Inappropriate Thoughts (or so you’d say)

If we were not a citizen of Cyberia Nation (the all-encompassing ‘net’ that keeps us bound to our notebooks, tablets and cellphones almost all day), this incident would all but be a storm in a teacup. But, had it not been for Cyberia, the incident would not have happened at all. Or at least, not as intensified. For Cyberia is a nation where everything gets intensified. Mountain out of molehills are a commonplace here.

To put things in perspective, allow me take an example of my father. A man – octogenarian by his own claim, and a couple of years younger by our calculation – who’s nearest relation with Information Communication Technology is his smartphone, used solely for making calls (no text messages), and a son who is seen almost all day gaping at that magic device called Mobile Phone.

Yours truly asked him, “Dad, what’s your opinion about Robert Penner?”

Dad’s eyebrows raised about quarter of an inch, head slightly raised from Sallipir (latest novel from Nayan Raj Pandey), and eyes gaped between his glasses and silver brows, “Robert who?”

Ah, dad doesn’t know. For a change, in last two days, I found one person who did not have an opinion on him (perks of being offline for a while). And thus the rhetoric of storm in a teacup. But the teacup isn’t as tiny as I’d like to imagine.

The background

For the uninitiated, this is what happened:

A Canadian man in Nepal, Robert Penner, was arrested on Monday afternoon, apparently for “posting a provocative message on Twitter aimed at spreading social discord”. Penner was arrested at his office in Lalitpur district on the instructions of the Department of Immigration. He was later turned over to the immigration authorities, who kept him in custody for 26 hours, as Penner tweeted later. Incidentally, it was World Press Freedom Day.

He was told to leave Nepal within two days, and his working visa was revoked. There was a pretext though. Despite having working visa, Penner had not informed immigration offices that he had changed job – in fact company (his employers) – which he was supposed to and is a slight breach of the existing rules. This remains the best pretext possible and as pretexts go, can be debated depending which side you take.

The Director General of Department of Immigration, Kedar Neupane, was quoted in media as, “We felt that his tweets were intended to rile people in support of Madhesi protests and against the constitution.”

Take that, from DG of Immigration Department. One thing is clear, Penner’s presence on social media had made a few people ‘angry’.

Penner has since moved Supreme Court against the decision. And hence that case is not the topic of debate in this piece.

The impact

Right from the time Penner tweeted about his apparent arrest by police – which yours truly also retweeted – reaction flooded on Twittersphere. The forest fires in several parts of Nepal, which of course needed immediate attention, wasn’t probably spreading faster than this. With the immediacy that could probably be visible in future wars, sides were taken, positions consolidated, and weapons straightened at each other. All on social media (specifically, on Twitter). Not surprising in the times where social media wakes you up and puts you to bed.

Several handles (Twitter term for account) rejoiced, calling him troll, harasser, miscreant, irritant and words which have similar meanings. A few went about demanding his freedom, while dropping not so pleasant words against operators of the state. It needs to be mentioned that this episode happened in the wake of Publisher/Journalist/Writer/Activist Kanak Mani Dixit’s arrest in the pretext of investigation by CIAA (Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority). Perhaps coincidentally (at least that’s what I’d pretend to believe), some asking for his release could openly be seen rejoicing Penner’s arrest.

The questions

Yours truly would not even like to get there. To debate about their arrest only would be missing the point. An editor of a national daily had tweeted about Penner, sometime in December 2015, “@robpenner is certainly asking some difficult questions to us Nepalis, including journalists;will not dismiss him because he is not a Nepali”.

Interesting it is, since it came on social media. Yours truly feels that social media has taken the position of what we expected from mainstream media. Mainstream media, of late, has not been asking difficult questions to the power that be. I would also question my own belief here if mainstream media was asking enough questions ever. An example:

In an article in 1928, Bhagat Singh, known as India’s great martyr – the title which has robbed this region of the political wisdom the young man had then – had expressed his anguish over political leaders and press responsible for inciting communalism and said, “In terms of political leadership, Indian had gone totally bankrupt.” (This is a line many of us Nepalis would love to agree to, even now)

Interestingly, his take on media was very modern, given the time where hardly much was possible. He termed journalism to be a noble profession that had fallen from grace. He wrote, “The real duty of the newspapers is to educate, to cleanse the minds of the people, to save them from narrow sectarian divisiveness, and to eradicate communal feelings to promote the idea of common nationalism.”

The words ‘cleanse’ and ‘narrow sectarian divisiveness’ are of important significance here. While the former is not seen much, the latter is visible almost everywhere.

I don’t know how many will agree if I say that operators of our state are heading towards becoming more and more conservative. Worse still, they tend to become combative even, if you have opinion which challenges theirs. What I would be more worried is: as citizens we are falling along the same lines. Divisions are very clear. What is not clear is: do we know where the divisive lines are coming from? Is it nationalism? Or the fear that there is no space for too many ideas in the narrow definition of nationalism that we have historically constructed?

You would have felt it when the constitution was promulgated. A lot of people who expressed dissent over promulgation of flawed constitution – those promulgating it had said it can be amended, admitting it was flawed – were seen as anti-nationals. Nationalism at stake, as some viewed it. But should our nationalism not be the one that admits and acknowledges the problems and want to solve them? Or should it be based on the idea that there is NO problem at all? Nationalism is nothing tangible. It is merely an idea. If that idea should never be questioned, what is the idea of democracy then? Can we call ourselves a democracy if we aren’t ready to establish these norms? Isn’t a democracy a place where one must have the freedom to question the state?

I’m of the faith that the law should take its course. If Robert Penner has violated the laws, he should face consequences. For me, he is not significant. He should neither be made a martyr, not the villain that he’s being made out to be. My point is: this social media noise is not about Penner. It is about us. It is about what have become, or what we want to become. Is our thinking capacity become limited to 140 characters, as in Twitter? Or we are more generous than that?

This little incident me aware about our culture of non-listening. It is never about the incidents, the impacts are shown by the culture we set prior to occurrence of the incidents. The niggling problem in our discourse, both social and political.

As Amartya Sen put it so succinctly, “The problem is not that we have turned intolerant. In fact, quite the contrary. We have become too tolerant even of intolerance.”

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