls undergoes severe depression, stress and trauma along with social media isolation, that in some cases, has resulted in people, young and old, taking their own lives. And it is this consequence that calls for a serious debate on free speech flowing across social media.

While some politicians have taken action against those trolling them or for posting hate messages on Facebook but who is there to protect the common faceless person?

Mohammed Shami’s mature reaction

Shami deserves to be applauded for standing up to hate mongers when he re-posted the pictures the very next day along with this message “Har kisi ko zindagi mai mukam ni milta, kuch kismet wale hi hote jinhe ye nasib hota hai! Jalteee Rahooooo” – Translation: Not everyone gets to reach a good position in life, only a few fortunate ones do. Remain jealous!”

The nation has stood up in his support, with several public figures and fellow team mates coming out in favour of Shami. And that’s great news.

The problem, however, remains for the many faceless individuals, especially women, who have to face trolls on a daily basis and are still expected to carry on with their daily lives as usual. Who is going to stand up for them?