India Waffles on Pornography

The chairman of the Indian bishops’ Commission for Social Communications decries the government’s reversal of a ban on pornographic websites.

(photo: Shutterstock)

BANGALORE, India — The Church in India has called for spreading awareness about the evils of pornography, along with measures curbing its dissemination, after the government of India took a U-turn this summer following a ban on a list of pornographic websites.

“Certain curbs [on pornography] are essential to safeguard the youth and the future,” Bishop Salvadore Lobo, chairman of the Commission for Social Communications of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told the Register on Aug. 20.

“There is no control on certain media products and services like the Internet. Controls must be imposed to prevent their corruptive influence, especially on the youth,” commented the shepherd of the Diocese of Baruipur, in eastern West Bengal state.

Bishop Lobo’s remarks come in the wake of government backtracking, after only a matter of days, on the pornography ban, which was made public on July 30. The government had asked Internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to ban 857 websites with adult content and child pornography.


Online Battle

Section 67 of India’s existing Information Technology Act criminalizes “publishing obscene information in electronic form,” but viewing such material is not currently illegal, except in the case of “material depicting children in sexually explicit acts.”

And while distribution both of printed and electronic pornography is technically illegal, in practice, enforcement is very lax, with both soft-core and hard-core pornographic magazines and films readily accessible in public places.

The government’s move in July to toughen its measures against online pornography came in response to a lawsuit filed by Hindu lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani, whose public-interest litigation is pending before the Supreme Court of India. Vaswani demanded a total ban on pornography in his plea, which was filed in 2013. The court prodded the government about the steps it would take to curb pornography.

However, following vociferous protests of censorship in the mainstream and social media, the government abruptly backtracked on Aug. 4.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s minister for telecom and information technology, defended the website ban on Aug. 3. But the next day the minister convened a high-level meeting of government officials involved with the ban’s implementation and revoked it.

In the process, the government tried to find a middle ground by saying that it was against “child pornography” and asked ISPs to whittle down the list of websites to be banned, excluding those that don’t disseminate child pornography.

However, the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) requested that the government should identify the offending websites and URLs that display pornography featuring children.

“We urge you to withdraw the said vague directive, as it is not only confusing but also putting responsibility on ISPs,” Rajesh Chharia, ISPAI’s president, commented to India’s telecom ministry.

Describing the government directive as “unimplementable,” the association pointed out that “ISPs have no way or mechanism to filter out child pornography from URLs and the further unlimited sub links.”

Amid the controversy, Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi confirmed the government’s indecision during the continued hearing on Vaswani’s lawsuit on Aug. 10. The attorney general told the Supreme Court that the state cannot be “totalitarian,” nor act as “moral police.” It would not like to “peep into bedrooms,” he said, while reiterating it was exploring ways to ban child pornography.


Harmful Effect

“I am surprised by the government U-turn,” lawyer Vaswani told the Register Aug. 20. “I thought the ban was a positive development.”

Added Vaswani, “The government has to take a strong stand on this and should not have buckled under the criticism. I will present a counter [affidavit] against this in the court.”

During a hearing of his petition in August 2014, the government claimed that it was difficult to block pornographic sites because there were around 40 million websites.

It was then that Suresh Shukla and his wife, Sonal, who run a software firm in Varanasi, decided to reach out to Vaswani. The couple developed an anti-porn filter, and the list of 857 adult sites that the government banned was compiled by the Shuklas.

Asked for his reaction to a section of the national media branding him as a “puritan” for seeking a complete ban on pornography, Vaswani replied that the proponents of free media and online freedom “don’t realize the harmful effect of pornography on the younger generation.”

“My public-interest litigation has been filed on behalf of 75% [of the population] representing women, girls and children,” he elaborated.

The lawyer said he was inspired to take up this cause due to an increasing number of rapes in the country and other sexual violence against women and children. Free availability of pornography on mobile phones and computers plays a big role in such violence, contended Vaswani.

Vaswani’s fears appeared to have been confirmed by a murder, reported Aug. 25 in the Times of India: A 17-year-old high-school student was arrested in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of southern Kerala state, for murdering a 9-year-old boy while trying to imitate a porn clip he had seen on his cellphone. When the third-grader resisted his bid in a remote place, the older boy killed him and completed the act on the dead body, according to police.

Despite this summer’s political setback, Vaswani is optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule favorably on his petition and give strong directives to curb pornography in the country. The next hearing of his case is slated for October.

Others are also closely watching the case.

“The government is playing to the gallery [of public opinion]. That explains the sudden change in the government’s stand,” Sister Mary Scaria, a lawyer belonging to the Congregation of Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary (SCJM), told the Register.

“We cannot expect much from the government,” said Sister Mary, who is the former secretary of the legal affairs department of the bishops’ conference of India.

The religious sister added that the best way to counter pornography is to spread awareness against it across all sections of society, especially among youth and parents.

Bishop Lobo agreed, noting that a “ban alone would not change the situation.”

He said there is a team of experts, comprising parents, teachers and health workers, who conduct workshops regularly on the harms of pornography in the Diocese of Baruipur.

“Even local panchayats [government village councils] have been inviting our team to conduct the workshop,” added Bishop Lobo.

While restrictions and guidelines “are essential,” the chairman of social communications for the Church in India stressed that “determined efforts should be made to spread awareness on the harms of pornography.”

Said Bishop Lobo, “The world is facing moral degeneration, and it is manifest in the spread of pornography. Exposure to it causes great harm, especially to the youth and the children.”

Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.

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