As COVID19 situation goes out of hand, MVA govt in Maharashtra comes with a gag order to curb social media criticism

    27-May-2020
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Unable to handle the COVID19 crisis efficiently, the MVA government led by the Shiv Sena has turned its frustration towards those who are critical of it. Criticism on Social Media and not management of the health crisis seems to be the priority of the MVA government.
 - Devidas Deshpande 
 
MVA Govt _1  H
“In view of above order, everybody in this group has been made admin so that they will share equal responsibility of posts.”
 
The message flashes on the screen as a notification from one of the WhatsApp group. The order in question was from Mumbai Police Commissioner that stipulated that Whatsapp admins were liable for circulation of information. This is the latest of the frantic posts that has flooded the social media in Maharashtra as the state government passes one order after another trying to suppress the dissent.
 
With Corona cases increasing day by day and eventually taking more and more lives, the Maharashtra Vikas aghadi government has come under fire from all quarters, especially in the social media. The most telling comment in this regard came from daily Lokmat, a newspaper owned by Congress leader and former minister Rajendra Darda. The editorial in the daily says, “The fact is that Maharashtra has the worst situation regarding Corona in the country.” Being a Congress paper, it shows its paranoia saying that BJP would benefit from Uddha Thackeray’s failure as Chief Minister. Nevertheless, it warns that the state is on the brink of destruction.
 
Rather than rectifying the mistakes that were being pointed out, the MVA leaders took a shortcut of gagging the critics. The government has issued diktats that effectively restrict anyone from commenting on the state government's functioning and tries to muzzle the dissenting voices.
 
As of Monday, May 26, “the Maharashtra Cyber department has registered 419 offences across the state so far for fake news, rumours and disinformation on social media.175 cases pertained to WhatsApp, 165 to Facebook,20 to Tiktok,8 to Twitter, 4 to Instagram and 47 for misusing audio and Youtube video clips” according the government’s release. However, it is an open secret that these cases pertain to those posting content criticizing the government, in particular Shiv Sena.
 
Ever since the Chinese virus spread its tentacles in the state and especially Mumbai which is the citadel of Shiv Sena, the state government has faltered on many fronts and drew ridicule from discerning citizens. Shiv Sena, that always ridiculed the democratic dialogue and instead advocated violence as well as its partner in MVA Congress, with its dynastic mentality, used force and fear to overcome this tide of criticism. The most notorious case in this regard was of Anant Karmuse, an activist from Mumbai who was taken by the police to State Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad’s bungalow and beaten mercilessly. His only fault was a Facebook post against Awhad.
 
There was another spate of offenses registered against netizens for expressing their emotions after the Palghar lynching case. And now, the latest in the series is an order quotes above ostensibly tries to stop fake news about Corona but eventually targets the critics.
 
The order reads, "...it has been observed that there is widespread dissemination of fake news, incorrect information, misinformation and other such objectionable content in the form of messages, videos (both edited and self-created), images or memes (both edited and self-created), audio clips and other such forms of communication over internet messaging and social media platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram etc. Such type of content has been found to have caused panic, confusion amongst general public, inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken to control the Covid19 pandemic and also to have created animosity towards various communities."
 
Not surprisingly, this order has also received its share of flak. In one of her tweets, noted journalist Sucheta Dalal said, "Further, Maharashtra has also a draconian gag order against any criticism invoking epidemics act as well as IPC!! it is being renewed and tightened, the latest move yesterday."
 
Another prominent twitterati Savio Rodrigues said, "Maharashtra government plans to gag the truth on social media of those who expose the bad management in containment of the Coronavirus pandemic. Truth will be exposed and there is no power that can stop it. @CMOMaharashtra"
 
The netizens are also agitated that the self-proclaimed champions of free speech are silent on this move. Journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra tweeted, "So Maharashtra is cracking down on all “objectionable content” & “free speech warriors” are absolutely silent. Tells you a lot about who’s doing the “suppressing” & these self proclaimed defender’s commitment to free speech."
 
There is a saying in the Marathi, “When you cannot dance, just blame on the courtyard for being rough.“ The MVA government’s actions are an apt reminder of this timeless wisdom.